Halloween is an annual folk event held on or around October 31 for celebrating masquerade, fantasy, and horror. Originally a Celtic pagan observance signifying a time when the dead visit the living, Halloween was co-opted by early Christian missionaries. The event lost most of its sacred, terrifying aura and became principally identified in the middle to late twentieth century as a festival for children, youth, and young adults. But in recent decades, Gay people and their allies have made Halloween a Gay festival as well, when individuals in LGBTQ venues are free to perform alternative personas, drag is tolerated, and elaborate costumes are worn in the streets.
Halloween originated in the ancient Celtic ceremonial held on Samhain [SAH-win], last of the four great festivals of the Celtic year. Samhain, the harvest festival, marks the end of the Old Year and the beginning of the New. In that liminal time, spirits of the dead are free to roam, with attendant dangers to the living. In pre-Christian times, celebrants wore costumes to disguise themselves, made noises, and lit bonfires to keep the spirits at bay.
During the early Christian era, missionaries to Ireland and the British Isles were authorized to harness the power of Samhain as a Christian festival, much reduced in status, with its earlier religious significance almost entirely erased. Samhain, now called Halloween, was set in the Christian calendar on October 31, the eve of All Hallows Day (November 1), retaining its carnivalesque properties but little of its fearsome aspects. During the era of British colonization, the Halloween tradition was carried from the British Isles to North America and elsewhere, where it was relatively quiescent until the late nineteenth century when costumes and pranking once again made it popular. Since the mid-twentieth century, Halloween is a folk tradition in Ireland, Australia, Canada, the USA, and parts of Britain as a festival. It has also been transplanted to countries with little Irish-English heritage, such as South Korea, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Peru, and several countries in continental Europe.
For Gay people, Halloween has long offered an attractive opportunity for carnivalesque expression. For many decades, Halloween balls in large private homes were a beloved feature of Gay culture, but the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 sparked a massive Halloween presence in the streets. Within a decade of Stonewall, Gay Halloween was being celebrated outdoors in Gay neighborhoods of major Canadian and American cities (Toronto, Montréal, Halifax, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and others). Two of these urban Gay Halloween festivals have been exceptional — the Castro Halloween Party of San Francisco and the Circuit party called Halloween in New Orleans.
Castro Halloween Party
The Castro Halloween Party originated in the 1970s. Local legend says that a group of friends who lived in the area started the celebration that grew over the years, but others say it began when Castro neighborhood merchants began offering special treats and events for Halloween partygoers. As the party grew each year, officials began closing off certain streets to accommodate revelers, giving civic legitimacy to the event. The Castro Halloween Party became famous for its elaborate costumes, drag shows, and outrageous behavior. By 1994, hundreds of thousands of participants and spectators gathered for what had become one of the city’s largest events.
But the Castro Halloween Party was hampered by increasing violence despite increased security. In 2006, the worst year, nine people were injured by gunfire. Local residents were increasingly outspoken about violence, litter, and damage to their property. The city put an end to the party in 2007, asking local businesses to close for the evening and advising San Franciscans to party elsewhere on Halloween Night. Supporters called for greater protection for celebrants rather than elimination of the gathering itself, and people who did show up for the Castro Halloween Party that year were greeted by a heavy police presence.
Halloween in New Orleans
The French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana has become a premier LGBTQ destination for Mardi Gras, Labor Day (Southern Decadence Weekend) and Halloween. Thousands attend Halloween in New Orleans, a formally organized masquerade dance, which grew during the 1980s from a small gathering to a large and successful Circuit party (a weekend-long series of dance parties for Gay men and their allies). The purpose of the party is to raise money for Project Lazarus, the largest residential facility in the Gulf Coast region for people living with AIDS.
The venue for Halloween in New Orleans may change from year to year, but the festival keeps the same schedule for the events. On Friday night, there is an art auction and dance to benefit Project Lazarus. Saturday night has a themed masquerade ball (in 2001, less than two months after the 9/11 attack, the theme was patriotism) with onstage performances and presentation of costumes. Groups from around the country attend as teams, and the highlight of the evening is the costume contest, when individuals and teams parade across the stage to the cheers of the crowd. Many of the costumes have political content — when Piyush “Bobby” Jindal (whose parents are from India) was elected governor of Louisiana, one large team consisted of participants dressed in colorful saris. Sunday features a brunch, followed by evening dance parties at local area clubs such as Oz and the Bourbon Street Pub.
Over the years, Halloween in New Orleans has flourished, whereas the Castro Halloween Party has been shut down. This is due to both location and cultural factors.
New Orleans is a tourist city. In the French Quarter, which for Gay people centers on the corner of St. Anne and Bourbon Streets, crowds regularly gather in a carnivalesque setting several weekends over the course of the year. New Orleans has police and security accustomed to handling huge numbers of celebrants, such as those who attend the annual Mardi Gras celebration in late winter, and Southern Decadence at St. Anne and Bourbon on Labor Day weekend. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, city officials actually encouraged tourists and partygoers (including LGBTQ tourists) to visit. Beyond the city’s welcome of tourists, Halloween’s In New Orleans is not simply a gathering of people looking for a good time. It is an organized Circuit party where proceeds go to benefit a local charity. The main event of the weekend, with extravagant costumes, grand décor, sophisticated lights and sound, renowned DJ, and free liquor, occurs in a space that is closed to the general public.
Like New Orleans, San Francisco has major Gay festivals, such as the weekend-long Leather festival in September, the Folsom Street Fair, which includes the annual Magnitude event, an indoors dance party and a Circuit event in its own right. The Castro Halloween Party, however, was in a neighborhood where local residents were not accustomed to large crowds of partygoers gathering on the street at night, and many attendees were not Gay. Unlike Halloween in New Orleans, the area for the event was not a privately owned space and there was no charge for admission. The introduction of a massive street party, open to the public and difficult to monitor, attracted unwanted violence from those who saw the nocturnal LGBTQ event as an opportunity to commit acts of anonymous violence.
Meem, Deborah et al. Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBT Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009.
Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford: Oxford
Weems, Mickey. The Fierce Tribe: Masculinity and Performance in the Circuit. Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2008.