Somewhere, a muscled man wearing a Batman mask, a cape, and rainbow thigh-highs is rollerblading pirouettes behind a circus-themed parade float.
Beside him, a drag queen in a green and purple sequined checker-print Joker body stocking is strutting down the sidewalk in six-inch stilettos.
And in a nearby club, a newly-out lesbian is dancing through a cloud of bottled fog and laser lights while a fuzzy white halo bounces above her head and a pair of golden angel wings sways to the beat of a Sia song.
Come out, all you pop art zombies and saucy lifeguards. Show me that pumpkin-shaped ass, Pikachu. I wanna see you shake that bedazzled nun’s habit, work that cheerleader uniform, and pop that shark fin.
Take to the streets, slutty Pennywise, and let the moonlight glisten off those cheap plastic fangs.
Deck the halls with rhinestones and don your gay apparel because ‘tis the season to subvert social norms and glitter bomb a Republican.
Gay Christmas is here.
As the ultimate culturally-sanctioned celebration of camp, Halloween is a playground for social inversion and transgression. It’s the one holiday we’ve got that affords us an opportunity to flout gender norms and immerse ourselves in a hyper-expressive moment of hedonistic revelry. It’s completely unbound by the need to be “respectable,” it has nothing to do with your uptight family and it’s never going to force you to attend an awkward dinner.
We earned this shit.
And before June officially became known as Pride Month, Halloween was the best celebration the LGBTQ community had.
The history of Halloween Drag Balls goes back to the early 20th century. On October 30, 1932, a crowd of over 1,000 attendees (including 100 costumed queer folks, 25 of whom were reportedly lesbians), packed the Coliseum Annex on Chicago’s South Side. In 1935, the first of the famous Chicago Drag Balls known as “Finnie’s Balls” was held in the basement of a tavern. Finnie’s Balls continued through the 1950’s with annual Halloween celebrations that attracted thousands, including throngs of black working-class gay people.
Those early events were possible because they regularly took place on Halloween and New Year’s Eve, allowing them to pass as conventional costume parties.
The extravagant gay pageantry of Halloween exploded as the LGBTQ community grew and gained visibility in urban cities like San Francisco after World War II.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, hundreds of drag queens sashayed down Locust Street in Philadelphia as part of the country’s biggest Halloween promenades. According to some oral histories, this famous drag parade was called “Bitches Christmas.”
Gay Halloween parades sprung up in San Francisco and New York in the early 1970s, where men and women would dress up, ride around on the hoods of cars and dance down the street, kissing strangers as they went.
In 1979, the Castro Street Parade in San Francisco became a raucous display of wild fun starring a cast of attendees that included a Miss Piggy, an eighteenth-century courtesan, a team of mustached Oakland Raiders cheerleaders and a bevy of Jackie Kennedys in bloodstained pink dresses.
In 1983, a Washington Post reporter described the scene at a Halloween street parade in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., calling it “like an Easter parade of freaks.”
“…Glitter and gloss were everywhere and the roar of the grease-paint and the swell of the crowd engulfed Georgetown, magically transpoofing it into an androgynous and anthropomorphic street fair. Men dressed as women; women dressed as men;… men and women dressed as things that could heal the sick, raise the dead and make a little girl talk out of their heads. Acting out their most sublimated fantasies, strutting their stuff, whirring and purring like figurines on an elaborate cuckoo clock,” they wrote.
Lesbian poet and writer Judy Grahn wrote in her 1984 book “Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds,” “Halloween is the most significant gay holiday.” Grahn called it “the Night of Nights for the gay community.”
Drag was always at the center of these parades and many attendees viewed Halloween as the one night a year where they could emancipate themselves from gender norms without fear of harrowing ostracism. When straight men are dressing up as sexy nurses and recreating Marilyn’s iconic “Seven Year Itch” subway grate routine on the curb outside Taco Bell at 1 a.m., there’s less need for nervous gender-bending queers to stress about standing out.
In his book “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night,” Nicholas Rogers described some LGBTQ folks’ perception of the holiday as “a small but significant skirmish in the wars of sexual liberation.”
If you find it difficult to express yourself in your day-to-day life, Halloween is more than just a holiday: it’s an opportunity. For many people, the holiday allows for emancipation from stifling cultural conventions–it may be the one chance each year that someone gets to be “out” without actually being out.
Wanna wear a corset and a dress outside your home for the first time? Want to examine your masculinity without having to answer dumb questions all night? How about letting your inner queen out to play for an evening? If you want to get a little slutty, that’s fine too. Or maybe transform into a blood-sucking demon wearing a bikini made out of pizza? (If you do that, you’re now legally obligated to tag Wussy on Instagram, thanks.)
October 31 is your night to let it all out.
Halloween wouldn’t grant us so much freedom to disrupt straight culture without apology if the queer folks who came before us hadn’t demanded it.
For every sneer and cruel word, there was a working-class drag queen or a bisexual transwoman or a black femme lesbian there to scream, “Fuck you!” We should relish every inch of public space won and every minute of over-the-top self-expression we can get because we fucking earned it.
As we celebrate Pride in Atlanta this October, let’s carry on our community’s legacy of celebrating ourselves in the most extravagant ways possible. It’s gay Christmas, babies: make a statement, lose yourself in the fantasy, get free and be whoever you want to be.
Illustrations by Benjamin Lande (@benjaminlande)