Growing up outside of Salem, Massachusetts, famous for its 1692 witch trials, Lee Roberts is more connected to Halloween than most. Throughout his youth, Roberts recalls frequently partaking in costume parades, working at haunted houses and getting an up-close look at the country’s most wicked city on the hair-raising holiday.
"Having an outlet on Halloween to sort of live in this fantastical aesthetic world was a really important outlet for me," said Roberts, 35, who identifies as queer and is transgender. "It was the big time of year in a way I couldn’t fully articulate at the time. So many aspects of Halloween, and things that are celebrated, are things that I’ve always been drawn to."
Today, Roberts continues to play out his Halloween fantasies, working as drag king under the name Sweaty Eddy. Eddy’s year-round performances include a rendition of the movie "Silence of the Lambs," an act where he rips off his hand and reveals bare bone, and a plethora of body casting.
"It’s less that I’m obsessed with Halloween and more that like I feel genuinely connected to exploring these things in my work," he said. "I see as a gateway into an appreciation for things that are 'othered.'"
"Halloween gives queer people a chance to let their freak flag fly and be as explicit and insane looking as possible."
An extravaganza of the supernatural, all things sweet and larger-than-life costumes, many LGBTQ Americans like Roberts hail Halloween as "gay Christmas." But the contemporary excitement around the supernatural holiday has a long history within the LGBTQ community.
The modern phrase "gay Christmas" actually stems from an earlier queer nickname for the holiday, "bitches Christmas," according to Marc Stein, a professor of history at San Francisco State University, and author of "City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves."
During the 1950s and '60s, Philadelphia's LGBTQ community celebrated "bitches Christmas" by dressing up in drag and partying in the city's gay bars, Stein said. Revelers by the hundreds would follow drag performers from bar-to-bar, he notes, forming some of the country's first queer Halloween parades.
"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 said. "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."
Since at that time, cross-dressing was prohibited in many cities and states across the country, on Halloween "you could wear drag and not get arrested," said Michael Bronski, a professor of women and gender studies at Harvard University and author of "A Queer History of the United States for Young People." "If you wanted to cross-dress because of your identity, on Halloween you were safe to do it."
Following the wave of LGBTQ activism and visibility sparked by the 1969 Stonewall riots, more formal versions of queer Halloween celebrations began popping up in "gayborhoods" around the country. New York City’s Greenwich Village began hosting its annual Halloween parade in 1973. In 1979, a small group of Key West, Florida, locals started a 10-day party paradise for adults, Fantasy Fest. And Los Angeles' West Hollywood started its own Halloween parade in 1987.
Brad Balof, 42, is the chair for Northalsted's Halloween committee, which hosts Chicago's annual Halloween parade in its Northalsted neighborhood, also known as "Boystown." As a gay man, he described Halloween as one of the only times a year growing up when he was not "ostracized or punished or criticized for having these flamboyant, creative tendencies."
"It was a time of year when it was celebrated as opposed to the rest of the year where it may be looked upon as being too extra, too fabulous or too flamboyant," Balof said.
While the parades still enjoy crowds in the thousands today, many of today’s LGBTQ Americans have moved off of the streets and into queer nightclubs on Halloween. LGBTQ bars throughout the country host Halloween-themed parties throughout October, making it one of their busiest and most profitable seasons of the year, according to LGBTQ bar owners and performers.
Lisa Menichino, owner of New York's lesbian bar Cubbyhole, said Halloween is the bar's "second busiest day of the year, after Pride."
Merrie Cherry, a Brooklyn drag queen who is a contestant on Shudder’s fourth season of “The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula,” says she has performances booked every night of the week leading up to Halloween on Sunday. The holiday is her “last hoorah” to perform before temperatures drop and partiers flock indoors, she said.
"We have to put on these, not just masks, but shields to protect ourselves from everyday, regular straight life," Cherry said. "Halloween gives queer people a chance to let their freak flag fly and be as explicit and insane looking as possible. Sometimes, you just want to be a different person, you know?"