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From cross-dressing to Hell Houses, the very gay history of Halloween

From cross-dressing to Hell Houses, the very gay history of Halloween

Halloween on Castro Street, San Francisco, 2005.

In the words of the lesbian poet and scholar Judy Grahn, Halloween is ‘the great gay holiday’.

Before Halloween existed, the night before All Hallows Day (All Saints Day), was linked to the ancient Celtic festival ‘Samhain’ in the British Isles, meaning ‘summer’s end’.

And because the celebration is associated with mystery, magic, superstition, witches and ghosts, the festivity was limited in colonial New England because of its Puritanical belief system.

But today it’s an LGBTQ extravaganza that rivals Pride festivals.

Before June officially became Gay Pride Month, and October Coming Out Month for the LGBTI community, Halloween was unofficially our big holiday.

This tradition dates back to the 1970s when it was a massive annual street party in San Francisco’s Castro district.

By the 1980s, gay enclaves like Key West, West Hollywood, and Greenwich Village were holding annual Halloween street parties.

Those parades the night of Halloween drew straights and gay crowds, as they still do today.

Gay culture unmasked

Gay cultural influence on Halloween became an unstoppable phenomenon here and abroad.

So much so that anthropologist Jerry Kugelmass of University of Florida published a book in 1994 on the new trend, titled Masked Culture. He described Halloween as an emerging gay ‘high holiday’.

CNN contributor David Frum wrote last year the ‘Halloween craze started in gay culture’:

Frum said: ‘The “masked culture” first developed by the gays of San Francisco has reached across the lines of orientation – and now jumped across the boundaries between nations and languages.

‘It’s not just a party. It’s an ideal of personal emancipation, self-expression and self-fulfillment – an ideal that loses none of its power when it takes the form of a sexy nurse’s outfit.’

Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, accepts Halloween is enjoyed by everyone.

But adds: ‘It has been the gay community that has most flamboyantly exploited Halloween’s potential as a transgressive festival, as one that operates outside or on the margins of orthodox time, space, and hierarchy.

‘Indeed, it is the gay community that has been arguably most responsible for Halloween’s adult rejuvenation.’

Halloween allows many LGBTI Americans a special night of freedom.

You can be safely being out and ‘unmasked’ while remaining closeted on 31 October.

Like in its pagan roots, Halloween provides an outlet for cross-dressing and gender-bending. Perfect for LGBTI outsiders ostracized by mainstream society.

Halloween Hell Houses

But there was a dark side to Halloween.

As Halloween flourished as a gay cultural phenomenon, so too flourished a backlash by the fundamentalist Christians with their ‘Hell Houses’.

And these Christians targeted our children.

(Believing Hell Houses are no longer up and running in 2016, I’ll speak of them in the past tense.)

Created in the late 1970s by deceased fundamentalist pastor, the Reverend Jerry Farwell, Hell Houses were religious alternatives to traditional haunted houses.

They were tours given by evangelical churches across the country design to scare and bully people away from myriad sins. And one of those sins is homosexuality.

In summary, Hell Houses were a contemporary form of anti-gay bullying and witch-hunting.

In 2006 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) put out a report titled Homophobia at “Hell House”: Literally Demonizing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth.

The task force revealed how Hell Houses specifically targeted youth.

NGLTF said: ‘Instead of spooking youth with ghosts and monsters, Hell House tour guides direct them through rooms where violent scenes of damnation for a variety of “sins” are performed, including scenes where a teenage lesbian is brought to hell after committing suicide and a gay man dying of AIDS is taunted by a demon who screams that the man will be separated from God forever in hell.’

Religious leaders who supported Hell Houses believed that by scaring youth into heterosexuality they are saving their souls.

In reality the message that ‘homosexuals’ are going to hell does huge harm to our youth.

Time for trick-or-treat

But with Halloween flourishing as a gay cultural phenomenon our children can joyfully go door-to-door trick-or-treating.

Our influence on culture is being acknowledged and celebrated more as we come out.

As Kwanzaa is a black holiday, and St Patrick’s Day is an Irish holiday, maybe someday soon Halloween will be officially acknowledged as a gay holiday.

Happy Halloween!