Transgender People & Halloween, There’s Just More To It
By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—
If you’re reading this column, there’s a better than even chance you probably have some idea that Halloween figures quite large in the formative experiences of a lot of trans folks, myself absolutely included. Indeed, for years my own go-to Halloween costume was some version of “girl-drag.”
I would choose to dress as a scary witch, or a stewardess, or Joan of Arc. And honestly, it was an easy costume. After all, I often had the clothes already, tucked away in a box deep in the back of my bedroom closet. And if I didn’t, it was an excellent excuse to buy more!
Over the years, I have talked to enough other trans people, particularly trans women, but also trans men and non-binary folks, to know that this is a pretty widespread experience. Halloween is a time that many of us, trans and cis, use to express our aspirational identities. The things we secretly—or not so secretly—want to be.
And for a lot of trans folks, Halloween can often be the only chance we get to experiment with being our true selves in public. Sometimes it’s the first time we’ve left our own rooms and stood in front of actual people dressed in the clothes, and some approximation of the identities, we want to wear. One particular Halloween for me was even the excuse that finally cracked my last-ditch attempt at pretending to be a boy.
When I moved to L.A., for the first and only time in my life, I threw out all my girl clothes and made a concerted effort to shut off that side of me. But when that final attempt at denying my identity began to crumble, it was a Halloween party I was throwing with my roommates at The COG Theatre (our home/underground theatre/wild-party-art-space) that gave me an excuse to be a girl again.
I went shopping for pretty things! Clothes, shoes, makeup, stockings, oh my! In point of fact, my “Sharon Tate” costume for that party was essentially the beta version of what would become the Lorelei Erisis you all know and love today. I was so happy and felt so comfortable in my skin, and my clothes that night, for the first time in years.
It was magical. Truly.
And once that party was over, there was just no going back. A few weeks later, I told the woman I had only just begun dating that I was a girl, and was seriously considering transitioning. She, fortunately, had already noticed the prominently displayed wig from the Sharon Tate costume in my room, among other not-very-hidden details, and was quite unsurprised, and very supportive. After that, there was never really any looking back.
But so, it’s entirely possible you are not unfamiliar with much of this. A brief Internet search for “trans” and “Halloween” will turn up more than a few articles on this very subject. Often heartfelt stories of what Halloween means for trans people. Some are quite touching. However, the point I want to make here is a little more (but not less) than what Halloween means to me.
I want to remind folks to be patient, thoughtful, and kind this Halloween season. Particularly, the ones reading this who at this point are just skimming through to leave a comment underneath about how my use of “scary witch” and “stewardess” are highly inappropriate.
I know, you’re right, they are. And, I will promptly make my apologies to the Wiccans and Flight Attendants in my life. Most particularly because I did that very intentionally to make the point that Halloween can get pretty messy.
People who only get this one chance a year to dress up in highly-gendered ways—that normally feel forbidden—are often going to get a little blinded by the combination of excitement, and limited experience. They are absolutely going to buy the, “Sexy Stewardess” costume and not really think through the feminist implications and misogynistic message that the costume is sending. They’re probably just going to think, “Yaaaayyyy!! I feel so cute and sexy and girly!”
And even when the outfit isn’t perpetuating some outdated stereotype or harmful appropriation, there’s a good chance it might come across as what we think of as, “bad drag,” even if that was absolutely not the intention.
For a person raised in a gender that feels wrong, who might have extremely limited opportunities to explore a gender that feels right and also learn the finer points of gender presentation, it can be very hard not to make mistakes—sometimes, pretty embarrassing ones.
I can actually remember a whole Catholic schoolgirl look that I, myself, was working very early on, when I had just begun playing with gender publicly that was unfortunate. Let’s just say I’m really happy camera [smart] phones weren’t yet a thing.
And, some will make “guy-in-a-dress” choices as smokescreens designed to send the message that, “really, this is totally just a costume. I’m not really a chick. I’m a dude. Seriously. Total dudeage. Really. Honest. …. But, ya know, I’m actually kinda hot though, right? Guys? Guys?”
I have 100 percent known trans folks who did this long before they came out.
Don’t think I’m trying to give anyone permission to be culturally appropriative; or get away with doing blackface. Or, to do really transphobic or overtly misogynistic drag, or any of the myriad other offenses Halloween can be used as an excuse for, or that you should be okay with others doing those things.
Those are not good things. It’s important for us all to be aware of them, and talk about them, and let people know when they have crossed a really bad line.
What I am asking is that you take a moment to check yourself before you make a comment or call someone out this Halloween. Think for a minute. Take a breath. Particularly if there seems to be some transgressively-gendered element to a costume.
Yeah, it might be some bro just being a misogynistic douche. But it might also be a scared, very closeted, trans girl taking a very brave chance on wearing the scariest costume of all: Her true self.
It’s not necessarily going to be possible for you to know the answer to that in that moment.
Your well-intentioned, but harsh comments might be just the thing it takes to convince a trans person tentatively sticking their toes into the gendered water to go right back into the closet. Comments like that can have sticking power that stays with a trans person for years afterwards, even if they do eventually come out.
So this Halloween, take a step back. Remember that identity is super complicated and we don’t all have the tools to explore even our own in the most sensitive and well-informed ways. And, we will make mistakes—all of us.
But, sometimes it’s not the mistakes we make. It’s how we grow from them, and what we learn. And how we treat others when they make mistakes themselves.
* Lorelei Erisis is an improviser, storyteller, activist, adventurer, pageant queen and the proud owner of at least one really cute, vintage dress that makes her totally look like a retro flight attendant. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to dress up as a character of another race than yourself, do it! But do it in your own skin; don’t attempt to change your skin color with makeup. (Also stay away from racially associated hair styles such as dreadlocks.) A white person playing Black Panther is as valid as a black Superman or Wonder Woman. Those are honoring the characters, not appropriating them.
Alien races with non-human skin colors are another matter. If you really want to wear full face or body paint to be another race, be Na’vi or Vulcan, or even a Smurf if you roll that way.