Guest Blog Post from Joe Wos, a Pittsburgh based cartoonist and storyteller. He discovered some interesting material about the history of Halloween in early 20th century Pittsburgh. The media coverage of gender normative behavior isn’t that far off from current misinformation around gender identity and gender expression. You can find Joe on Twitter @WosIsMe
Imagine a wild parade in the street, colorful confetti pouring down on men clad in rainbow-colored clothing. Thousands of people dressed in outlandish costumes. Women dressed as men, and men dressed as women! All openly expressing their “true selves” through one day of outlandish behavior as police looked on carefully watching for anyone crossing the line of clearly defined laws regarding gender and indecency.
If you imagined a Pride march in the early 1970’s think again.
In reality it describes the scene of a Halloween parade in Pittsburgh PA, in the year 1907.
It could have been any city in the 1900’s. There were strict morality laws that forbade women from dressing as men, or men as women. But on Halloween, publicly dictated norms seemed to dissipate. However, the enforcement of laws regarding gender remained in full effect.
On Halloween 1913 in Pittsburgh, PA, several women were arrested after dressing as men and attempting to enter a pub. That same night three boys appearing in “feminine costumes ” were arrested as well. There crime was dressing as women.
Cross-dressing on Halloween is a tradition dating back to the holiday’s early origins as a Celtic “pagan” celebration known as Samhain. It was a purposeful rite designed to both confuse spirits and disrupt the order of things. Samhain, and its later incarnation as Halloween, was a holiday that celebrated a blatant disregard for society’s “normality” and encouraged mischievous and even socially unacceptable behavior.
During the early 1900’s gender bending costumes were a part of Halloween celebrations, one that was often frowned upon and yet still practiced. In that era women in particular were under increased scrutiny and persecution. With the suffragette movement in full swing nationwide any women acting in a manner comparative to their male counterparts could be arrested.
But in 1914 Pittsburgh’s Police department publicly declared they would not arrest women caught dressed in men’s clothing during the Halloween festivities.
It was the first time in Pittsburgh that a woman could dress in men’s attire without being accosted by the police.
It is a landmark moment that could be quickly overlooked or dismissed.
It’s easy to regard the crossdressing activity as just heterosexual men and women dressing up as a lark. However, consider the importance of these early Halloween parades to transgender and crossdressing people of that era. Cross-dressing was not only unacceptable it was illegal and regarded as one of many illegal “unnatural acts” related to expression of one’s sexuality.
Parades and festivities like the ones celebrated in Pittsburgh took place nationwide during the early 1900’s. They allowed for a night to freely express oneself while still remaining safely in the closet. A single evening to be yourself without fear of public humiliation, degradation and arrest! Those festivities also allowed for open experimentation as boys took on the persona as girls, and vice versa. It offered plausible deniability in the guise of costumed revelry.
There is no way of knowing how many in those parades lived closeted lives. But even if only a few LGBTQ individuals took part, they were perhaps the first to march publicly in the streets expressing their true genders and sexuality under the protective spirit of the holiday.
Making Halloween a truly gay occasion in the early 1900s.