Halloween is the high holiday for crossdressers. It isn’t a good day for all other transpeople, though.
Back in the 1990s, I gave a blurb for the local trans groups Halloween party to the gay & lesbian council’s newsletter.
“I fixed your piece,” the president told me. “You said the event was a kickoff to the Halloween season. It isn’t a season, it’s only a day!”
He didn’t understand the freedom that Halloween represented in those days of closets and fear. October was the month they could shop for anything with costume as the cover, the time when they found every possible party, and the moment when they could ask for help with social indulgence.
The best years were when Halloween fell on a Wednesday, because that meant two weekends and a whole week full of events, of excuses, of cover.
The problem with Halloween, though, is one of the key problems that the brilliant Jen Richards pointed out about cis men playing trans women. Audiences think that trans is the performance, not the character.
It doesn’t matter if you dress like a princess or a witch or an historical character or a rock star, or someone from fiction & fantasy, people identify the costume as being a guy-in-a-dress. The crossdressing is the point, not the expression.
If you see yourself as a woman everyday, being reduced to a guy-in-a-dress because you choose to wear a costume on Halloween just sucks. It sucks in the same way seeing an actor get kudos for dressing up as trans sucks to actresses who live their lives as transwomen, who can bring character not just caricature to the role of a transperson.
Vice news did a piece on the Act Out classes run by Brad Calcaterra. His goal is to help gay, lesbian and transpeople to trust impulse, moving past the strategies of concealment they learned when they were shamed in their formative years.
The New York Times did a piece in 2010, which specifically talks about the challenges Jamie Clayton found as an actress who wasn’t queer looking enough to play trans in a way casting directors found easy for an audience to code, but who was too queer to play cis women. Like so many of us, she fell into the cracks between neatly coded expectations and became invisible, hidden behind imaginary walls of separation.
Training as actors, though, revolves around shows, not real life, within the bounds of what will thrill and delight an audience, be that a big commercial audience or a small artsy audience. For most of us, the challenge isn’t playing characters on a stage but mastering the characters we play in everyday life.
When I planned that Halloween party, so many years ago, I asked people not to come in costume but instead in character. For me the powerful possibilities of masquerade are not about covering up who you are with something big and comfortable but rather about revealing a facet of you that you keep hidden from the world.
“It’s not easy to be in a mixed marriage,” I asked one woman whose husband came as a zombie. She immediately smiled and played along, offering how when bits fell off of him now rather than bothering sewing them back on she just called the dog. It was an exercise of imagination and play for her, not just an excuse to look hot or get wasted.
Trying on is mostly how kids see Halloween, a time to make a bold claim and try on the skin of someone or something that they want to invoke in their life. The costumes may be simple, but they invoke power and possibility.
All this changes, of course, when costumes become more about the audience than the impulse, trying to be attractive rather than be bold, individual and unique. When they become about fitting in, just about an excuse for getting wasted, hope is lost.
There are moments, though, playful moments I found on Halloween, that live with me. None of them ever lead to anything past that night, though, to converting revelation into life, but those moments counted, at least to me if not to those who had to be normative again the next day.
For people like me, Halloween never really ends, because we always have to be aware of the power of costume and performance. Others may drop back to a normative and unconsidered expression the day after, but it is rarely so easy for transpeople who need to convey meaning past expectations every day.
Spaces that offered freedom of expression, encouraging play and experimentation were vital to us as we emerged in the world. We needed that kind of open affirmation as we tried on new expressions to reveal parts of ourselves that got hidden behind the conventional.
Emerging, though, isn’t something that stops at a certain time. It’s easy to get stuck at a certain point, easy to get trapped in a comfortable expression that hides much of the special energy that we carry within.
Festivals of expression allow us to swing the pendulum wide, trying on something so bold, brash and outrageous that it would be scary in everyday life. By invoking, though, we can claim pieces of ourselves that were always there but got submerged under our mundane self.
“In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.”
Taking time to remember that we are not just the role we are thrust into everyday, the one we wear so diligently, helps us find not only a broader connection to others but also a deeper connection to the hidden parts of us.
The elements of all this power exist in festivals like Halloween, and as a transperson, I teased them out when I needed them.
Today, though, the commercial Halloween has taken the fore, just like the machine made red shoes ready to trap us in a seductive and draining Eros.
I long for playfulness and abandon, for the safe zone to try on something new.
When done well, the Halloween Season can bring us many deep rewards of imagination, moving beyond boundaries and emergence.
Today, though, it mostly feels to be about status and surface.
For me, that’s what makes Halloween scary.