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Halloween: Is the
Party Over?

Halloween: Is the
Party Over?

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Once a place for gays to parade the outlandish and the outrageous, Halloween street parties have been overrun by college kids and gangbangers, appropriated by stroller-pushing moms and out-of-towners, and regulated by angry residents and city officials. Have we lost Halloween forever?

"i remember the year i noticed the shift," says Jeanne Fleming, a longtime organizer of New York City's Village Halloween Parade. The year was 1989. Downtown Manhattan was a gritty, crime-ridden outpost of artists, homos, junkies, and freaks. So perhaps it's fitting that Fleming's epiphany came in the form of passing garbage trucks.

"We had sanitation trucks as part of the parade," she recalls. "They were mirrored on all sides -- an artist would cover them with Mylar, and seven of them would drive through and do this fantastic choreographed routine." Watching the trucks go by and getting a good look at the crowds reflected in the trucks' sides, Fleming suddenly realized: Oh, my God, I'm running a straight event. How did that happen?

She wasn't alone. Across the country Halloween festival organizers were coming to the same realization: Their local gayborhood parties were attracting an annual pilgrimage of heterosexuals -- college kids in pea coats, suburban Republicans, teens from the rough side of town. They arrived, costume-free, to get drunk, climb lampposts, whoop and gawk, take pictures, and, occasionally, harass.

Granted, it's a show worth watching. Halloween street parties have always been the perfect excuse for gays to showcase their creativity in an atmosphere free of judgment and scorn. "There were lots of very imaginative gay people who would come in wonderful things, like dressed as Imelda Marcos's shoes," says Ralph Lee, who is credited with starting the Village Parade in 1974. "One year there were these four guys dressed as stewardesses, with little carry-ons, each with a letter on it, and when they lined up it spelled T-W-A-T." Costumes often tend to be topical too, reflecting the zeitgeist. The year 1979 saw an army of Eva Perons -- Evita had hit Broadway that year -- the more creative ones sporting a bank of microphones ingeniously designed into the dress to mimic Peron on her balcony.

In such a festive atmosphere, is it any wonder that Halloween became a gay national holiday -- it's "gay Christmas." And through most of the '80s at least, before such events became formally organized and publicized, these parties were ours, a place where we could let our hair down and get crazy with our peers. It was our secret -- until word got out, and the mainstream decided to crash the party.

While the crowds of straight spectators at Halloween carnivals have been growing for years, 2006 may have been a tipping point. Last year, according to organizers, the festivities in New York and Washington, D.C., drew their largest crowds ever, with the parade in the Village stretching for a full hour longer than the previous year's. The West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval on Santa Monica Boulevard, which today draws half a million, was "like a mosh pit for a mile and a half," says Jeff Scott, a longtime attendee. For the first time in 18 years, he says, he went home early.

The media that dominate today's events only add to the chaos. New York's event is covered by 38 international television crews, says Fleming, who in late September had just fielded a photo request from Time Out Beijing.

As far back as 1998, a gay council member representing the Village asked the city to cancel or move the event, citing "a sea of homophobia." A gay community board member summed up his feelings as a parade participant: "Many of these people who come out now are not there to laugh with us. They are there to laugh at us," he told The New York Times.

Because the parties aren't the domain of straight attendees, they don't have a stake in their sustainability. "The gay people, you tell them to get behind the line, and they will," says David Perruzza, organizer of Washington, D.C.'s Halloween High Heel Race. "The straight people, you tell them 500 times, and they keep pushing forward."

It's not just ridicule and unruliness that threaten the events, though -- it's violence. Last year in San Francisco, where the party in the Castro has recently been bursting at the seams, gunfire exchanged between two gangs with automatic weapons left 10 people wounded, prompting the city to call off this year's event. For the first time in three decades, there will be no official Halloween party in the Castro.

Bevan Dufty, city supervisor for the Castro district and the person who, with the mayor, spearheaded the movement to cancel the party, says, "Halloween is the most miserable issue I've worked on in my years as a public official." It could be argued they waited too long to cancel: The year Dufty was elected, in 2002, five people at the event were stabbed, and another person brought along a working chain saw as part of his costume. "It was like Escape From New York," Dufty says.

