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Michael Rowe

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Communing Queerly With the Dead

Posted: 10/31/2012 2:11 pm

Last night, in the hour before dark, I took my regular evening walk through the old graveyard near my house in Cabbagetown. The ground is damp, and the ancient trees are heavy with the weight of yellow and orange leaves. In this dusk hour between evening and night, the leaves catch the dying light and glow like phosphorus. Navigating around the graves and tombs in silent autumn twilight is a sacred time. I leave the dogs at home and don't invite anyone along who might break the silence. I'm alone to commune with the dead.

I've loved graveyards my whole life -- a useful predilection for a sometime writer and editor of dark fantasy fiction. In 2000, when the first of my two Queer Fear gay horror fiction anthologies was published, a television crew from a local network followed me for a walk through this same cemetery, accompanied by an entourage of supremely handsome industrial goth boys decked out in PVC and leather, for a segment on the book's publication. Queer Fear was the first-ever anthology of original gay horror fiction, a queer incursion into a traditionally hidebound, heterosexist literary genre. Clive Barker kindly credited it with changing the face of the horror field. In the autumn of 2005, during the writing of my novella In October (published by Alyson Publications in 2006 as part of a trio of short gay-themed Halloween novels titled Triptych of Terror), the graveyard was a literal source of inspiration.

In October is the story of a gay-bashed 17-year-old boy in a fictional town that resembles Milton, Ontario, where my partner and I lived for six years in the late '80s. It deals, literally and metaphorically, with raising demons. More importantly, it deals with homophobia and the terrible cost of pushing someone past any limits he can reasonably be expected to endure. The story culminates on Halloween night, so everything I've always loved about the season is brought to bear in garish bursts of orange and black storytelling.

In ancient Celtic legend Halloween is believed to be the night on which the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is the thinnest, and eldritch bridges between dimensions shimmer like will-o'-the wisps in the October night. As a writer of speculative fiction, I found that this was and is a luxurious concept. As a gay man, I find that it moves me and makes sense to me in a way that Christmas never will.

Halloween is a holiday that straight boys mainly outgrow. I suspect there are reasons for that, most of them having to do with the harsh lessons straight men learn early about the benefits of following the rules, coloring inside the lines, forgetting how to pretend. For many gay men, sissy boys like I was, for whom following society's rules and being confined inside the lines was never an option, the notion of permeable borders between worlds carries a special resonance.

I have two Halloween memories that stand out from the rest. Though I didn't know it at the time, they were both hints of my queer sensibility yet to come.

The first memory is from 1967 or 1968. My father was stationed at the Canadian embassy in Havana. My family's life in Cuba was freely laced with sensuality. The insinuating Caribbean heat was everywhere. The brilliant red of the bougainvillea bushes near the blue swimming pool was a shock of primary color in the bright Cuban sunlight, the likes of which I've never seen since. Scent was also omnipresent: flowers, the ocean, the smell of black beans and plantains coming from the kitchen. There was the voluptuous taste of fresh mangoes and avocado from the trees in front of the house. The autumnal colours I'd come to know in later life were inconceivable to me at that age. I'd never seen Canadian fall, much less winter snow.

The British and Canadian embassies had a joint Halloween party that year for the embassy children -- my first Halloween party ever. I was obsessed with Sleeping Beauty, and my mother made me a Maleficent costume. Princess Aurora struck me as pretty and sweet but essentially too bland, and the handsome prince wasn't even a consideration. It was the operatic evil of Maleficent that thrilled me. We tried to affix a felt parrot to my wand, but it kept falling off, so my mother improvised a silver-foil star instead. I twirled in front of the mirror in my long cape and thought I looked wonderful.

The room in which the party was held was decorated with cutout ghosts, witches and black cats. My impression today, as I remember that night, is that the room shimmered with gold light, which I guess came from lanterns or candles. Cookies in the shape of moons and stars, frosted orange, were heaped on paper plates similarly decorated. All around me were the children I played with, and even some adults, dressed in costumes. Someone was reading ghost stories to a group of rapt children in the corner. The effect was magic and it thrilled me like nothing I'd ever experienced.

A primly dressed Englishwoman came up to me told me how nice my costume was.

"I'm a witch!" I said proudly.

"No, no, my dear," she trilled. "You're a wizard. Boys can't be witches. You're a wizard, like Merlin!" Although she laughed a little, there was a sense of disorientation, a sense of confusion about why a boy wouldn't know that witches were girls, not boys, and why my own mother hadn't explained it to me already. I stared back at her silently. The woman didn't seem like she wanted to be convinced, but I knew I wasn't a wizard like Merlin. I was a witch like Maleficent. Couldn't she see that? It was my choice, especially tonight.

After an awkward minute she wandered off to organize some apple-bobbing games with the other children. I didn't follow her, and she didn't look back.

I caught sight of myself in a mirror and twirled my cape again. Yes, I'm a witch all right. I shut the door of my mind in the woman's face. Helping myself to an orange-frosted ghost cookie, I knew intuitively that on this night I could be what I wanted to be, the rest of the world -- the world of adults -- be damned.

