What is it that draws LGBTs to Halloween in such a way that even the most clueless straights know it?
Two or three decades ago, I saw a cartoon in a mainstream publication depicting a husband and his wife walking down a city street where they encountered two gay men dressed up for Halloween. The publication might have been Playboy or the like, because those magazines occasionally ran cartoons and editorial content related to
LGBT issues that other publications’ editors wouldn’t have dreamed of touching at the time.
In the first frame of the cartoon, the husband calls the men “fairies.” In the second frame the wife is standing over a frog saying, “I told you it was their night.”
I remember chuckling and wondering how Halloween ever got to be designated as “our night” in the first place, but I never pursued it any further.
The passage of the years failed to bring me any enlightenment so I recently decided to find an answer to my question.
My research revealed that both LGBT and evangelical writers have weighed in on the subject of the gay community’s fascination with Halloween. But the opposing sides, naturally, have reached far different conclusions about what it means. Both sides agree that Halloween’s origin goes back some 2,000 years ago to the Celtic feast of Samhain, but the concord ends from that point forward.
Dr. Terry Watkins of Dial the Truth Ministries based in Alabama views Halloween as a celebration of the devil and all else that is evil. He warns that Halloween is a modern-day continuation of Samhain, a pagan ceremony practiced by Celtic priests called Druids. The priests celebrated death and hell and oversaw a “terrifying night of human sacrifices” that included first-born children, according to Watkins’ writings.
In regard to the LGBT community’s celebration of Halloween, Watkins claims that the gay community adopted it because the night has always been a symbol of “misrule and the outrageous.” He claims that Halloween is responsible for society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality because of large parades that feature cross-dressing and “gaudy perversion and decadence.”
Watkins and other evangelists maintain that Halloween has turned the world “upside down,” and they claim the Catholic religion has perpetuated the legacy of Samhain through the observance of All Saints Day.
In contrast, LGBT writers, such as poet Judy Grahn, have written of Halloween as a “great gay holiday.” Grahn wrote in her history of gay culture, Another Mother Tongue, that Halloween came to be observed by gay people as their special night because LGBT people had served as priests, witches, shamans, healers and intermediaries between living and spiritual worlds in many societies throughout history. The Druids dressed up in elaborate costumes and interacted with spirits as part of their Samhain celebrations, according to Grahn.
Grahn theorized that the Druids’ practice of impersonation, dressing up in costumes and belief in crossing over between human and spiritual worlds appealed to gay people.
Other LGBT writers have noted that gay people began looking forward to celebrating Halloween as far back as the 1930s, because it provided a cover and an opportunity for them to revel without fear of law enforcement intervention.
Jesse Monteagudo, a gay South Florida writer, wrote in Halloween: the Great Gay Holiday, that he believes LGBT people adopted Halloween as their special night because it had “a lot to do with our role as outsiders in society; our propensity for cross-dressing and gender-bending; our love for the unusual and the fantastic; our ability to find humor in the absurdities and misfortunes of life; our fascination with festive costumes and the world of make-believe; and our special capacity to have fun.”
It would be hard to argue with Moteagudo’s reasoning, as that pretty much sizes up the LGBT community from my perspective. But as far as Watkins is concerned, I think he might be taking late night horror movies and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video a little too seriously.
As it happens, one of the reasons the question about the origin of Halloween as a gay holiday kept coming back to me was because of another memory from when I was about 8 years old. One night 54 years ago, I was worrying because I did not have a costume to wear out trick-or-treating. My mother, who for the most part usually was not operating on the same frequency as other kids’ parents, suggested I wear one of her dresses.
I recall being surprised by her remark, to the point of being aghast at the thought of parading up and down the street in one of my mother’s dresses in view of my classmates. As accustomed as I was to my mother’s peculiar thoughts, this sounded a little strange even for her — especially for the year 1958.
Over my protests, my mother assured me that boys dressing up as girls and girls dressing up as boys would be perfectly acceptable on Halloween. So yes, I wound up going out wearing one of my mother’s dresses that night. But I didn’t stay out very long, and every time someone approached or a car passed I darted behind some bushes or dived into a ditch.
When I returned home about an hour later I hadn’t knocked on any doors, and I had an empty Halloween bag. It was about then that I decided I had outgrown Halloween along with Santa Claus.
I have no idea why my mother thought cross-dressing was appropriate, and I’m sure she would have been hard pressed to have backed up the argument. But it would appear that she was oddly on track.
All I can deduce is that everyone — regardless of their perspective — realizes Halloween is a night where the unorthodox will be the norm.
It’s an easy bet for me that my mother never heard of Druids, Samhain, impersonation to avoid spirits or much of anything else associated with the origin of Halloween.
But she obviously knew it was a night where anything goes, and it was meant to be enjoyed — not feared.
David Webb is a veteran journalist who has written about LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 28, 2011.