How the LGBT Community Transformed Halloween

By Brandon Bent

October 27, 2022



Photo credit: Bigstock/EkaterinaMo

Halloween is a time to lean into that side of yourself you don't dare explore the rest of the year. The celebration is a big event for the LGBT community — a community where it has often been a challenge to be our unique selves, and one that is all too familiar with wearing masks. But Halloween didn't start off as the fun holiday we know today. In fact, it has a creepier side that goes back centuries and is not associated with the LGBT community.

couple of people are preparing for Halloween in costumes of a witch and a vampire with pumpkins
Bigstock/evgeny atamanenko

Early Halloween

Halloween is believed to have originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated on November 1st. The Celts believed that on October 31st, the boundary between the living and the dead became blurred, so they would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off evil spirits.

The origins of trick-or-treating can be traced back to 18th-century Ireland. Irish children would go door-to-door on Halloween night for food, coins, or treats in the form of porter (a type of beer). Over time, this holiday evolved into trick-or-treating with the addition of costumes meant to frighten away evil spirits.

In 1845, a man named Jack O'Lantern created a lantern with a carved-out turnip as his face to frighten away ghosts. This tradition eventually evolved into what we know today as jack-o'-lanterns. Lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits in England, and the jack-o'-lantern was used as a decoration for pumpkin patches in America. It became a symbol for Halloween in 1840, which is when the term "Halloween" was first used.

An attractive man and woman wearing vampire costumes look inside a pumpkin.
Pexels/Gustavo Fring

In the late 1800s, there was a shift in celebrating Halloween. It became a holiday about communities and friendly gatherings rather than death and all that other creepiness. Halloween became widely accepted and commercialized. People began throwing parties where children and adults would dress up in costumes.

A Time to Experiment

It was not long before minority communities embraced the festivities. Perhaps out of the need for self-expression or maybe because it allows a certain amount of anonymity. In 1912, anyone who wore more than three articles of clothing worn by the other sex could be arrested, but this did not stop those celebrating Halloween. In fact, it was so popular to experiment with gender roles that according to the Pittsburgh Press, the police were so inundated with reports of cross-dressing that they gave up arresting people.

Minority Influence

One historical event that helped change the way people celebrate Halloween was the "Great Migration." A time when African Americans migrated from the South, mostly to large urban centers, to escape segregation and racism. In New York City, the Harlem Renaissance reconnected African Americans who were LGBT. One of the first known drag queens, William Dorsey Swann, born into slavery, led the way in showcasing drag and drag balls at the historic venue.

Historian George Chauncey says that the queer gatherings in Harlem "Enhanced the solidarity of the LGBT world and symbolized the continuing centrality of gender inversion to gay culture."

The trend of elaborate celebrations on Halloween took off in the 1920s because of movements like the Harlem Renaissance. It opened the door for people to be empowered to explore their own drag.

Gay Christmas

These celebrations later were known as "Gay Christmas", which stems from an earlier reference to Halloween called "Bitches Christmas", according to Marc Stein, a professor of history at San Francisco State University and author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves (2000). Philadelphia's LGBT community was known to celebrate "bitches Christmas" by dressing up in drag and partying in the 1950s–1960s.

In the 1980s, there were so many drag queen performances in NYC that revelers followed them from bar to bar, leading to some of the country's first queer Halloween parades. In 1969, Stonewall empowered the LGBT to come out of the shadows. Halloween LGBT street parties grew from 160 people in 1974 to over 200,000 only five years later. These street parties lead the way for other communities to embrace the spirit of self-expression and celebration.

Halloween Today

Today, Halloween is widely embraced by the LGBT community. You will find thousands of drag queens, goblins, and ghosts on the street and packed into bars. Greenwich Village comes alive on Halloween. The annual Village Halloween Parade tops it off. You can also head over to Washington, DC, for the "High Heel Drag Queen Race", where thousands attend to watch elaborate costumed drag queens race down 17th street.

A young man takes a selfie with his friends who are in costume at a Halloween party at a bar.

Halloween has evolved over the long years from its morbid days of death and darkness. It has become a time for transgressing social boundaries. The LGBT community led the way for others to come out in a safe and fun atmosphere and to celebrate self-expression, liberation, and fluidity.


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