It’s almost time for my favorite holiday, what some call “Gay Christmas.” No, I’m not talking about the Grabby Awards After-Party – I’m talking about Halloween, what many who practice Witchcraft or some a form of Paganism celebrate as Samhain, a modern-day reinvention of the pre-Christian Celtic holiday in which the spirits of the dead are said to be closest to the living.
I have always loved Halloween. As a child, dressing up like an animal or a superhero – or even a robot! – allowed me to express deep-seated fantasies of power and strength, allowing me to adopt a sense of those qualities for a time. It was fun (as well as empowering) to pretend to be something that I was not, but that wished I were. I loved decorating the house and the front porch and carving pumpkins, and what kid doesn’t like candy?
While Samhain is traditionally a time for honoring and working with one’s ancestors, modern Halloween in the United States has long been a time to party, and especially for the LGBTQ+ community, it has been a time for us to be able to let loose and enjoy the ecstasy of temporary liberation. This is when we can let our inner freak flag fly, to say “screw it” to social norms and conventions and look as outrageous or fabulous on the outside as we may feel on the inside. Halloween is the high holy day of the unofficial queer religion, as evidenced by generations of ongoing queer tradition.
The origins of Halloween-as-queer-holiday stem back to the turn of the 20th century. In 1907 a Pittsburgh paper reported that on that night girls were masquerading as tomboys. Five years later both women and men would be arrested on Halloween for cross-dressing. Though it was just two years after that, due to the increasing frequency of the practice, that the Pittsburgh police announced that from that point forward they would no longer be making arrests for cross-dressing on Halloween. Queer people were free to express themselves as they wanted – at least on one night per year.
Fast forward to 1948, when Cliff’s Variety Store, located on the Castro in San Francisco, began hosting an annual Halloween costume contest for children. Many single (read “queer”) men moved into the area and later started coming out of the closet in the 1970s. By the end of that decade, drag queens were entering the costume contest at Cliff’s. Even after that venue shut down, the party continued under the leadership of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
In 1974, as folk partied on the West Coast, New York puppeteer Ralph Lee inaugurated the first Village Halloween Parade, which has since become the largest Halloween parade in the world. This enshrined a bicoastal celebration of what has evolved into the queerest of holidays.
For a people who have had to hide themselves away from society as an act of self-protection, the liberation offered by Halloween provided a much-needed outlet for queer people to gather and celebrate. We might have to hide away during the day, but come Halloween night, donning outlandish costumes, masks, or fabulous drag, we step into the glittering light of fantasy and freedom, shedding our limitations and –just for one night— we live our best, most magical life.
While the 1970s festivities offered queer people an opportunity to connect with others and come out of the closet, the 80s and 90s would see another type of celebration woven in. During those years the AIDS crisis decimated an entire generation, and the Halloween festivities offered a time to reflect on those who had been lost to what was often then thought of as “the gay plague.” In this, the ancient seasonal practice of honoring one’s ancestors experienced a kind of modern resurgence for our community.
Halloween is even more than all that, though. It’s also the ancient Latin reminder, memento mori – “remember that you must die” – in a culture that avoids any real discussion of the inevitable fate we all share: our own death. Halloween, whose roots lie in the Celtic ancestral otherworld, didn’t shed all of its spiritual impetus. It brought into the modern day a means to dance with the idea of our own deaths, in a way that is somewhat scary, but just enough to remind us that –for now—we are still very much alive.
Since I participate in a Witchcraft practice that recognizes Samhain as one of the two gates of the year, when the veil between our world and the underworld is at its thinnest (the other being Beltane), I strive to maintain a seasonal practice of working with both the Beloved Dead (the spirits of personal ancestors) as well as with those of the Mighty Dead (the spirits of Witches and Warlocks who have crossed over). Because it is equally important for me, as a queer man, to honor the queer ancestors in their own way, I tend toward celebrating two holidays: Halloween on October 31, and Samhain, celebrated on the date of the astrological observance, which is the northern hemisphere is when the sun is at 15° Scorpio. (This year, that will be on November 7.) This way I get my candy and horror movies and queer fabulousness on the traditional date of the queer high holy day, and then I can still have a more Witchy ceremony later. Since the thinning of the veil is not confined to just a single day but is a seasonal tide, it makes sense to extend the celebration to allow for more time to commune and work with our various spirits. (And who doesn’t want more parties?)
Whether we are queer or straight or other, we can each learn something from the lessons of Halloween. We are reminded that life is short. That we are here to celebrate life with one other. To enjoy it now because it can all be gone in an instant. And perhaps most importantly, to never let anything stop us from expressing who we are on the inside. Even if it’s just for one night per year, we all can show off our inner sparkle.
Happy Halloween, Witches!