My second Halloween memory is from 1974. I was 12. We were living abroad again, this time in Geneva. By this time I'd developed a full-on '70s horror sensibility -- Dark Shadows on television, The Tomb of Dracula horror comics and Hammer horror films in black and white on the television in the family rec room back in Ottawa.

In Geneva, the Swiss having not yet embraced Halloween, no one celebrated the holiday except the American expats. There was no trick-or-treating to speak of, so the parents of one of my friends organized a Halloween party and trick-or-treating in an apartment building full of American families.

Because it was Halloween, I decided to go full out and "go as a girl."

It seemed outrageous and daring to my friends, but because it was Halloween, it was cool. I borrowed some makeup from one of our babysitters and used my allowance to buy more. My mother had bought me a cheap wig the previous year for "dress-up," and I went to town -- wig, makeup and borrowed heels. My friends all applauded -- "Look at Mike! He's a boy, but he's going as a girl! Can you believe it?" I winked a blue-shadowed, mascaraed eye in the mirror, flicked my wig away from my face like I'd seen the teenage girls do with their hair on the school bus and joined the predictable group of ghosts, Mexican banditos, G.I. Joes and clowns as we went downstairs to parade before our parents.

The effect of my debut as a 12-year-old cross dresser on the assembled adults was nothing short of remarkable. There was a shocked silence, then halting applause, then silence. My mother would tell me later that it had upset her because the illusion had been seamless. "You could so easily be a girl," she fretted, worrying about how effeminate I was. To her credit she didn't forbid me from doing it again, nor did she tell me to throw away my makeup and my wig, but she made it clear that it wasn't normal and shouldn't ever again occur outside the house.

But the effect that haunts me, that delights me even today, wasn't on my mother. It was on one of the adult men in the group that greeted us downstairs. If I was 12, he must have been in his early or mid 30s, someone's dad. My impression is that he was handsome, but that could be mental editing on my part. He caught my eye immediately as I descended the stairs, and his reaction is the one I remember best: a kaleidoscope of expressions flashing across his face -- surprise, delight at the pretty girl on the stairs, then shock at the realization that the pretty girl wasn't a girl at all.

Then something else. Something he definitely wasn't aware of but which I now realize was confusion over his pleasurable response to my presentation. "So this is Michael?" he said, with a jocular elbow in the rib to the scowling dad next to him, a man who was much less flexible in his reaction to the weirdness of me. "You're a boy?" he laughed, to make it a joke, but it was too late. I'd seen his response. The power I'd wielded, however accidentally, thrilled me even though I didn't understand what it even was, much less what it meant. Today, of course, I understand it, and I tip my hat to that 12-year-old dish of a drag queen in the acrylic wig and the blue eyeshadow.

That power -- the power to shift, if not reality, at least the perception of reality -- is one with which queer folk seem to be preternaturally endowed. In most cases it begins with learning to hide who we are so that we can be safe or "pass" as best a we can until we're old enough, or brave enough, to protect ourselves. Later, in many cases, it forms the basis of the outsider energy that has allowed us, as a culture, to make our own communities, make them strong and powerful enough to support us if we choose to live there.

Historically, in pagan cultures not yet infected with monotheistic Christian prejudices, there has been a celebrated place for the "two-spirited" or "berdache" as shamans, and the duality of male and female energy embodied in one man or one woman was exalted as a form of shape shifting. The impulse of Christian conquistadors in every era has been to brutally wipe out whatever didn't, or still doesn't, conform to the rigid expectations of sex and gender as allowed under the yoke of biblical law. The trickle-down effect informs the basis of what we today call homophobia. It makes perfect sense to me why fundamentalist Christians are so leery of Halloween, and why LGBTs like it so much.

Unlike Christmas, with its sugarplum platitudes, its sticky gauntlet of family resentments, its guilt and its full-body hangover later, Halloween is a euphoric celebration of costume, illusion, freedom and abandon that tumbles into November like the best Saturday night ever. A glorious time of transformation of every kind -- male into female, vanilla into leather, frumpy into glamorous and more. Much more. Boys can be witches.

We do it better than anyone else.

I moved to Toronto in 1982, and I have memories of drag queens parading brilliantly up and down Yonge St. on their way to the St. Charles Tavern despite the jeers and the pelting of eggs by the mob of suburban thugs. The queens were beautiful, and they kept their chins up. The scene was brutal, ugly, and it was the norm in those days. But we fought back, and we changed the world to the point that Halloween on Church St. is now one of the biggest media events of any seasonal holidays in our city. In 2008 tourists ask to have their pictures taken with us. We own the night.

Maybe this is why: On Halloween night, the barriers between the worlds are at their most permeable, and not just the worlds of the living and the dead or even our own internal moonscapes. The barriers between our world and the world of those with whom we share our city are also at their most permeable. When they come down to Church St. to commune with us, to celebrate with us, we build bridges of other kinds.

And if we occasionally make some of them uncomfortable because they see, through us, that those bridges can be built, well, they'll always have Christmas.

This essay originally appeared in Fab magazine, October 2008. Copyright 2008, 2012, by Michael Rowe.

 
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