Surveying the noisy crowds lining 17th street, I saw all kinds of drag. Fairy wings. Fishnet stockings. Glittery eyelashes. And, of course, heels. Everywhere heels: stilettos, pumps, platforms, all colors, all sizes. Well, most sizes: you have to have a minimum two-inch heel to participate.
This was DC's annual High Heel Race, a tradition dating back to 1986, when a group of drag queens spontaneously decided to race down 17th street in Dupont Circle. Twenty-eight years later, the event draws thousands of spectators and participants together for a race that has become almost synonymous with Halloween in DC.
As evening set in, drag queens began to congregate near the starting point of the race, checking in at Cobalt, a gay bar at 17th and R. The outfits ran the gamut from cheap to fabulous, with many falling somewhere in between. Some were dressed as identifiable characters, like Queen Elizabeth and Dr. Frank N. Furter. Others went with period themes: a disgruntled muumuu-clad housewife from the 1950s, a group of she-sailors circa 1920. Many queens weren't as topical, choosing instead to organize their look based around a form-fitting dress or a blown-out wig.
The audience was just as diverse as the runners. There were groups of young buddies crowded together wearing their college hoodies, huddles of young women taking selfies, straight couples searching for a table at a nearby bar, younger gay couples, older married couples, joggers out with their dogs, businessmen just off work, political sign-carriers, teenagers on bikes, 17th-street tenants hanging out their third-story windows, drag race volunteers in blue event shirts keeping everyone off the queens' route, police officers standing in groups of two or three, small children sitting atop their fathers' shoulders — and all of them, all of us, crammed into three DC blocks to cheer on dozens, if not hundreds, of drag queens.
Halloween provides a safe place: straight and gay people alike can express their deepest imaginings
That is, after all, what you do on Halloween: encourage others to don drag. And, of course, you join in on the fun too. You might not do drag the same way the High Heel Racers did it Tuesday night, but if you're putting on a costume for All Hallow's Eve, then you're doing drag. You're taking up a costume, a persona, putting it on, and giving it life. You are, in a sense, queering yourself.
Even though it's sometimes used as a noun or adjective, the word "queer" can also used as a verb, as in "to queer" something. Cultural critic Laurence Ross provides a helpful definition of this usage in A Partial Guide to Camp: to queer, he writes, is "to make other, to collapse an accepted standard, to deconstruct a constructed identity, to expose identity as fluid." Putting on a Halloween costume means putting on a new identity, if only momentarily, if only superficially. These costumes serve as reminders that the self is always in motion, in flux, always choosing what and who it wants to be. The notion of the self relies on boundaries between what that self is and what it isn't, who you are and who you are not. Drag transgresses these boundaries because it allows its wearer to be both what he is and what he is not at the same time. In this way, drag queers the self, says Ross, by "subverting what is expected."
When you don drag, you put quotation marks around your identity. You're not Queen Elizabeth — you're "Queen Elizabeth." You're not Freddy Kruger — you're "Freddy Kruger." Once a year, Halloween throws quotation marks around all of us. "We" can be whoever we want to be. For the most part, there are no societal constraints placed upon these assumed identities. We can be as wild, as tame, as fabulous, as queer as we want, and we don't have to worry about what the powers-that-be will think of us. On October 31, not only is our queerness tolerated — it's encouraged.
Maybe this is the reason why Halloween resonates with so many LGBT people. According to anthropologist Jack Kugelmass, author of several books and essays on the connection between gay culture and Halloween, the appeal of the holiday to gay men (and the appeal is mostly a gay male appeal, in his reading) is intimately bound up with the history of drag at Halloween parades.
Though Halloween lore extends back to the British Isles, its status as Gay Christmas dates back to the '70s in San Francisco and New York City. In San Francisco's Castro District, drag queens began entering an annual Halloween costume contest that was mostly geared towards children. As Samantha Allen explains, the owner of Cliff's Variety Store, who'd been hosting the contest since 1948, eventually called it off. But by that time, the Halloween craze had already captured the gay imagination of the Castro, and the party lived on under the playful watch of the drag group known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Around the same time in New York City, a puppet maker named Ralph Lee staged a mile-long Halloween parade through Greenwich Village. About 150 of his friends participated in the first parade, carrying with them masks and puppets that Lee designed. Within a few years, the parade had grown well beyond Lee's original intentions, and eventually city officials had to get involved to work out permitting and crowd-control. According to recent estimates, over 60,000 performers and two million spectators participate in the parade annually.
It's also important to view both the San Francisco and New York celebrations in the context of 1970s gay politics. When Lee first marched with his fellow celebrants in 1973, as I previously pointed out,
Gay men were just beginning to gain real militancy. The Stonewall riots were a recent memory, and gay activism was still in its nascent stages. The gay community wanted to be gay in public. Mainstream culture wanted them to be quiet in public. A Halloween parade, then, was a perfect solution for everyone, because it permitted the gays to be as loud as they wanted under certain conditions. For one wild night, the rules of American gender would be temporarily suspended, and gay men could wear all the glitter that they wanted. But come the following morning, the tiaras were put away as gay men prepared for 364 days of heteronormative winter.
For queer communities vying for mainstream acceptance, there was a certain subversive power in encouraging the public to broaden their limiting notions of selfhood. And unlike Pride parades or other official LGBT events, Halloween parades were lighthearted, mostly apolitical, and non-alienating — all were invited.
Putting on a Halloween costume means putting on a new identity, if only momentarily, if only superficially
Halloween also provided a safe place for all of its participants: straight and gay people alike were permitted to give expression to their deepest imaginings, without fear of reprimand. October 31 is the one night of the year when we all dress in drag and experiment with new identities, without having to fully commit to the selves we try on. If we don't like how we look in a particular costume, all we have to do is remove it. Drag is non-stick.
In other words, the message Halloween offers, the message that continues to resonate so powerfully with LGBT communities, is ultimately a message of solidarity — it's okay to be queer on Halloween because, well, everyone is queer on Halloween.
The ending of Tuesday's drag race illustrated this perfectly. During the parade and high heel race, hundreds of volunteers kept spectators off of the street, which was the queens' domain. As soon as the race was finished, however, the boundary between spectator and performer dissolved as the two groups commingled, blending in one with another. Moments before, gawking onlookers snapped portraits of the drag queens tripping over each other as they blitzed down 17th street. Now those same onlookers were flagging down the ladies in high heels to pose for selfies with them.