For most students and party veterans, Halloween is a chance to dress up, have fun and get silly. But few know about the day’s queer party culture roots.
Although Halloween is recognized in many different cultures all over the world, it’s the second most celebrated holiday in North America. Canadians spent about $1 billion in 2015 alone, according to the Retail Council of Canada. The average adult spends an average of $100 on costumes per year.
Until the 1970s, Halloween festivities in North American and European societies were strictly for children.
For the most part, the only adults who held large festivities to celebrate the holiday were those in queer communities. The most notable adult Halloween festivals took place in New York, San Francisco and Toronto.
Halloween’s revival as an American adult festival is tracked and explained well (though mainly for a gay male audience) by anthropologist Jack Kugelmass in Masked Culture: The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Kugelmass writes:
“The celebration, of course, has always been a sanctuary for (drag queens) … the diversity of marchers in the parade ranged from drag queens, large articulated puppets, marching bands, and every conceivable costume from gladiators to religious figures to giant walking condoms.”
In San Francisco’s Castro district, Halloween was regarded as one of the biggest festivals for the queer community, where men who chose to dress up in drag could do so without punishment from police for a change.
Toronto’s history of Halloween followed suit. According to Jamie Bradburns’ Torontoist article The Egging of Yonge Street, the Church-Wellesley village was quartered off and reserved for those looking to display their creative costumes on Halloween night. It meant men who dressed in drag on Halloween would be able to blend into the crowd to escape police abuse for the night.
The party-goers were greeted by admirers, but also outraged mobs waiting with eggs in hand. Though Halloween events in the village generally received some pushback from authorities and the general public, these large Halloween celebrations challenged ideas of sexual and gender identity in a creative and energetic way.
As noted in Brandon Ambrosino’s We’re All a Little Queer on Halloween: “For queer communities vying for mainstream acceptance, there was a certain subversive power in encouraging the public to broaden their limiting notions of selfhood.”
It’s the one night of the year where we can let go of the societal restrictions that too often impose norms on how we represent ourselves. It lets us bring our unique creations to life, and celebrate each other’s individuality.
And that’s a lesson worth remembering for the rest of the year.