I and my friends spent Halloween in many countries. Everywhere Halloween is like queer Christmas. Nowhere is like San Francisco, of course. Was the first time in my life that I saw 200.000 people on the streets dressed up. And everybody, families with toddlers and grannies go to Castro, the famous gay neighbourhood. Including the major and the chief of police. The contemporary excitement around the campy holiday has a long history within the queer community.
The modern phrase “gay Christmas” actually stems from an earlier queer nickname for the holiday, “bitches Christmas,” according to Marc Stein, a professor of history at San Francisco State University, and author of “City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves.”
Firstly, During the 1950s and ’60s, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community celebrated “bitches Christmas” by dressing up in drag and partying in the city’s gay bars, Stein said. Revellers by the hundreds would follow drag performers from bar to bar, he notes, forming some of the world’s first queer Halloween parades.
On any other day of the year, gay bars were routinely raided and shut down. When the California Supreme Court ruled in 1951 that gays and lesbians had a right to assemble and bars could not be closed simply for serving “known homosexuals,” cities got around the ruling by passing a series of laws intended to harass the gay bars. They passed laws against same-sex dancing, and against impersonating the opposite sex. Lesbians and gays could be arrested not only for having sex but even for kissing, or dancing together, or holding hands. Drag queens could be arrested on the grounds that they were impersonating the opposite sex.
“As for why LGBT people were so drawn to the holiday, I think it picks up on those older traditions that Halloween’s a time for transgressing all sorts of social boundaries,” Stein said. “So, it had a particular set of meanings for people who were living a straight life and saw Halloween as an opportunity to express their genders and sexualities.”
Following the wave of LGBTQ activism and visibility sparked by the 1969 Stonewall riots, more formal versions of queer Halloween celebrations began popping up in “gayborhoods” around the country. New York City’s Greenwich Village began hosting its annual Halloween parade in 1973. In 1979, a small group of Key West, Florida, locals started a 10-day party paradise for adults, Fantasy Fest. And Los Angeles’ West Hollywood started its own Halloween parade in 1987.
Of course, things are different now. And it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. We shouldn’t forget that not too long ago, in the lifetimes of those still with us, things were so very different.
For one night every year, decades before the Stonewall Riots and the very first gay pride parades, gays and lesbians could feel free. And that night was Halloween.