A History of Gay Halloween (And Why It’s Called “Gay Christmas”)

Brad Tiller

Halloween is an institution in the LGBTQ2S+ community. Often referred to as the “Gay High Holy Day” or “Gay Christmas,” Halloween has risen from its roots as a pagan fire festival about celebrating harvest and warding off spirits, to a day of celebrating everything spooky, transgressive, and fabulous.

Why has Halloween caught on so strongly in the LGBTQ2S+ community? One reason could be that LGBTQ2S+ people spend large parts of their lives hiding their true selves, and presenting in a way that’s at odds with their desires and identity. Halloween’s emphasis on dressing up as something you’re typically not ends up being a powerful outlet to present ourselves in a way that expresses who you really are. (And if you’re already doing that anyway, Halloween gives you an excuse to turn the dial up to 11.)

What’s the history that led to Halloween’s status as the de facto LGBTQ2S+ holiday? And why is it often called “Gay Christmas,” anyway? Read on to find out!

A history of gay Halloween celebrations

In the November 1, 1907 of The Pittsburgh Press, an article described “girls who had donned male attire” being arrested for their transgression against gender norms — or as the article describes it, “appeared at the Central police station and took their medicine.” In 1913, police once again arrested both “women in men’s clothes” and “three boys who were making carly appearances in feminine costumes.” It wasn’t until 1914 that Pittsburgh police announced they would not arrest women wearing men’s clothing — unless, of course, they were “disorderly or are seen entering saloons.” (Notably, there was no such affordance given to boys in feminine costumes.) While there’s of course no way to know whether these individuals identified as LGBTQ2S+, one thing is clear: they were being punished solely for their transgressions against sexual and gender norms.

Following the historic Stonewall riots in 1969, public consciousness of the LGBTQ2S+ community quickly grew, and celebrations of them began to appear in public life — including Halloween.

Today, the Village Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village, New York — the same neighbourhood in which the Stonewall riots occurred — is the world’s largest Halloween parade, attracting over 50,000 costumed participants and 2 million spectators a year. It began as a small event organized by artist and puppeteer Ralph Lee in 1974, where he would travel across Greenwich Village with his kids and do puppet shows door-to-door. But each year the celebration grew, attracting more New Yorkers looking to dress up and celebrate, including many members of the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Costumer with mask by Ralph Lee, the founder of the Village Halloween Parade. 1970s. Credit: Vanity Fair

“Times were changing. People were starting to come out,” Jeanne Fleming, Artistic/Producing Director for the Village Halloween Parade, told Logo. “In those days, the West Village was filled with creative people and the gay community was centered there. So in many ways, at that time, this was Pride.” 

Another event that helped solidify Halloween as a day of queer celebration was Halloween in the Castro, in The Castro district of San Francisco. During World War II in the 1940’s, the U.S. military discharged thousands of servicemen for being gay, many of whom settled in and around San Francisco. By 1969, San Francisco had more gay people per capita than any other city in the United States. Even today, San Francisco has the highest rate of LGBTQ2S+ residents among any U.S. city, with 6.7% of residents identifying as LGBTQ2S+. 

The gay community in San Francisco first centralized around the Polk Gulch neighbourhood, with Polk Street becoming the home to several gay bars and the gay Halloween celebrations in the city. In his biography of prominent San Franciscan gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, Randy Shilts recounted how the typically-homophobic San Francisco police department would hand over the reins on Halloween, with the chief of police saying: “‘This is your night — you run it.’ […] When the hours shifted from October 31 to November 1, the iron fist of Lilly Law would fall again.” The gay community was given this one supposed day of respite from the law — but that itself didn’t guarantee peace.

As the Polk Street celebrations grew larger, they attracted increased attention from homophobes seeking to harm participants. At the Polk Street Halloween celebrations in 1977, someone incited panic by tossing a live tear gas canister into the crowd. Worse, 32-year-old waiter Robert Kerns was fatally stabbed in his home after returning there with someone from Polk Street, still donning the ball gown he’d been wearing during the celebrations.

As Polk Street became more violent and a less-welcoming environment for the gay community, Halloween celebrations moved from Polk Gulch to The Castro district. In the 1960’s, as working-class families began to leave The Castro for the suburbs en masse, many gay San Franciscans took the opportunity to move in from surrounding areas, making it the perfect new home for gay Halloween in San Francisco.

Sylvester the Disco Diva (right) with another drag queen in the Castro on Halloween 1976. Credit: San Francisco Public Library via Atlas Obscura

While Halloween in The Castro began peacefully, as the celebrations grew year-over-year, they once again attracted homophobes who would commit hate crimes against the gay community. This culminated in 2006 with a tragic mass shooting that left nine people wounded. The following Halloween saw a heavily increased police presence on The Castro — but after that, Halloween in the Castro was officially canceled. This year, 2023, marks the first Halloween in the Castro event since 2007, with a focus on family friendly activities from the daytime to early-evening, a far cry from the celebration of LGBTQ2S+ existence that it once was.

Today, many LGBTQ2S+ Halloween celebrations have moved away from the streets and into bars and private venues. Despite all of the struggle and tragedy in the history of gay Halloween celebrations, Halloween continues to hold incredible importance in the LGBTQ2S+ community, with many referring to the day as “gay Christmas.”

Why is Halloween called “gay Christmas?”

Christmas, a technically-Christian holiday that is often celebrated secularly, is a time for many people to to get together and celebrate. But for many in the LGBTQ2S+ community, the holiday that provides the greatest sense of community and belonging is not Christmas, but Halloween. While Christmas is heavily tied to tradition and blood family, Halloween is all about transgression, and allows us to choose who we want to spend time with.

Both Christmas and Halloween have their roots in pagan holidays. Christmas began as Saturnalia, a Roman pagan festival held in mid-December until the winter solstice (December 25th on the calendar used by Romans at the time), celebrated the Roman god of agriculture and time, Saturn.

Halloween’s pagan roots trace back to the pagan religious festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”), which marked the transition to the “dark half” of the year and celebrated the autumn harvest. It was believed that during Samhain, fairies and the spirits of ancestors could cross through the barrier between the underworld and our world. The Celts celebrating Samhain would dress up as monsters and animals in the hopes of avoiding being kidnapped by fairies, leading to the tradition of Halloween costumes that continues to this day.

OK, sure, interesting history. But why “gay Christmas,” specifically? Beyond Halloween’s natural fit as a holiday for celebrating non-conformity as opposed to tradition, Marc Stein, professor of history at San Francisco State University, offers an etymological explanation: “bitches Christmas.”

According to Stein, members of LGBTQ2S+ community in Philadelphia would dress in drag and go gay-bar-to-gay-bar, building up followers between each visit and forming unofficial queer Halloween parades behind them. And they called it “bitches Christmas.”

“As for why LGBT people were so drawn to the holiday, I think it picks up on those older traditions that Halloween’s a time for transgressing all sorts of social boundaries,” Stein told NBC News. “So, it had a particular set of meanings for people who were basically living a straight life and saw Halloween as an opportunity to express their genders and sexualities.”

Whatever the origins of “Gay Christmas” as a term (although “bitches Christmas” is certainly convincing), it’s inarguable that of all the major holidays, Halloween is the one most celebrated by the LGBTQ2S+ community. And it will likely stay that way for decades – perhaps even centuries – to come.