Growing up outside of Salem, Massachusetts, famous for its 1692 witch trials, Lee Roberts is more tied to Halloween than most. Throughout his youth, Roberts remembers frequently taking part in costume parades, working in haunted houses, and observing the wickedest town in the country up close during the hair-raising holidays.
“Having an outlet on Halloween to kind of live in this fantasy aesthetic world was a really big outlet for me,” said Roberts, 35, who identifies as gay and transgender. “It was the great time of year in a way I couldn’t fully express back then. So many aspects of Halloween and the things that are celebrated are things that have always appealed to me. “
Today, Roberts continues to act out his Halloween fantasies, working as a drag king under the name Sweaty Eddy. Eddy’s performances throughout the year include a rendition of the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” an act where he tears off his hand and reveals bare bones, and a plethora of body casts.
“It’s less that I’m obsessed with Halloween and more that I really feel connected to exploring these things in my work,” he said. “I see it as a gateway to an appreciation of things that are ‘other’.”
“Halloween gives gay people a chance to let their monster flag fly and look as explicit and insane as they can get.”
A supernatural extravaganza, all things sweet, and larger-than-life costumes, many LGBTQ Americans like Roberts hail Halloween as a “gay Christmas.” But the contemporary excitement around supernatural vacations has a long history within the LGBTQ community.
The modern phrase “Gay Christmas” actually comes from an odd old nickname for the holidays, “Sluts’ Christmas,” according to Marc Stein, professor of history at San Francisco State University and author of “City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves ”.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community celebrated “Slutty Christmas” by dressing up as drag and partying in gay bars across the city, Stein said. Hundreds of revelers would follow the drag artists from bar to bar, he notes, forming some of the country’s first queer Halloween parades.
“As for why LGBT people were so drawn to the holidays, I think it echoes those older traditions that Halloween is the time to cross all kinds of social boundaries,” Stein said. “So it had a particular set of meanings for people who basically lived righteous lives and saw Halloween as an opportunity to express their gender and sexuality.”
As back then, cross-dressing was banned in many cities and states across the country, on Halloween, “you could wear a drag and not get arrested,” said Michael Bronski, professor of women and gender studies. at Harvard University and author of “A Queer History of the United States for Young People.” “If you wanted to cross dress because of your identity, on Halloween it was safe to do so.”
Following the wave of LGBTQ activism and visibility sparked by the Stonewall riots in 1969, more formal versions of queer Halloween celebrations began to pop up in “gay neighborhoods” across the country. New York’s Greenwich Village began hosting its annual Halloween Parade in 1973. In 1979, a small group of residents of Key West, Florida started a 10-day party paradise for adults, Fantasy Fest . And West Hollywood of Los Angeles launched its own Halloween parade in 1987.
Brad Balof, 42, is the chair of the Northalsted Halloween Committee, which hosts the annual Chicago Halloween Parade in his Northalsted neighborhood, also known as “Boystown.” As a gay man, he described Halloween as one of the only times a year he wasn’t “ostracized, punished, or criticized for having these blazing creative tendencies.”
“It was a time of year when she was celebrated, unlike the rest of the year when she can be seen as too extra, too fabulous or too flamboyant,” Balof said.
While the parades still draw thousands of people today, many LGBTQ Americans today took to the streets to go to queer nightclubs on Halloween. LGBTQ bars across the country host Halloween-themed parties throughout October, making it one of their busiest and most profitable seasons of the year, according to the owners bars and LGBTQ artists.
Lisa Menichino, owner of New York City lesbian bar Cubbyhole, said Halloween was “the second busiest day of the year after Pride.”
Merrie Cherry, a Brooklyn drag queen who is on Shudder season four of “The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula,” says she has performances booked every night of the week leading up to Halloween on Sunday. The holidays are her “last hurray” to play before temperatures drop and revelers flock inside, she said.
“We have to put on these masks, not just masks, but shields to protect us from everyday and regular life,” Cherry said. “Halloween gives gay people a chance to let their monster flag fly and look as explicit and insane as they can get. Sometimes you just want to be a different person, you know?”
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