When it comes to Queer Christmas, Santa is out and Satan is in. Halloween is the historic holy day for all-things LGBTQ, and this year’s best Halloween events are lurking right around the corner.
A queer take on Halloween
While the origins of Halloween involve a mix of ancient Celtic rituals and pagan customs, the queer roots of this autumnal tradition reach back to Drag Balls held in cities like New York and Chicago starting in the 1920s. Queer communities hosted many of these Halloween events, a holiday used to protect men and women dressed as the opposite gender from inspiring raised eyebrows.
In the 1950s and 1960s, San Francisco’s Halloween became a chance for drag queens to walk the streets with impunity. Wearing clothes that didn’t match your sex was illegal until 1974, but on All Hallow’s Eve, all bets were off. In The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982), author Randy Shilts writes that “One evening a year, like a chapter from a Cinderella story, the police would bestow a free night upon the homosexuals.” That evening was October 31 — the queer equivalent of a Christmas miracle.
While the original Celtic holiday imagined a veil lifting between the real world and spiritual world, San Francisco’s interpretation saw the veil lift between the closeted self and the queer self.
As the city’s celebration grew in popularity, similar holiday festivals sprang up in gayborhoods around the nation. NYC’s Greenwich Village began hosting a Halloween parade in 1973. LA’s West Hollywood threw their first shindig in 1987. Wilton Manors, Florida’s prominent LGBTQ enclave, started throwing an annual Halloween bash in 2007 that rivaled anything else in the state, aside from Key West, where queer folks celebrate the holy day for an entire week.
Today, Halloween continues to be a gifted night of freedom, where LGBTQ people can flirt with self-presentation without worrying about social repercussions. “So many queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race say their first time doing drag was on Halloween,” notes Brad Balof, the chair for Northalsted’s Halloween committee in Chicago. Halloween isn’t only a holiday for celebration — it’s an opportunity for exploration.
“I like that there’s a lot of different versions of Halloween,” says Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association, which presides over San Diego’s annual LGBTQ-centered Halloween block party. “You can make this holiday whatever you want it to be. If you want to make it gory and gross, you can. If you want to make it fun, you can do that, too.”
Luckily, the US is filled with welcoming Halloween happenings that encourage people to come out of the closet as whoever or whatever they want to be. Trick-or-treat your way to one of these American cities this October to celebrate the most wonderful time to be queer.
New York City
If you’re looking to sin in the city that doesn’t sleep, Halloween will spoil you for choice. Queer Brooklyn clubs like 3 Dollar Bill and House of Yes serve up Halloween-themed parties throughout the month. On October 29th, Susan Bartsch’s bewitchingly queer cabaret will put a spell on audiences with Bartchsland’s Halloween Extravaganza. On October 30 and 31, gay pop-up parties like Horse Meat Disco and Battle Hymn plan on tempting LGBTQ club kids to twirl till the bewitching hour along with scores of other events throughout the city.
For NYC’s main event, head to the Village Halloween Parade, which isn’t specifically queer-focused but still feels like an anything-goes extension of June’s Pride celebrations. This year, gay comedian Randy Rainbow serves as Grand Marshal and will lead thousands of whimsically dressed revelers along 6th Avenue from Spring Street to 16th Street. Once the parade ends, nearby LGBTQ bars in the West Village and Chelsea usually flood with foot traffic from the event.
But Halloween in Gotham City isn’t only about dressing up and dancing til dawn. On October 21, pay respects to New York’s queer past by joining Gay Bars That Are Gone, a walking tour that visits LGBTQ landmarks laid to rest in Manhattan.
“Gay Bars That Are Gone is a memory walk,” says Michael Ryan, the tour’s creator. “It’s about honoring and actively remembering histories that so often don’t get included in textbooks. From the 1850s to beloved bars that closed during the pandemic, we are raising spirits.”
You won’t need a costume for this studious seance, but Michael recommends attendees bring money. Post-tour, guests usually gather for a drink at Julius’ — a blast-from-the-past gay bar that only takes cash.
Every year, Hillcrest gets weird for Nightmare on Normal Street, a queer block party benefiting the San Diego LGBT Community Center. The outdoor fest is like a raucous carnival: food trucks line the streets, local DJs spin tunes, and guests can participate in a runway-style costume competition with a $2,000 grand prize.
After canceling last year’s event, the city’s gayborhood is ready to bring back their ghouls with this year’s theme, Nightmare Prom. “I’m really excited about seeing the costumes,” says Benjamin Nicholls, though he notes that folks shouldn’t worry if they don’t have something to wear. With face painters on-site and glow sticks for sale, you can get into the Halloween spirit after you arrive. Guests can capture their looks on camera in an immersive, selfie-friendly area of the festival decorated like a haunted high school. It’ll be like Carrie, minus the demonic teenagers — this is a 21-and-up event with free drinks for the party’s first hour.
Nightmare on Normal Street takes place on Friday, October 29, from 2:00 PM — 11:00 PM, but the party doesn’t end once the nightmare is over. Hillcrest’s abundance of gay bars are the de-facto afterparty destinations, so stop by spots like Rich’s, Gossip Grill, or the Rail to keep the night alive.
