When I was a little gurl growing up in Detroit, my ma used to spin an enchanting yarn about her downtown All Hallow’s Eves as a child in the ’50s. “We’d go out trick-or-treating in the early evening, me and your aunts, in our gypsy dresses pieced together from faded handkerchiefs,” she’d intone every year about this time.
“But we’d have to be home by the stroke of dark. That was when the men dressed as women would come out. There would be men dancing with men, women wearing cotton pants and button-down shirts. There would be a lot of screaming and carrying on. We used to watch them through the lacy window coverings in our bedroom, scared into laughing.”
You can imagine what such a tale of gaily marching ghouls and goblins did to an impressionable homosexual like myself. My mind swam with visions of drag queen sugar plums and wild-dyke Roy Rogerses, bell-bottomed sailor suits and sequins dripping from well-groomed mustaches. “Would there be men dressed as the Supremes?” I’d excitedly beg Ma to tell. “Would they do the mashed potato?” Oh, how I would have loved to slip the latch on those lace-veiled portals and join in their spirited parade!
For many a gay back in the day, Halloween was Pride before Pride existed, the one time they had implicit permission to show out in all their invert finery and let loose. Under the code of mid-20th-century gay oppression, the holiday was a fine time for gays to publicly congregate and whoop it up, embodying civilization’s nightmare and driving the children inside. It worked both ways: the gays at least had one high holy day for themselves, which happened to belong to the devil. And the hushed tales of it served to arouse the soon-to-be-overly-curious like me.
OUT IN THE STREETS
Halloween in the Castro began unofficially in the ’80s, when crowds attracted by the exotic window displays at Cliff’s Variety hardware store grew large enough to warrant a street closing. Grandpa Ernie DeBaca, the legendary owner of Cliff’s, drove a flatbed truck and started an annual Halloween kids’ party in the newly emerging gay neighborhood.
Soon, in a symbolic reenactment of Stonewall or the Harvey Milk riots, the gays “took the street” on an annual basis, forcing the cops to give up trying to regulate the party, and the event mushroomed into the wild, potentially dangerous — and gay-diluted — bacchanal of today.
But before the Castro exploded, back in the ’70s, the gays of San Francisco would throw on their best Barbara Stanwyck and hit up Polk Street to let it all hang out, gayngsta-style. Those were the glory days of the bathhouse generation, and whenever I want to project myself back into them, I visit amateur historian Uncle Donald’s Web site, www.thecastro.net. Therein lies an archive of Uncle Donald’s photos of the 1976 Polk Halloween scene, as well as a spotty but fascinating diary of gay Halloween celebrations from the disco era to 2003. It’s a treasure trove of artifacts and impressions — and perhaps an elegy to the seemingly endangered high holy day.
“Back then there were two outfits: drag queen and drag queen’s escort. You either wore a ball gown or black tie,” the husky-voiced 65-year-old says over the phone. “It was such a magical time. I don’t think of Halloween as a gay-only tradition, but there was a glorious, creative spirit, a feeling of freedom and community. It was something special.”
GIVING UP THE GHOST?
Does that spirit still exist? For years Halloween was the one night us gays didn’t have to be afraid. And now the gays of the Castro want to do away with Halloween because it scares them. Weird. “It’s become a zoo, but it’s great to see the young people still partying,” says Donald when I ask him about Halloween in the Castro today.
But none of my young gay friends like to party in the Castro, and not just because they fear getting bashed by out-of-towners. “There’s no inspiration to be found there. Everyone just wants to dress up as celebrities and stand around. Or else it’s for more uptight gay men to do drag and feel ‘wild,’” says fashion designer Allán Herrera, 23. “Private parties are more fun, but everyone just ends up in the Castro because the alternatives cost $50.”
Hunter Hargraves, 23, a drag performer, agrees. “You can dress up anytime you want in San Francisco, so I think the feeling of Halloween as a gay freedom day no longer applies,” he explains. “I have a lot of respect for what it was, but now it’s just one day among many.” Another friend, Brion, 17, says, “Halloween is for getting fucked up and checking out other high schools.”
So maybe the venerated spirit of Homoween has moved on from the Castro, just like it took flight from Polk Street two decades ago. The question, of course, is “to where”? In an age of gay mainstreaming, when the notion of community has been rapidly decentralized, diffused across a spectrum of tastes and miniagendas, maybe the purpose of a gay high holy day has evaporated into the ethosphere, like real-time cruising or leather bars.
Or maybe it’s just been mischievously internalized. As my 25-year-old roommate said the other day, trying on plaid hot pants and naughty-schoolboy accessories, “For Halloween, I just want to dress like a slut and get laid.”
That sounds plenty gay to me.