In Philadelphia, my hometown, Halloween once belonged to drag queens. It was the one day of the year they could parade through the streets in their finest wear without any fear of harassment or arrest from Philly’s Finest.
Many cities, including Philly, had laws against “impersonating the opposite sex.” In order not to violate this law, a drag queen had to wear two articles of male clothing at all times or run the risk of having the books thrown at her.
On Halloween, the boys in blue looked the other way, as queens gathered in two spots in downtown Philly -- in the 13th and Locust street area which was a popular hangout for queens, and along a section of South Street that was heavily African American. According to City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 (by Marc Stein), the parade at 13th and Locust was mostly white, while the one on South street was predominantly African American.
Starting in the 40s before I was born and continuing into the early 60s when I was just reaching puberty, those Halloween parades became a local and regional sensation, though I never heard about them until after I came out. Straight and gay people alike gathered every year along the sidewalks to watch the queens pass by, usually without incident.
Those parades were, I believe, the first gay pride marches in the city, pre-dating the official event sponsored by a coalition of queer organizations in 1972. I was a member of that coalition, representing the Gay Liberation Front at Temple University where I was a student. We thought we had invented pride, but obviously someone beat us to the punch. Queens have always led the way in the queer community (the Compton’s and Stonewall riots, for instance) because they were not able to hide in the closet.
Queens also participated in the annual Mummer’s Day Parade on New Year’s Day, a chance for inebriated working-class men to wear feathers and play banjos as they walked down the cold streets. Since no women were allowed in the event, queens dazzled the crowds that lined up along Broad Street to watch, sometimes winning awards for their costumes.
By their demise in the early 60s, hundreds, some say thousands, came to watch the drag parades every Halloween night. Why they ended is not clear. Some believe that Frank Rizzo, the tough cop turned police commissioner whose philosophy was “spacco il capo” (split their heads), as he described it, stopped those parades because he was homophobic. Other say it was because they became unsafe when gangs began frequenting them and harassing the queens.
In the late 80s, I was working for the Philadelphia Gay News and went on assignment with Publisher Mark Segal when he interviewed Rizzo, who was then running for mayor. Mark asked Rizzo about those parades and why they were stopped. Rizzo claimed it was because a queen had been murdered.
There’s no record of such a murder.
Whatever the reason, the parades came to an abrupt end and a tradition died. These days, few people know that, for almost two decades, those brave queens created a safe space and a safe place to be themselves, to proclaim to the world that there was absolutely nothing wrong with who they were.