The Queerness of Halloween

When Jenny Frame asked me if I had written a book set at Christmas because I loved the holidays, my answer was coy, “Does the holiday season extend to Halloween? I love Halloween. There can never be enough Halloween celebration.” In truth, like Dana, the protagonist of my book The Holiday Detour, I’m not a big fan of Christmastime. But I adore Halloween, and the difference for me is the inherent queerness of the holiday.

For many people in the LGBTQ community, Halloween is a sacred institution. It’s our favorite holiday, the one that allows to celebrate joyously without many of the burdens attached to other holidays. Some call it the “Gay Christmas.” Others refer to it as a “Gay High Holy Day.”

There are many reasons for this, and of course they vary from person to person, but in general Halloween is about costuming and celebrating those costumes. There’s an analogy there to the way drag lets us escape the burdens of gender normative expression. On Halloween, you can dress the way you want, and you get cheered for it. This can’t be underestimated in a community full of people who often grew up having their hair, clothes, speech, mannerisms, and pronouns policed by others. In American history cross-dressing could get you arrested until the late twentieth century, but historical accounts of Halloween as early as the 1900s show that police agreed not to arrest women dressed as men and vice versa on this special night.

Unlike many other holidays, Halloween isn’t centered around a family meal. On Thanksgiving, many people expect to sit at the table with a turkey and their extended family. On Christmas, probably the same. On Easter, maybe the same but with ham instead of turkey. Passover has a highly structured meal with rituals for how and what to eat. As a vegetarian, of course I prefer Halloween to all the other holidays at which I often don’t get to eat.

But it’s more than just the food. It’s the expectation that you eat with your family.There’s no secular American tradition involving a family meal at Halloween, and for people who often have very complicated, if not contentious, relationships with their birth families, this can be a relief. Since I was old enough to stop trick-or-treating, which arguably does require adult supervision, Halloween became a night to party with friends – first at sleepovers and school dances, then at bars and house parties. If Thanksgiving is a cultural or political battleground where you have to worry about whether Uncle Mike is going to say something intolerant about the LGBTQ community or Aunt Sharon is going to misgender you or refer to your partner as your “friend,” Halloween is freedom from that. You can spend it with whomever you want, probably those who share your values and love you for who you are.

I think there’s also something important to be said for Halloween’s origins in Samhain. The night when the boundaries between our world and the spirit world could be transgressed, Samhain meant appeasing the fairies and evil spirits to send them away for lasting protection. There’s a logical analogy to the way queer people have to fight back the cultural and political forces that would see us disenfranchised or nonexistent. On Halloween, we can dress up and scare them away. I love this.

There’s also the centuries old connection between lesbians and witches. Historically single adult women have suffered from presumptions that they were evil and used witchcraft when they may have been Wiccan, too educated for their time, or, you know, gay and uninterested in marrying some dude with rotten teeth. In Europe and North America, single adult women are still somewhat outcast, they aren’t usually tortured or burned at the stake as witches. (Sadly, though, this does still happen in other parts of the world.)

In today’s American lesbian communities, there is always a connection to witches and witchcraft. One of my favorite Halloween memories was at a tongue-in-cheek cackling contested at a lesbian bar. There were some damn good contestants.

My first book, The Holiday Detour, is set at Christmas. My second book doesn’t take place over a holiday, but my current WIP is about a ghost. Maybe it needs to be a Halloween book.

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