Though many attempts were made to bring the San Francisco event under control, things have just gotten more dangerous. Dufty claims that the party in the Castro has become "a rite of passage for young gang members" to attend and spark violence. Furthermore, he says, "all my neighborhood groups in the greater Castro area are just disgusted with it."

The day after the 2006 shootings the San Francisco Chronicle's online comments section was blanketed with calls to move or cancel future events. "The shootings occurred a mere two blocks from where I live," read one typical post. "After they shut down the party, it continued for hours afterward on my street, which was clogged with people not from the neighborhood but tourists from other parts of the city and the East Bay.... Cancel it."

But canceling gay Christmas, in the gayest neighborhood in the gayest city in America, is like canceling New Year's Eve in Times Square -- which is to say, Won't people show up anyway? That's the question that now has San Francisco holding its breath. "I have lived in the Castro for 13 years," says Donna Sachet, a drag artiste whose bewigged and bejeweled visage was the public face of the celebration on fliers, billboards, and bus ads from 2003 to 2005. "There are certain organic things that happen. The pride celebration -- it may be held at the Civic Center, but after it's over, everyone comes back to the Castro. New Year's Eve? Back to the Castro."

Most of these Halloween parties began as a trickle in the '70s and '80s, back when gay ghettoization felt practical. D.C.'s High Heel Race was founded by accident 21 years ago when a few guys in drag ran from JR's, a gay bar on 17th Street, to Annie's Steak House a few blocks away, did a shot, and ran back. (The race's present route is the same; JR's is the unofficial sponsor.) In San Francisco the party moved to the Castro in the '70s when the queer Halloween celebration on Polk Street began to attract straight people and turned violent.

And the Village Parade didn't even start out as gay. Artist Ralph Lee led "a motley group of a hundred friends and performers" through the streets in 1974. They had an escort of two police scooters and a grant of $200 from the city. It took a few years for gay people to attach themselves to that event, which was already sort of queer in that it was "the only parade that went crosstown" instead of downtown like other parades, says Lee, laughing.

By the late '80s all of these events were being forced to accommodate growing crowds. West Hollywood closed down one side of Santa Monica Boulevard, then the other. The Village Parade was "straightened out" and pointed down Sixth Avenue. Police and Porta Pottis were deployed. The parties continue to grow in size every year, with straights outnumbering gays by an ever-larger ratio.

This gay-straight imbalance, however, could be seen as a product of our own achievements. Call it a sign of progress that "it's the straight girls who all want to get their pictures taken with the drag queens," says Perruzza. "They're here for college from a small Midwestern town, and they've never seen anything like this."

Puppeteer Basil Twist, a well-known fixture of the Village Parade since the late '80s -- who found mainstream success himself by designing the Dementors in the Harry Potter movies -- thinks that for straight people, the gay dimension to these events has become more than "just entertainment. They're living vicariously through us because of the freedom we have, that freedom that everybody's capable of, but poor straight people, they can't always hit that mark."

And as Sachet points out, it is a symbiotic relationship: "Every drag queen needs an audience." But what happens when the audience begins to overtake the show? "There's a certain healthy aspect to an audience," says Sachet. "It's when it becomes a freak show that it gets scary."

Though the public is generally more enlightened about sexuality than it was in 1998, antigay hate-crime rates have actually risen slightly since then. And the two major incidents of violence at the San Francisco carnival both occurred in the past five years.

Still, most of these events remain remarkably incident-free for their sizes. San Francisco's problems are the exception, not the rule, and might be blamed on the party's confinement to a relatively small area. Fleming attributes the lack of violence at the Village's event--which routinely draws well over a million people -- to the parade format, which keeps things spread out and moving forward. Keeping the Castro event enclosed is like "strangling a snake," says Sachet. "Last year Bevan made the announcement that we're going to close it down earlier, make it smaller, when what they need to do is manage it and make room for it. By trying to close it down, you're just confining people to a smaller space." Indeed, last year's shooting occurred at 10:40 p.m., 10 minutes after police cut the music and tried to shut down the party.

