For the month of October Listing Toward Forty is Listing Toward Halloween, featuring a variety of Halloween posts including many by guest authors. This post is by Joel Strack.
I’m in a unique age demographic, I remember Halloween as a children’s only experience of costumes and candy, and I also got to witness its transition into a night of adult revelry, drinking and exhibitionism.
I have a theory about this development: The gays did it!
When I was growing up, one of the most significant Halloween decisions for a child was selecting a costume for the event. Do I want to be a pirate or a princess? A monster or a magician? It gave the child the opportunity to try on a different persona, to be someone other than themselves: a chance to wear a mask to hide who they really were and become something altogether novel.
With costumes in place, the children would venture out into the night, knocking on doors, shouting, “Trick-or-Treat” and thrusting plastic pumpkins, pillow cases, or paper sacks toward the adult on the doorstep. A joyous children’s holiday filled with sweets and excitement.
And then, in the late 60’s, we began to hear stories of razor blades in apples and needles in candy bars. Initially, parents scrutinized their children’s candy haul. Later, they began selecting what areas of town their kids could go to. Finally, they started to accompany the small fry on their rounds or restrict them to parties at well-guarded community centers, church basements, or neighborhood block parties.
Halloween was getting scary.
At this same time, adult Halloween parades were popping up in some of the most notorious neighborhoods in America: West Hollywood, Greenwich Village, and the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Even in the heart of the mid-west, Chicago had Halloween costume contests for adults; you might see a satyr or Shirley Temple, a leather daddy or Lena Horne. In the 1970’s the gay community was enjoying Halloween as much as the kids ever did.
So while Halloween let children step into a world of charade and illusion, it did just the opposite for the gay community. For one evening, gay adults were able to take off their masks and express themselves as they truly wanted to be seen.
In my early 20’s, I was talking with a group of my elders: gay men, some of whom had been out of the closet before I entered high school. They described Halloween as the first gay holiday. This was before National Coming Out Day, Gay Pride Month, or GLBT parades. For one evening, they could be out in public without having to conform to society’s narrow expectations.
Whether poking fun at themselves or mainstream culture, it was often done with camp, satire, and fun. As I recall, roller-skating nuns were very popular in the early 80’s. An entire sub-culture began in 1979 when the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence founded their Order. Now an international organization, the Sisters are a gender bending group of activists, mostly gay men, who dress in festive habit and among other activities, raise funds and donate to charities both within and outside the GLBT and HIV communities.
As the visibility of the gay culture expanded during all hallows eve, straights started to take notice and wanted to join in the fun. College campuses began having Halloween street parties. Bars began hosting costume contests.
And that over-worked woman from marketing with the two kids and the sofa-bound husband, well, she got to be whomever she wanted: maybe Raggedy Ann or perhaps a sexy French maid. The button-up engineer in city services; he got to select his mask as well. He might be Batman or Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf, or maybe, he’d decide to be Dorothy, with his buddies dressed as the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow … if only for one night.
Joel Strack grew up in the small town of Sycamore, an hour west of Chicago. He came out while in college at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Joel is now retired in Orlando, after 32 years with Walt Disney World.
All Halloween posts from this series can be found here.
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