“My number one piece of advice is to plan ahead,” says Nicholls. “Our ticket sales are off the hook right now, and bars are going to be packed. People waiting for the last minute to buy tickets will struggle to find a place at the bar.”
Provincetown is best known for its queer summer bacchanalias, but every Halloween, the tip of Cape Cod resurrects the ghosts of seasons past for a weekend of frightening frivolity along Commercial Street. Although the ghoulish gathering is dubbed Spooky Bear Weekend and hosted by the Northeast Ursamen (a bear-centric LGBTQ club), wild animals of all kinds are welcome to join the festivities.
This year’s official events kick off on Friday, October 29, with a meet-and-greet and ghost tour around town. Saturday continues with midday trivia, a sunset dune tour, and the Northeast Ursamen’s costume ball and contest at Crown and Anchor. Expect to see a circus of furry Jessica Lange impersonators — this year’s theme is American Hairy Story.
Participating in these events isn’t the only way to enjoy Halloween in P-town. “I love walking down Commercial Street and seeing the epic costumes,” says Dave Greenberg, President of Northeast Ursamen. “I know there are massive Halloween parties that take place all over the country, but to see all the creativity here — especially on Saturday afternoon — is one of my favorite things.” He also recommends going to the Boatslip’s afternoon Tea Dance and bar hopping to spots like A-House, one of America’s oldest gay bars, to make the most of the evening.
If you’re looking to spend the weekend, book your lodging now. Hotels are pricey and fill up faster than a pet cemetery in a Stephen King novel. For an extra-spooky stay, check-in at the Carpe Diem Guesthouse — a charming bed and breakfast with a chilling backstory. The building served as Provincetown’s funeral parlor in the 19th century, and legend says that some guests got such a good night’s rest, they decided to become permanent residents. After a wicked weekend in this queer mecca, you might choose to do the same.
If the usual panoply of dance parties and parades aren’t your kinds of witchcraft, run amock to Atlanta’s Plaza Theater — the city’s oldest operating cinema — for two separate nights of queer Halloween classics. Wussy, the Big Peach’s queer pop-culture coven, is bringing the 1990s back to life with screenings of The Craft (October 13) and Hocus Pocus (October 27). Expect Rocky Horror vibes for both viewings: guests are encouraged to don their most daring looks and interact with the films.
Whether you go total teen psycho like Fairuza Balk or slip on your best Sanderson sister drag, you’ll have plenty of queer company. The events will be hosted by local drag queens, including Dotte Com and Molly Rimswell. Prizes will be awarded to the best-dressed guests.
Every October, Chicago’s Northalsted (formerly known as Boystown) dons its best Halloween drag for Haunted Halsted — a week-long celebration culminating in a parade and festival featuring a cash-prize costume contest.
“I love being able to see everybody’s creativity,” says Brad Balof, a Northalsted Business Alliance board member and chair of the Halloween committee. “People look really different when they use their creativity to express themselves through their costumes, and it creates a diverse atmosphere.”
Although the Halloween festivities occur in the city’s historic gayborhood, Balof says people of all ages and orientations participate in the parade. A couple of his favorite past costumes include a family dressed as characters from Tim Burton movies and a group of nine men dancing in inflatable dinosaur outfits.
Balof, who also manages the monster-sized gay bar Sidetrack, recommends visitors see as many costume contests at local clubs as possible. “If you’re coming with an elaborate costume, there are lots of prizes to be won,” he notes.
When it comes to the holy day, Chicago’s gayborhood is dead serious. “This is the only parade in the city that happens on Halloween night, whenever Halloween falls,” says Balof.
Events begin on October 23 and include everything from a puppy crawl walk to a family fun zone. The annual parade kicks off on October 31 at 6:00 PM.
In the land of voodoo queens and homoerotic vampire tales, Halloween is more than a holiday — it’s a way of life. It’s no wonder, then, that New Orleans’ queer community celebrates All Hallow’s Eve all weekend long. The flashiest of these events is hosted by Halloween New Orleans (HNO), an LGBTQ-centric non-profit established in 1983 to raise money for Project Lazarus — a community center for people living with HIV/AIDS. “Halloween New Orleans is one of the last circuit parties that’s still a fundraiser; 100 percent of the proceeds go to charity,” says Joe Gauthreaux, a New Orleans-born DJ who will spin during the party’s main event on October 30.
Although some of the group’s annual festivities, including the high-profile Lazarus Ball (pictured above), are canceled this year due to COVID-19, you can still party with a purpose at HNO’s arcade-themed dance party and costume contest on Saturday. A Sunday tea dance and costume awards competition follows suit.
While shindigs and costume contests might be par for the paranormal course, HNO stands out from the rest of America’s LGBTQ Halloween festivals thanks to its post-tea dance tradition: a second line through the French Quarter. This classic New Orleans happening is a joyous procession that usually takes place after funerals. Rather than mourn death, a second line chooses to celebrate life — an apt homage to the origins of Queer Christmas.