10/31/2014 10:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Halloween Helped Me Challenge the Gender Binary

Halloween isn't my favorite holiday, but there is something liberating and quite beautiful about it that I've only recently come to realize. While reading Cameron Esposito's latest blog at the A.V. Club, in which she champions the "little gay kid" as the pioneer of gender-bending Halloween costumes, I began to reflect on my own affinity for the holiday.

Dressing up in a costume as a kid came with a sense of excitement, as it's an opportunity to be something you don't get to enact in daily life. But instead of embodying something of the fantastical, I always saw a different opportunity with Halloween. While I may not have realized it at the time, as a kid Halloween meant I didn't have to follow the rules of gender in our heteronormative society. I didn't have to be a princess because that's what every other girl my age was doing; I could be whatever I wanted, even if it was a costume made for boys.

Esposito says that little gay kids push the boundaries of gender on Halloween out of a necessity and a sense of survival. While I may not have recognized it at the time, or at least attached a label to it, I was one of those little gay kids who, as she says, felt something "off about heteronormative culture" and used the holiday to protest it. I distinctly remember my last childhood Halloween costume that was strictly feminine. I was Snow White, and I hated it. My older brother was the Red Power Ranger, and I can still feel my seeping envy over not being able to wear the same costume. No one ever said I couldn't wear that costume; I just never thought it OK to ask. After that I stopped dressing like girls for Halloween as a kid, because why was I expected to in the first place?

From there on I was all my favorite male characters, from Woody to Hercules to Zorro. I remember how liberating it felt one year when my brother and I decided to go as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as depicted in the Jonathan Taylor Thomas movie I loved at the time. We cut up old jeans, ripped baggy T-shirts and, literally, rolled around in the dirt. It was fantastic, and I finally felt like I was enjoying the fun of Halloween like every other kid.

erin travis halloween

Another year, circa fourth or fifth grade, I was scanning the aisles of the Halloween store and immediately spotted a rainbow mullet wig. I didn't know what it was for or what to do with it, but I knew that I had to have it. So I collected various ridiculous fragments of clothing, from a furry rainbow leopard-spotted vest to a shiny silver top, and I made my own costume. At the time I called myself a "punk rocker," but in retrospect I think I was embracing the oddity and androgyny of Ziggy Stardust. That felt more natural to me than anything with a pink skirt.

erin punk costume

As a young lesbian who was always drawn to androgyny, even if I didn't learn that word until high school, I always subconsciously embraced Halloween as my chance to dress how I wanted with no rules attached. I most directly embraced my gender fluidity when I made a costume that was both male and female. In 2005 I loved the film V for Vendetta and decided that I wanted to be not only Hugo Weaving's masked crusader but also Natalie Portman's Evey. So I wore a hand-made orange prison gown and the V mask, embracing the masculine and feminine strengths of the film I admired so much. Only later did I learn that Lana Wachowski, one of the filmmakers, had been struggling with gender for her whole life.

While I only began thinking more radically and intellectually about the gender binary in adulthood, I've been challenging it for as long as I can remember. Halloween served as that sore reminder each year of how I should express myself within the confines of "normalcy." Thinking back, however, I recall that for my very first Halloween I was Barney the dinosaur, who is assumed by most to be a male character, yet it's always remained somewhat ambiguous. It may be a stretch, but Barney is purple, a color associated with LGBTQ pride.

erin barney

Of course, discussing gender roles and representation with Halloween also opens up the larger conversation of gender neutrality in everyday life. That's still something I long for, when androgynous clothing lines aren't merely a few scattered online-based companies and finally begin popping up in department stores and mainstream fashion brands. So perhaps it was the holiday itself that allowed me to become more comfortable in my own skin in everyday life and better acknowledge my wish for a more gender-neutral society.

But since it's almost Halloween, we might as well celebrate the holiday for giving us the chance to not only explore our inner weirdo for a day but embrace what makes us most comfortable, sans judgment. After all, a little boy who feels more comfortable and free in a dress would make a much better Snow White than I ever would. Let him skip from door to door showing off his yellow satin skirt and red bow. Now excuse me while I go practice my Rust Cohle impression and try on a mustache -- I don't have much time before Halloween.