The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Halloween is ‘gay Christmas’ for many in the LGBTQ community. This year, it has been canceled.

Chanel Devereaux, 40, the longtime host of drag events at Nellie's Sports Bar, has seen 90 percent of her income disappear this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

This was going to be the year that Halloween fell on a Saturday.

For the weeks leading up to it, Chanel Devereaux, a drag queen and longtime host at Nellie’s Sports Bar in Washington, would have lined up performances across town. She would have sewn more than a dozen extravagant costumes for other drag queens and painted scores of friends’ faces for the long-running High Heel Race on 17th Street in Dupont Circle and the Miss Adams Morgan Pageant. The month of October alone would have brought in about a quarter of Devereaux’s annual income.

“Halloween is what I affectionately call the High Holy Days of drag,” Devereaux said.

But almost all of those plans have been called off because of the coronavirus pandemic. Devereaux had already lost more than 90 percent of her annual income, ever since the District halted live performances in restaurants and clubs. Now, the most important time of the year for drag performers is effectively canceled.

“I’m pretty much assuming that Halloween is just a no-go this year,” she said.

The pandemic is putting a damper on a holiday known for trick-or-treating children and festivities for adults. There is no haunted house this year at the Field of Screams in Rockville, although it has opened its haunted trails with distancing restrictions. Night of the Living Zoo is off. The annual ’80s Halloween dance party at the Black Cat will be virtual. And for many in the LGBTQ community, the pandemic means missing out on their most beloved holiday, a celebration that for generations offered a chance to dress however they please and to be whomever they want.

It’s a season that reminds Devereaux, a transgender woman, of some of the happiest moments of her childhood. Growing up in a poor family on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, her mother couldn’t afford to buy her a Halloween costume. So for six years in a row, Devereaux wore what her mother had at home — a witch costume. And she loved it.

“It probably was the one time of the year when I truly could feel like me,” she said. Even now, at 40, she still feels a deep connection to the holiday. “Halloween is the one time of the year when you can think outside of the box and it’s okay. … The rules of right, wrong, normal, not normal, straight, gay, male and female are all blurred.”

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For the queer community in D.C., the holiday extends beyond one night of parties. Events catering to the community are typically planned throughout the month of October, known as LGBTQ History Month, and many of those have now taken place only online. The National Trans Visibility March during the first weekend of October was mostly virtual. SMYAL, a group that supports LGBQ youths in D.C., was unable to host its National Coming Out Day dance and hosted its popular fall brunch virtually.

“We were really hopeful that at least since, in the summer, we weren’t able to celebrate Pride … we would be able to in October,” said Addison Moore, who runs drop-in programs for LGBTQ youths at SMYAL.

Instead, the organization is one of many that has had to find new ways to celebrate the month’s festivities. Capital Pride Alliance organized an Out Brigade, encouraging people to decorate cars, bicycles, scooters and other vehicles to travel in a caravan through all eight wards on Saturday.

But many events have been called off entirely. Among them is the High Heel Race, an event that began in the historically gay neighborhood of Dupont in 1986 and draws hundreds of people annually to see drag queens covered in glitter and sky-high wigs, racing down 17th Street in pumps, platforms and stilettos. Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, confirmed that the event — which for the past two years has been organized by the city — has been canceled because of the public health crisis.

Dozens of other parties, costume contests and drag shows would usually take place at bars and restaurants across the city.

David Perruzza, the owner of the gay bar Pitchers and the lesbian bar A League of Her Own in Adams Morgan, said he would usually start off the month of October decking out the two bars with skeletons; last year, he hired an artist to create a massive clown. His bartenders would give out free drink tickets to the patrons with the best Halloween costumes. “It’s gay Christmas,” Perruzza said.

But this year, Perruzza can’t afford to buy Halloween decorations for the bars. And he’s prohibited from hiring drag queens to perform in the venues because of D.C.'s ban on live performances in most restaurants and bars, and a requirement that all music remain at a conversational level.

For generations, Halloween has been closely intertwined with queer culture, historians say. Long before Pride parades were embraced by mainstream society, Halloween was the time of year when those in the LGBTQ community could freely express themselves with less fear of harassment. In the 1960s, in places such as New York and San Francisco, the gay community threw large parties and street parades.

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At a time when many states still had laws prohibiting cross-dressing, “it was the only day you could wear drag and not be arrested,” said Michael Bronski, a professor of women and gender studies at Harvard University and author of “A Queer History of the United States for Young People.”

“The thing about gay communities is that you needed to be invisible to be safe, but you needed to be visible to other gay people at the same time,” Bronski said. “A public Halloween party in New York would be the perfect place for gay people to dress up and meet other people.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the hospitality industry took hold of the holiday and began organizing large parties for adults in restaurants and bars, essentially appropriating the gay celebrations of the 1960s, said Nicholas Rogers, professor emeritus at York University who wrote the book “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.” In many ways, the gay community helped turn Halloween into the adult party holiday that it is today, Rogers said.

Halloween has been Molly Stratton’s favorite holiday ever since he was a child. “This was the one night a year I got to be a dinosaur,” said Stratton, a 34-year-old D.C. resident who identifies as nonbinary and transmasculine.

For many in the transgender community, the holiday is a milestone of sorts. Some of Stratton’s transgender friends first came out, or first embraced their gender identity, on Halloween in years past. So each Halloween is an anniversary, a celebration with fellow queer friends.

“It’s like the big community get-together,” he said. “It’s not your blood family holiday; it’s the chosen family holiday.”

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Before the pandemic, Stratton was planning on taking several days off work for Halloween, to carve pumpkins, decorate his house and go to Halloween-themed burlesque shows. He had been putting together items for a goth fairy costume since last year and already had two other costumes in the works: a headdress made of horns and flowers, covered in glitter, and a costume inspired by the supervillain Doctor Doom.

Now Stratton will probably stay inside for the holiday, cooking with roommates and asking friends to share scary stories over Zoom.

Devereaux, the drag queen, is also trying to find ways to squeeze some joy — and much-needed income — out of the holiday. She managed to find a gig last weekend performing in a drag brunch in Rehoboth Beach, Del., one of the few places within driving distance of D.C. where local drag queens can still find work. Other queens are doing virtual shows on Facebook live, hoping to get a few tips from viewers at home. Devereaux is also bringing in a little cash sewing costumes for the few people she knows who are still finding opportunities to perform.

But Devereaux worries about the friends she sees on her Facebook feed, fellow drag queens who seem isolated and depressed.

“I’m like, ‘Well, honey, do what you can, even if you put your makeup on and you get pretty just to walk around the house,’ ” she said. “Do something.”

That’s probably what Devereaux will be doing in her apartment on Oct. 31, she said.

“I’m just going to sit there and watch ‘Hocus Pocus’ in a Halloween costume, eating Almond Joys,” she said.