Which brings us to another bittersweet fact about the evolution of our movement. We're losing our separateness. That some of the loudest voices calling for the parties' cancellations are coming from gay people says something: It's not only straight people moving in that's changing the feel of the events, it's gay people dropping out. These days, the gay ghettos where the parties are held are home to increasingly older residents. Younger gays are fanning out across the city, unafraid of living in mostly straight neighborhoods. "It's certainly an aging population" in the Castro, says Sachet. "Same-sex couples are adopting children and settling into their homes." They don't want people "shitting in their flowerpots"--a vivid image often invoked by the NIMBY crowd.

At the same time, straight families are moving into the gay neighborhoods--one need only look around the Castro, West Hollywood, the Village, and Dupont Circle in D.C. to see the upstart image of Bugaboo strollers propelled by straight couples everywhere. And gay people no longer feel confined to urban areas. Census data suggests that the number of same-sex couples in San Francisco declined by 5% between 2000 and 2005, more than twice the rate of decline in straight couples.

Which raises the question, Is there even a need for a "gay Christmas" anymore? Thirty years ago, adopting Halloween as a gay holiday felt necessary. "It was a chance to throw away, like RuPaul says, your 'other drag,' " says Twist. "I think that's less true now. We have our gay pride events, we have gay day at [Six Flags] Great America. There are lots of opportunities for gay people to be sure on Halloween to be that one day."

In past decades many of us weren't invited to the traditional family Christmas. Today, we raise our own families and, increasingly, celebrate the holidays with Mom and Pop. Maybe today, gay Christmas simply falls on December 25.

Twenty years ago, when the High Heel Race was a scant two years old, another event -- for gays only, by invitation only -- was already being formed. The Miss Adams Morgan Pageant, a private Halloween party for D.C.'s gay elite, is a notoriously private event; it banishes the media and fosters an air of mystery. Tickets are available only to those with connections. It's held annually in the Hilton Washington ballroom in the weeks preceding Halloween. Aside from the by-invite-only exclusivity, it essentially tries to capture the spirit of the old days, when Halloween events were smaller, gayer affairs, with familiar ladies' heavily painted faces all around.

Predictably, a spokesman for the pageant declined to comment for this story, but one four-time attendee describes it as "a sit-down dinner" with "not one person out of thousands of people who's not in some kind of drag." He recalls walking into the ballroom by way of the hotel lobby in full female regalia, passing groups of slack-jawed tourists. "There are all these stunned onlookers who watch you walk through," he says -- straight gawkers who get only a glimpse of the festivities before the ballroom doors are shut tight, keeping out straights, troublemakers, and other undesirable elements.

For those of us not on the guest list, the festivities on the streets carry on with a sense of inevitability -- bigger, crazier, straighter every year.

"What I've noticed about the parade," says Fleming, "is it reflects what's going on in the city." New York, like most other big urban areas, has become less of an enclave for eccentrics and outcasts in recent years. Fleming says there were so many strollers at last year's parade that the police asked her how she'd feel about giving them their own separate viewing section. "And I think the gay community changed," she says. "Folks got older. And the issues changed. There's a big difference between fighting to be able to come out and be seen, and fighting for health benefits."

"But I see the parade as being about unconditional love," she continues. "So when I hear people say, 'Oh, it's been taken away from us,' I'm like, wait a minute. Nobody's taking anything away from you. Come to the parade. Come join your family."

As for the Castro, Dufty says the city has an extensive public safety plan in place should crowds show up despite the official cancellation. He says he's persuaded a number of the bars and restaurants to close for the night and that there will be a large police presence. "There will be zero tolerance for any infraction of the law," he says. "We're going to take a hard line with illegal activity early in the evening."

But it's hard to imagine that the party won't happen, regardless of what the city says. Perhaps a good barometer is Sachet, the carnival's best-known attendee. Asked if she'll be partying in the usual place despite the ban, she pauses a moment before confessing, "I live and I work and I love in this community. I'll be celebrating Halloween in the Castro."

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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