Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but this year, it is different. Almost all of the usual parties and plans have been called off because of the coronavirus pandemic. Halloween is mostly just a no-go this year. The pandemic is putting a damper on a holiday known for trick-or-treating children and festivities for adults. Vermont is allowing some socially distanced events for kids, but what we generally enjoy as adults have all been canceled. This year, there are no haunted houses, although there are some haunted trails with distancing restrictions and even haunted carwashes. For many in the LGBTQ+ community, the pandemic means missing out on their most beloved holiday, a celebration that for generations offered a chance to dress however we please and to be whomever we want. Usually in Vermont, there are a half dozen or so parties, costume contests, and drag shows at bars and restaurants across the state, though most are in Burlington.
For generations, Halloween has been closely intertwined with LGBTQ+ culture. Halloween might seem like a silly, over-commercialized day that exists for the sole purpose of encouraging us to buy things (sound familiar?). But for LGBTQ+ people, it can be a lifeline – a rare moment where we can express ourselves freely and subvert norms that restrict us for the rest of the year. Long before Pride parades were embraced by mainstream society, Halloween was the time of year when those in the LGBTQ community could freely express themselves with less fear of harassment. In the 1960s, in places such as New York and San Francisco, the gay community threw massive parties and street parades. At a time when many states still had laws prohibiting cross-dressing, it was the only day you could wear drag and not be arrested. Before gay people became more accepted, people in gay communities needed to be invisible to be safe, but you needed to be visible to other gay people at the same time. A public Halloween party in New York, San Francisco, or New Orleans would be the perfect place for gay people to dress up and meet other people.
Probably the first time I saw large numbers of gay people was when I went to New Orleans one Halloween with my parents to see a Saints football game. This was long before I came out, but gay people were everywhere and in fabulous costumes. With its history of voodoo, stories of ghosts and vampires, and beautiful above-ground cemeteries, New Orleans becomes one giant city-wide Halloween party. I remember sitting in a restaurant one night on that trip, and a woman (possibly a man) rode by on a horse with nothing on but a long blonde wig. Later, when we went to Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar, there were many gay couples having fun like the rest of us, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It was an eye-opening experience for me.
I think Halloween often is a favorite holiday for many gay people, not because it allows us to put on fabulous costumes, but because it allows us to be more ourselves. In the LGBTQ+ community, Halloween gives us a chance to come out of respective shells and try out something beyond our current comfort zones. For many LGBTQ+ people like me, we grew up having to wear a mask, and to many of us, every day was Halloween until we opened our closet doors. We are highly trained at hiding our true selves, so the celebration of costume and disguise is a natural combination. For today’s generation, “queer” is hardly the horrifying condemnation and accusation that it once was. However, queer has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community, and this explanation may no longer carry much weight. Still, many in our community welcome the chance to express ourselves in ways that society usually deems lewd, weird, or inappropriate. Halloween is one holiday that praises all the frights and fetishes that we are told to cover up.
The main reason Halloween is a national LGBTQ+ holiday is the fact that being gay or trans is an extension of expressing who you want to be, in spite of who fears it. Gay people are often wary of visually expressing their sexuality or dressing too flamboyantly on a day-to-day basis. Regardless of how liberal the community we live in may be, the global reality is that being any part of the LGBTQ+ community is still considered a perversion, a subversion, and even an abomination. Some of us may rarely have to address this reality, living in progressive hubs where LGBTQ+ may not be the norm, but it isn’t shocking or looked down upon. Others know all too well that a disturbingly large number of people in the U.S. still think our “lifestyle” is to blame for all that’s wrong with the world. Living in Alabama and Mississippi most of my life, I know full well what that feels like. You constantly have to put on that mask to be accepted by others and even to get a job or participate fully in the community. People may gossip about your perceived sexuality, but as long as you don’t confirm it for them, they will often overlook and ignore it. However, those same people who may ignore us will still exclude us from most things.
Being LGBTQ+ isn’t a fetish. But for many, especially those who are still closeted, it is a fantasy. For those who are out, facing the fear of exploring our fantasies, which in turn become reality, can almost be second nature. When Halloween comes around, many of us on the LGBTQ+ spectrum aren’t afraid to revel in our proclivities, whether they are ghoulish, garish, or slutty as hell, because, in the eyes of the judgmental peanut gallery, we already represent those things every day. But Halloween is the one time of year when everyone is allowed to be whoever they want to be. Even boring straight people put on outlandish costumes and “go queer” for a night to take a walk on the wild side. Those who feel they have to be in a closet the rest of the time can bust out in all their glory on Halloween. And anyone questioning their current identity has the chance to try another out in public without fear of reprisal. When dawn breaks, some of those folks will have to turn back into pumpkins while we fairy godmothers get to keep being fabulous.
Many LGBTQ+ people spend their youth suppressing their sexuality and trying to fit in with the crowd. While our friends were experimenting with embodying their sexualities openly, we were often left behind, trying to maintain a façade of normality. While Christmas and Thanksgiving can be challenging and awkward for LGBTQ+ people, particularly those who don’t feel like they can be their authentic selves around their families, Halloween is more easily spent with a self-assembled LGBTQ+ family. Dousing yourself in glitter with friends is certainly easier than pretending you’re someone you are not to keep peace in your family. Yet this is not to say that Halloween is universally popular among LGBTQ+ people. Not all gay people have fond memories of Halloween. To some, it was and is the nightmare before Christmas.
At some point in our lives as LGBTQ+ individuals, we realize that we will always be a freak to some, whether they have confirmation that we are gay or not. Regardless of how good we are at donning costumes, we eventually figure out that changing ourselves into someone else is impossible. We might as well relish in our freakdom and celebrate Halloween as the one time of year onlookers creep closer to our side of the line. If we show those ghouls a good time, you never know who might realize they are also part of the LGBTQ+ community. *
* I’ll never forget the time I was in Thibodaux, Louisiana, visiting my best friend. She and I always put on the best Halloween parties. We had been out to the bars in town dressed in our costumes. (I was a Scotsman in a kilt—fun was had by all with that costume.) On our way home, we shared a taxi with some fraternity boys from the local university. One of these guys was in drag, and I have to say, he did a damn good job at it. He was beautiful, as I am sure he was out of drag as well. I always wondered if he was one of those gay boys who took the opportunity to put on drag in public for the first time and used Halloween as an excuse, or if he was just that secure in his masculinity that he could wear a dress. He didn’t appear to be doing it to be derogatory to gay men or drag performers. So, I always wondered if he ever came out or if he just went back to being a straight, everyday frat boy the next day.