Disclaimer: This article makes use of the word “queer” in a reclaimed context.
Halloween as we know it today is the result of an evolution in spiritual practices and continuous adding-ons of new traditions and ideas. Its origins are found in the Celtic pagan holiday of Samhain (pronounced: “SAW - WIN”), a fire festival taking place on November 1st. This occasion, whose name means, “summer’s end”, celebrated the transition from the lighter to darker part of the year (or summer to winter). Because of the liminality of this time, it was believed that fairies and the dead were able to interact more concretely with the living world. Practitioners would light bonfires and dress up in costumes to ward off malignant entities. It was also a good time to practice divination.
Halloween got its name long after Ireland and other Celtic nations had been christianized. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III declared November 1st to be All-Saint’s Day, as concurrently Catholics later began to co-opt Samhain-like traditions into the celebration they called “All Hallow’s Eve,” later shortened to Halloween. Over the centuries, this day stopped being commemorated in its original Pagan context, but retained its connection to the dead.
In the modern day, Halloween is celebrated primarily within the United States and Canada, having recognition as a secular observance in these regions. However, in colonial times, Halloween celebrations were limited, seeing as they would not line up with the conventional Puritan attitude of no fun. Despite this, the blending of European and Indigenous tradition over time brought forth an American version of this ancient holiday. Celebrations arose in the form of ‘play parties,’ wherein participants would tell ghost stories, dance, sing, and tell each other’s fortunes to laud the harvest.
In the 1920’s, dressing up in costumes found a new rise in popularity. After Halloween slowly found favor in American culture over the course of the late 19th century, the people in the fashionable and economically thriving 20’s found excitement in dressing up, costumes becoming trendy and easily bought commercially. This is where the significance of the holiday starts with LGBTQ2S+ folk: costumes.
Starting in 1845, “cross-dressing", or dressing up in the clothing of a gender opposite your own, was outlawed in the United States. The only time that this action could be overlooked without any fear of legal arrest or persecution was Halloween, as it could be easily passed off as just a costume for the occasion. With the rising popularity of costume-wearing, there came a normalization in wearing clothing that would have been viewed with contempt any other day of the year, and this brought a level of security within this occasion. Additionally, around this time, Drag Balls would hold parties on New Year’s Eve and Halloween as on those days they could easily pass as the conventional masquerade or costume ball.
During the time of the Great Depression and World War ll, Halloween festivities died down due to the lack of financial stability required to partake in activities like costume-wearing or hosting parties. Additionally, seeing as it was not an important religious holiday in the Christianity-centric culture of mid-century North America, Halloween was not deemed a necessary enough occasion to hold.
After the war though, Halloween was picked up again by the masses due to the influx of wealth and children in the United States. This was also when Halloween had started to become a more children-centric festivity, the decades prior mainly revolving around the revelry for the adults. In 1948, the Clif’s Variety Store of the Castro neighbourhood in San Francisco (one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the US) hosted a Halloween party for kids. This party then went on to spark a tradition of queer celebrations in Polk Street, near where the Castro neighbourhood was located. This was not without adversity however, as cops were known to hang around these celebrations and harass those who were out at midnight or later.
Indeed, the sense of belonging and security felt within the costumed celebrations of Halloween was not ironclad. For a good portion of the twentieth century up until its latter decades, police officers harassed and even arrested those they deemed guilty of cross-dessing. Gay people in this time period who were dressed up in costumes later than midnight would not have the same defense for their attire when Halloween was over.
Nevertheless, the Halloween parties continued on throughout the rest of the twentieth century and still have successor traditions alive and thriving today. This was certainly helped by the fact that straight people had also co-opted and imitated these types of parties, aiding in bringing them into the mainstream and into a more acceptable light.
A final topic worth mentioning despite its lack of a connection directly to Halloween is that October is also LGBTQ2S+ History Month. While June is popularly known as Pride Month and is quite possibly the most important time of year for queer people, its primary focus is for celebrating the community’s culture and people. Meanwhile, October is the month for a focus on queer history. The background for this is comparatively more recent than that of queer people’s intertwined history with Halloween. In 1994, a Missouri high school teacher named Rodney Wilson espoused that there should be a month dedicated to the commemoration of LGBTQ2S+ history and collaborated with other teachers and educators to make this a reality. Their reason for selecting October was due to public schools already being in session within that month and also that existing traditions such as Coming Out Day (October 11) already occurred within the month. As imagined, the recognition of October with this designation spread.
To encapsulate, Halloween is an event with far-back roots, with its sense of intrigue only being amplified with the addition of its importance to the LGBTG2S+ community. While learning of the intertwining of Halloween celebrations and queer traditions might not necessarily affect how you choose to celebrate the last day of October, it is still a noteworthy aspect of history to consider and teach. At the end of the day, this holiday is truly what the partygoer makes of it, which is only fitting when the variety of costumes worn extends as far as the imagination. If you feel like honouring the queer costume-wearers of Halloween past, then dress however makes you feel the most comfortable. Merry Gay Christmas!