As a young effeminate boy, I used to love dressing up in my mum’s clothes. It was the Nineties, before every child had iPads, mobile phones and social media accounts, so venturing into the dressing up box was a source of endless entertainment. After painting my nails all different colours, sometimes I’d even prise open the red velvet box, hidden in mum’s sock drawer, where she kept all her most precious jewellery – sorry mum.
But this playful game, which was so freeing, wasn’t to be shouted about from the rooftops. I still remember not quite grasping why my mum insisted I take my nail polish off on a Sunday evening, because it “didn’t go with school uniform”, even though girls would wear nail varnish to school all the time. Now, of course, I do – she was protecting me. It gradually became clear to me that fashion and certainly makeup were not ways that boys were encouraged to express themselves. So before the school week started it was an understanding that the lid would go back on the dressing up box.
This is partly why, from a young age, I have loved Halloween. For one day every year, all bets were off. There was no costume too gruesome, no face paint design too dramatic and going all-out to look fabulous was – for once – encouraged.
Halloween might seem like a silly, over-commercialised day that exists for the sole purpose of encouraging us to buy things (sound familiar?). But for queer people it can be a lifeline – a rare moment where we can express ourselves freely and subvert norms that restrict us for the rest of the year.
“Halloween was the first time I tried on makeup”, explains Adam Grossman, a writer from New York. “It allowed me to experiment with how I wanted to dress before I had even come out of the closet. It was an excuse to dress flamboyantly and try looks that were a little further from the mainstream”. Growing up, business strategist Mark also used Halloween as a way to experiment with looks “in character” before he felt comfortable being more bold himself. He still views Halloween as the “one time of year where I can unashamedly engage in the use of makeup and costume”.
London-based drag artist Electra credits Halloween with allowing her to take the first steps into the art of drag, dressing as a witch and donning a green wig and black lipstick as a child. “It was a way to pretend to be someone else for the day”, she explains. “Halloween has always been an incredible release for creative and gender non-conforming people like me.”
Makeup aside, it should surprise no one that Halloween is regularly described as “gay Christmas”, because it combines so many elements that are deeply woven into the tapestry of queer culture. A celebration of all things dramatic and camp, it merges the gothic with the tragic, allowing people to honour the popular culture icons that provide them with strength, sanctuary and entertainment as they negotiate their subcultural identities within the wider world.
Lady Gaga referring to her fans as “little monsters” and trans pop icon Kim Petras’s Halloween-themed EP Turn Off the Light are two contemporary examples of the close relationship between ghoulishness and LGBT+ cultural production. But there has also been much academic discourse surrounding coded queer desire in classic tales such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein, viewing them through a subversive homoerotic lens.
Queer people are often weary of visually expressing their sexuality or dressing too flamboyantly on a day-to-day basis. With a 28 per cent rise in anti-LGBT+ hate crime and 68 per cent of same-sex couples still avoiding holding hands in public, it’s easy to see why. Many LGBT+ people spend their youth suppressing their sexuality and trying to fit in with the crowd. While our friends were experimenting with embodying their sexualities openly, we were often left behind, trying to maintain a façade of normality.
Therefore it is unsurprising that, in adulthood, skimpy outfits and sexualised imagery are a big part of gay Halloween culture. In Tina Fey’s 2004 teen classic Mean Girls, it is said that “in girl world” Halloween is the “one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”. In “gay world” the same rule applies. In a similar way to Pride parades, it can be a rare release when the shackles of normality are loosened.
While Christmas can be challenging and awkward for LGBT+ people, particularly those who don’t feel like they can be their authentic selves around their families, Halloween is more easily spent with a self-assembled queer family. Dousing yourself in glitter with friends is certainly easier than pretending you’re not going to return everything your family gifted you.
Yet this is not to say that Halloween is universally popular among LGBT+ people. Just as, during my stay in university halls, I discovered that not all people shared my rosy, family-centred experience of Christmas, not all gay people have fond memories of Halloween. To some, it is the nightmare before Christmas.
“Halloween just fills me with anxiety, similar to New Years Eve”, explains Jonathan, a photographer from Edinburgh. “You must have a great time and a great costume that’s both sexy and intellectual and somehow more culturally relevant to everyone else’s”. He cites the focus on nudity at gay Halloween events as a factor that puts him off: “People love to get their bodies out at Halloween, which just makes me feel a bit more self-conscious about my own”. Media manager Jeremy also tells me “there’s no time I feel worse about my body than on Halloween”.
David, a playwright from London, views Halloween as a time that the complex politics of drag and nudity come to ahead. “I think that there are ways in which people using nudity in their costume can be empowering”, he explains. “But there’s also ways in which widespread nudity can be seen as shutting down the space’s inclusiveness”.
Though Halloween’s reputation as the “gay Christmas” is not undermined by the fact that some LGBT+ people do not feel able to enjoy it. In fact, this polarisation, which represents a tension between collective and individual identities, is the way that it most closely resembles Christmas. Feeling excluded from a collective norm such as Halloween can create feelings of shame, similarly to how Christmas can make people reflect critically on their own lives and relationships.
Yet for me, Halloween provides a feeling togetherness, representing a time when a queer people find joy in the most ridiculous and theatrical parts of our culture. For one night, I can be whoever I want to be – and there’s no one telling me to put my costume back in the dressing up box.