THE BLOG

How Gay Is Halloween?

10/30/2013 11:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Gerald Herbert/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

First things first: Is Halloween gay?

As someone who has spent several Halloweens in New York City, my answer is a big, lispy "yesss!"

Of course, not only gay men celebrate Halloween. All over the world, adults and kids alike, regardless of their sexuality or gender expression, participate in the evening's festivities. And yes, I know about the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and that stuff about All Saints' Day. I'm not saying Halloween is limited to gay men or even to this century.

But let's be clear about something: While it's certainly true that the holiday has a universal appeal (even my neighbor's fat dog always insists on dressing up as something that is not a dog), the contemporary global, multibillion-dollar phenomenon that is Halloween night owes its existence, persistence, and fabulistence to modern gay culture.

So why might that be? Why did gay men latch onto Halloween? What is it about the experience of Halloween that mirrors, complements, or confirms the experience of being gay?

Halloween as we now celebrate it can probably be traced back to the 1970s gayborhood parades of San Francisco and Greenwich Village. The parade in New York City was founded in 1974 by Ralph Lee, a puppet maker. The original idea was that performers would march about one mile through Greenwich village while showcasing some of Lee's masks and puppets. The event was so successful that he hosted another the following year. And then a bigger one the following year. And then an even larger one the year after that. By 1983 the parade had become such a hit that The New York Times hailed it as "the best entertainment the people of this city ever gave the people of this city." Parade organizers estimate that over 60,000 performers and 2 million spectators will participate this year.

When Lee started the parade in 1974, gay men were just beginning to gain real militancy. The Stonewall riots were a recent memory, and gay activism was still in its nascent stages. The gay community wanted to be gay in public. Mainstream culture wanted them to be quiet in public. A Halloween parade, then, was a perfect solution for everyone, because it permitted the gays to be as loud as they wanted under certain conditions. For one wild night, the rules of American gender would be temporarily suspended, and gay men could wear all the glitter that they wanted. But come the following morning, the tiaras were put away as gay men prepared for 364 days of heteronormative winter.

Around the advent of the parade, gay men began to code things. True, gay men have been coding since Adam first cast his covert gaze upon Steve, but in the '70s coding became a sort of quiet phenomenon within gay male communities. The main code at this time had to do with a handkerchief: Men would drape a hanky out of their back pockets or over a belt loop, and, depending on the color, prospective activity partners would immediately know what strange fruit that particular hanky wearer enjoyed.

Coding is a way of sharing a secret without having to whisper. The content of the secret is private even as its form is explicitly public. See that handkerchief over there in that guy's back pocket? Well, it isn't really a handkerchief. It's a "handkerchief." And he's not really straight. He's "straight."

Marching through Greenwich village on Oct. 31 is a way for gay men to throw quotation marks around the entire neighborhood. If you don't understand this code, you're left out of the joke. But in the end, it's all right, because it's Halloween, and you're expected to laugh at that cowboy even if you never give a second thought to the yellow hanky in his back pocket.

And since straight people also join in the fun of trumpeting around their excessive visions of reality, gay men are given the opportunity to hide in the open, so to speak. In other words, the Halloween parade provides gay men both a license and a cover to parade themselves.

In Wishes Come True: Designing the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, Jack Kugelmass attempts to document and explain the cultural significance of what most New Yorkers call "the gay parade." Here's one of several lengthy descriptions that he gives of some of the images that he saw one year at the parade:

I see more costumes, including "'Jesus for Everybody," ... a man eating a baby and a woman with a sign that reads, "eat me" ... "Ghost Busters"; "Death"; a transvestite mermaid; a cowboy transvestite; a family of monsters; a family of clowns; assorted monsters; a Chinese dragon; a transvestite trick-or-treating; a group of men dressed as huge lipstick cases ... male ballet dancers with women's names; a giant can of Raid; a strutting male peacock; cardboard penguins; a steel band with Ronald Reagan as the drummer; vampire women; ghouls; Ronald Reagan holding a gun and a bible ... Queen Kong.

