Halloween: Our American LGBTQ Holiday

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Old green wood background with weathered lettering that says
Halloween America's Gay Holiday image by TWK Services, Ed Hahn

Halloween is America’s gay holiday

In the words of the lesbian poet and scholar Judy Grahn, Halloween is “the great gay holiday.”

And this weekend, after months of lockdown due to COVID, lavish costumes will resurface, especially among us LGBTQ revelers.

Back in the day, Halloween, the night before All Hallows Day (All Saints Day), was linked to the ancient Celtic festival “Samhain” in the British Isles, meaning “summer’s end.” And because the celebration is associated with mystery, magic, superstition, witches, and ghost, the festivity, not surprisingly, was limited in colonial New England because of its Puritanical belief system. But today, it’s an LGBTQ extravaganza that rivals—if not out-showcases—Pride festivals.

Long before June officially became Gay Pride Month and October “Coming Out Month” for the LGBTQ community, Halloween was unofficially our yearly celebrated “holiday.” It dates as far back as the 1970s, as a massive annual street party in San Francisco’s Castro district.

By the 1980s, gay enclaves like Key West, West Hollywood, and Greenwich Village held annual Halloween street parties. And the parades the night of Halloween did and still do draw straights and LGBTQ spectators out to watch.

Gay cultural influence on Halloween has become such an unstoppable phenomenon here and abroad that anthropologist Jerry Kugelmass of the University of Florida published a book in 1994 on the new trend, titled Masked Culture, describing Halloween; as an emerging gay “high holiday.”

“The ‘masked culture’ first developed by the gays of San Francisco has reached across the lines of orientation—and now jumped across the boundaries between nations and languages. It’s not just a party. It’s an ideal of personal emancipation, self-expression, and self-fulfillment—an ideal that loses none of its power when it takes the form of a sexy nurse’s outfit..”

Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, points out that while everyone enjoys Halloween, “it has been the Gay community that has most flamboyantly exploited Halloween’s potential as a transgressive festival, as one that operates outside or on the margins of orthodox time, space, and hierarchy. Indeed, it is the Gay community that has been arguably most responsible for Halloween’s adult rejuvenation.”

Halloween allows many LGBTQ Americans at least one night annually, Oct. 31, of safely being out and “unmasked” while remaining closeted. The community parties the entire night like there is no tomorrow, and for many, there isn’t. Like its pagan roots, Halloween provided an outlet for cross-dressing and gender-bending LGBTQ who are ostracized by mainstream society.

As Halloween flourished as a gay cultural phenomenon, so too grew a backlash by the fundamentalist Christians with their “Hell Houses.” (Believing Hell Houses are no longer up and running in 2021, I’ll speak of them in the past tense). And these Christians targeted our children.

Hell Houses were a contemporary form of both anti-LGBTQ bullying and witch-hunting. Created in the late 1970s by deceased fundamentalist pastor, the Reverend Jerry Farwell, Hell Houses were religious alternatives to traditional haunted houses. They were tours given by evangelical churches across the country designed to scare and bully people away from myriad sins. And one of those sins is homosexuality.

In 2006 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) put out a report titled Homophobia at ‘Hell House’: Literally Demonizing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth, explaining how the Hell Houses specifically targeted youth.

“Instead of spooking youth with ghosts and monsters, Hell House tour guides direct them through rooms where violent scenes of damnation for a variety of’ sins’ are performed, including scenes where a teenage lesbian is brought to Hell after committing suicide, and a gay man dying of AIDS is taunted by a demon who screams that the man will be separated from God forever in Hell,” the NGLTF stated.

A study published in The Journal of Psychology stated that a strong belief in Satan is directly related to intolerance of LGBTQ people. Religious leaders who supported Hell Houses believed that they were saving our souls by scaring LGBTQ youth into heterosexual behavior. Their attempt to turn our most cherished holiday against us failed—and Halloween remains our second Pride.

Our influence on culture is being acknowledged and celebrated. Kwanzaa is a black holiday, St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish holiday, and now Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a Native American holiday. Maybe someday soon, Halloween will be officially acknowledged as a gay holiday.

Happy Halloween!