Lazarus Nance Letcher in an early costume. (Courtesy of Lazarus Nance Letcher)
For many queer and trans folks, Halloween was the one safe place we could express ourselves. It’s been that way for centuries.
In 1848, Columbus, Ohio, became one the first cities to officially outlaw people wearing clothing that didn’t align with one’s assigned sex at birth, known at different points of history as cross-dressing, drag or gender non-conformity.
This law’s establishment in a town named after Christopher Columbus is quite fitting: The very concepts of cross-dressing or gender non-conforming are rooted in the idea of an infallible gender binary, which is deeply rooted in white supremacy and colonialism. White colonizers distinguished themselves from Black and Indigenous people by emphasizing the “drastic” difference between European delineations of man and woman — societies where gender expression, identities and roles that weren’t as cut-and-dried were deemed subhuman.
After Columbus the city passed its law guarding gender norms, several municipalities and states followed. These laws don’t just affect trans, queer and gender-nonconforming individuals. They affect everyone. Strict definitions of man and women, masculine and feminine, hold us all to impossible standards, from clothes to occupational expectations to what feelings are appropriate or permissed.
New York City curbed any non-normative gender expression by the Masquerade Law passed around the same time as the one in Columbus. The original intent of the law was to end the trend of white tenants dressing up in redface to attack landlords and tax collectors. The tenants attempted to get local tribes in trouble like the Mohawk pretenders at the Boston Tea Party.
The first time I ever bound my chest and drew on a fake beard to be Frederick Douglass, I looked in the mirror and saw the grown-up I dreamed of being.
A couple of centuries later, we’re still dealing with the redface issue every Halloween and Coachella. In 2011, Ohio University began a poster campaign, “We’re a culture, not a costume,” to attempt to interrupt cultural appropriation on Halloween, which then morphed into a more Indigenous-centric #notacostume hashtag and campaign. Playing dress-up can be as explorative and exhilarating as it can be exploitative.
Trans writer Leslie Feinberg recalled how the queer and trans community tried to survive and thrive during the Lavender Scare. During the 1950s and 1960s, any hint of homosexuality or gender deviance was grounds for arrest, losing your job and often your life. A common law cited during arrests was “three articles,” meaning that an individual had to be wearing at least three items of clothing that matched their assigned sex at birth.
In “Transgender Warriors,” Feinberg remembers, “But the old butches told me there was one night of the year that the cops never arrested us — Halloween. At the time, I wondered why I was exempt from penalties for cross-dressing on that one night. And I grappled with other questions. Why was I subject to legal harassment and arrest at all?” The criminalization of trans existence is still being slowly wiped from the law. Just this year, New York City finally rolled back the “walking while trans law.”
Curiously, it seems that the “three article” laws weren’t existing laws but opportunities for law enforcement to assault minoritized communities. Trans legal scholar Kate Redburn found that most archival evidence of these “laws” comes from interviews with LGBTQIA+ members in the 1940s up to the Stonewall Rebellion at the end of 1969 (which, never forget, was a protest against police brutality).
Across the U.S., gendered dress code legislation didn’t mention a specific number of clothing or items that would legally deem someone a gender outlaw. Checking for these items was just an excuse for police to dress down and harass queer and trans folks, making them strip in public before throwing them in the back of cruisers or jail cells for further humiliation and violence.
But dear queer Halloween was the one day a year these laws — de jure and de facto — went out the window. In 1913, the Pittsburgh police were so inundated with individuals arrested for “cross-dressing” that they announced the following year that the law would no longer be active on Halloween.
Even as Halloween shifted to be more child-centric, the queer and trans scene still partied hard. From drag hall ballrooms in Harlem to the Castro, Halloween became a high holy day where some of us could finally and legally simply exist. These large queer Halloween parties and parades were the blueprint for our summer Pride celebrations.
I’ve heard from several trans and gender non-conforming pals that Halloween was their first somewhat safe day to experiment with gender expression, a night when you could even be applauded for it. Non-binary artist ALOK said, “New York Fashion Week & Halloween are some of the only times I feel comfortable walking around as myself in the city. On both occasions, there’s a sense of social permission for gender transgression — people think I’m wearing some “costume” and let me go about my day. On the whole people are so much nicer to me: a man even went out of his way to come up to me and tell me that he thought my dress was beautiful.”
For me, Halloween became a safe day to explore my gender with an easy explanation. As a kid, my gender deviance was labeled as cute tomboy behavior — a luxury I know many of my trans femme siblings didn’t have. Halloweens were filled with firefighter, Pokemon and monster costumes. Me and my crew of boys were indistinguishable as we went door to door. A freedom I longed for outside of the mask.
The first time I ever bound my chest and drew on a fake beard to be Frederick Douglass, I looked in the mirror and saw the grown-up I dreamed of being. A decade later, I’m grateful for these little Halloween epiphanies and bouts of freedom as I live a life I couldn’t dream of.
This Halloween season as I slip my bear onesie onto my body to head to a queer dance party, I can’t help but smile as I run my hands over my flat chest and catch a glimpse of my real beard. A life that seemed impossible is now my reality.
As the veil between the living and the dead grows thinner, I think of all of the sacrifices my queer and trans elders and ancestors made so that I could live this life.
Even after Halloween ends.
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