The parade, as well as the yearly promenade that commences when the parade is finished, "makes no claim to respectability," says Kugelmass. Reveling in "the irreverent and the lascivious," Oct. 31 offers its observers a certain license not only to misbehave but to put on display a certain vision of the world that celebrants are required to keep private every other humdrum day of the year. As one of my gay friends put it, Halloween is the night when we all say, "My id is open. Lick it!"

Halloween possesses the ghoulish power to rid us of our superegos and transform us into something else, something other, to reposition us for one night within what Kugelmass terms "a collective dreamtime," that magical twilight that words are incapable of explaining. Our only recourse to share these secrets is to perform them.

But these performances must be neither heavy-handed nor self-serious, for just as the imp's weapon of choice is play, so too must our costumes be donned in a way that smacks of spoof. Yes, the form of Halloween might be anarchic, says Kugelmass, but its content must "lack a conscious political intent." On any given Halloween you might see Hillary making out with Monica, or Kim Jong-un handing out "Jesus Saves" tracts, or a limp-wristed Superman gayspeaking his way through a joke about sodomy. But within the context of Halloween, these images aren't intended to offend us, because they've been stripped of their explicit political meanings. And while the parade is not entirely apolitical, Kugelmass points out that "the rhetoric of the parade remains ambiguous."

The monsters of Halloween might not have intention, but they do have certain implications: Their existence causes us to question both our individual and our collective selfhoods. On Halloween, "identities are fluid," notes Kugelmass, and are meant "to be tried on like costumes." As we make ourselves up into some other creature or person or inanimate object, we "play with the border between the self and the other ... [we] experience the self as other."

Halloween gives us the opportunity to experience the queer self. To queer the experience of self.

In A Partial Guide to Camp, cultural critic Laurence Ross defines the verb "to queer" in this way: "to make other, to collapse an accepted standard, to deconstruct a constructed identity, to expose identity as fluid." To play with the boundary of a thing's thingness is to "queer" it. To play with the border of a self's selfhood is to "queer" it. To don and perform a persona is essentially to adopt a posture of drag. Therefore, whether or not the content of a costume is gay, the very act of costuming oneself is a queer activity because, in Ross' words, the costume is "subverting what is expected."

But Halloween costumes don't just subvert our expectations; they satisfy them in an excessive way by giving us a hyperbolic version of what we expect to see. This is another facet of drag, says Ross, in which "people can take an aspect of themselves and exaggerate it." Camp simultaneously hyperbolizes and understates its object: Its humor is both overwrought and deadpan.

The line between gimmicky artifice and exaggerated selfhood is, like the identities trying to toe that line, in constant flux. The result is that we're unsure of what's real and what isn't, which certainly leads to a very strange sense of uneasiness. There's a name that exists for this feeling, but it doesn't translate into English very well. The German word is "unheimlich," and it literally describes something that is not homely or familiar. Here's how Robbie Blair defines it over at LitReactor: "[T]he Freudian 'uncanny' is the unfamiliar familiar. It is coming to our home and finding that it now holds secrets from us. It is not merely finding something strange: It is finding that we have become the stranger."

Halloween reminds us that we are strangers to everyone else, and -- what's more frightening -- we are strangers even to ourselves. Halloween allows us to rehearse our otherness to the approval and applause of our audience (on Oct. 31, everyone is our audience), and then to discard the strange garb when we are finished with it. But even after we strip away our costumes, we're still left with their haunting memories. And these memories, if we return to them often enough, invariably lead to this question: Which self was I pretending to be? The one who put the costume on, or the one who took it off?

Susan Sontag argues that camp is "the love of the exaggerated, the 'off,' of things-being-what-they-are-not." I would argue that this, too, is what Halloween is: the love of what is and isn't, of the eerily familiar, of the newly discovered self we've always loved.

Of the queer. Of our queer.

Halloween bids us to remember the monsters among us, even as we remember the monsters within us.