Velveteen Dreams: Living every day like Halloween
Ghouls and goblins, it’s Halloween. I’m going to go ahead and assume that a good half of the people reading this column also happen to have at the very least been sent a gays on Halloween meme from @best_of_grindr on Instagram (we share a demographic or two), but Halloween is historically and stereotypically a fairly big stink in the gay community. The last two weeks of October are really the only time of the year where you can get away with throwing a costume party. For many, they also offer up a few rare opportunities to “feel the fantasy,” so to speak — cosplaying, referencing, realizing whatever vision you have for yourself, doing the absolute most while wearing the absolute least — whether that means getting into full drag or slapping on a harness with a pair of booty shorts and calling it a night.
In his 2018 essay collection “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” Alexander Chee recounts getting into drag for the first time on Halloween sometime in his early 20s. He realized during the process that not only could he “pass” as a woman, but that he felt beautiful and at home in his skin in a way that he hadn’t before. As with all of the essays in that book, Chee seems to effortlessly communicate all of the factors that work into its general narrative, so any brief recapitulation of his work is reductive at best (the chapter was about what it means to “pass” in respect to both race and gender, as well as the simultaneous feelings of power and peril that come with being a target of the male gaze), but it’s only fitting that a cultural free-for-all like Halloween gave Chee and his then-boyfriend the keys to experience themselves through a different lens.
Communities that are subject to discrimination have a tendency to turn on themselves in ways that run parallel to their oppressors, but that’s not news. In Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” he argues that “the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor.” Infighting in the gay community over what’s considered attractive and what expressions are acceptable is rampant, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Nobody hates gay people more than gay people, and you can’t hate a person with the same level of efficacy and ruinousness as they can themselves.
What you end up seeing are segmented groups within the larger community of men who all look the same and act the same. You get tiny little bleach blonde microcosms that cling to any shred of normative masculinity they see in themselves, using it as a leverage point over anyone who dares to venture outside of the agreed-upon vernacular. And that can take on any shape — jockiness, fashion but not that kind of fashion, drag but not weird drag, leftist intellectualism that’s too evolved to listen to Ariana Grande unironically or without drafting up a verbal think piece about how formulaic expressions of femininity are rainbow capitalism. You get rich white gays that use their primordial, Luciferian fall from the privilege they feel entitled to as an excuse for abject bigotry. It’s a mess out there; I should know. Consciously or not, we cling to the privileges that we have as a means of protection against the straight, rich, white and cis-gendered, and in doing so wind up doing the dirty work for them.
This is precisely why Halloween has the power that it does. Not to say that normalizing functions cease entirely, or that everybody ceases to exist in a sociopolitical shit smoothie that strongly encourages the self-censorship and queer sectarianism that I so roughly outlined, but in it lies a hope for something else. It’s an idea, a chance to escape oneself or better yet, delve a little deeper into what it is that we really want. No, I’m not referring to going sexy carrot full-time, but a space in which we can be a sexy carrot and have it not invoke a debilitating sense of fear. We could all be the person that gets to screech along to “God is a woman,” or be the weird drag queen or just be able to live without feeling the call to answer for it. Self-discovery doesn’t happen outside of spaces where you’re given the license to do so. That might be Oct. 31, that might be on drag night at a local bar, that might be in your bedroom. But if we can walk around a public setting in a cropped sweater set and miniskirt as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then we can only hope to take a little bit of that energy to our day to day lives.