Halloween, often referred to as the “gay high holiday,” has a rich history of providing LGBTQ+ individuals with a space to explore and celebrate their identities. This connection between Halloween and queer communities has deep roots, offering a unique opportunity for gender deviance to be not only tolerated but celebrated.
In the mid-20th century, when crossdressing was prohibited by law in many parts of the United States, Halloween stood out as a rare occasion when queer people could express themselves freely. Historian Marc Stein highlights the significance of “carnivalesque” holidays like Halloween, where the established social order is temporarily disrupted, allowing marginalized groups to express nonconformity without posing a threat to the dominant social order.
The phrase “gay Christmas” has been associated with Halloween since the mid-19th century, evolving from the “bitches Christmas” celebrations that originated in Philadelphia. These events involved drag performers leading queer partiers from one gay bar to another, forming an unofficial Halloween parade. Racial segregation in the city led to two separate “bitches Christmas” events—one in the white part of town and another in a historically Black neighborhood.
While these celebrations offered a brief escape from societal norms, they were eventually shut down in the early 1960s by police commissioner Frank Rizzo. This crackdown reflected the consequences of increased visibility leading to repression. Notably, the shutdown did not result from violations of crossdressing laws but rather business regulations surrounding drag contests held by bars.
In the ’70s and ’80s, queer-oriented Halloween celebrations emerged in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. These events provided a platform for LGBTQ+ individuals to express themselves freely, embodying their true identities. As Pride celebrations gained momentum in the ’80s, Halloween became less explicitly queer-focused but continued to serve as a safe and inclusive space for LGBTQ+ individuals to celebrate their diversity.
Halloween’s enduring connection to LGBTQ+ freedom remains strong today, with cities like Chicago, San Diego, and Provincetown hosting explicitly queer Halloween events. Despite the challenges and setbacks, Halloween continues to be a time when everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, can come together to be who they are and embrace the freedom to be whoever they want to be, if only for one night.