Toronto
3 min

Trying it on for size

Halloween is to queer people as Christmas is to Christians. Do you remember those logic questions in the kids’ game IQ 2000? They were like, “Foot is to shoe as hand is to…?” Glove. Or oven mitt. Or giant plush dinosaur claw or whatever.

The point is our queer community loves Halloween — the art of dressing up, going out, engaging in spectacle. It is a holiday of adults reclaiming one of the prime joys of childhood — rummaging through the tickle trunk and assuming the character of someone, or something, else.

Queer adults definitely get how to do Halloween right. However I don’t think we are using this holiday to its true potential for our children. Looking back on my own childhood costumes I realize a lot more could have been done to capitalize on the one day a year when we were encouraged to defy the constraints of our everyday identities. To the tickle trunk and beyond!

As a kid I spent approximately three years under a white sheet with holes cut out for the eyes and arms. It was cheap and easy and you could fit an entire winter parka underneath it, which was my parents’ main criterion for a good costume for a Canadian street event in October. A ghost is gender-neutral and asexual, an amorphous blob that didn’t do much for my exploration of identity one way or the other. Do you remember how obsessed school was with handing out those reflective stickers? A ghost was a very safe costume, Elmer the Safety Elephant-approved.

I spent a year as a flower and a year as a flower girl, the former sewed by mom for the cause and the latter leftover from my aunt’s wedding. Small and dainty was a stretch for me and these costumes, both being decidedly feminine, felt a little silly but they got me good candy so I guess they were all right. I can’t remember if I picked them or not.

I spent a year as a witch with an eyeliner wart, two years as a punk rocker singing into a styrofoam ball on a stick with cut-off mini gloves and this random white skirt from my “church clothes” collection. I definitely tended toward girl-based costumes, though I’m not sure if it was due to external pressures, internal pressures or both. Monsters, goblins, vampires, anything that snarled and drooled blood wasn’t an option — much too unlady-like. My demons, including anger and the healthy expression of it, have always been in disguise. It would have done me good to snarl for a while, snort into the cheezies bowl and not necessarily attribute those ghoulish characters with male identity which, like anger, I was not allowed to play at or bring out.

I talk a lot about childhood because so much of my specific struggle as a queer adult is linked to things that happened when I was a child. Not coincidentally I have chosen to work with kids where I see the types of things that went wrong for me and consider how to correct them. Much of what was damaging in my life was the unintended result of well-meaning adults, who were afraid of my identity, of its social determinants and its reflection on them as parents and teachers and as good straight, often Christian, citizens.

Imagine a study unit in grade school called My (Not So) Secret Identity. We’d study the history of costuming, crossdressing, makeup and masks. Who are you? What do you look like at your best? What do you look like at your supposed worst? If you were an animal, what would you be? A colour, a candy, a caricature? If you were a superhero what would your superpower be? Did you ever want to change something about yourself? What would need to happen for you to be okay with yourself every single day? What do you think you are not allowed to be, or afraid of being?

Kids get self-directed anger, how devastating it is to let adults down, and we get, especially as queer adults, how it contributes to them becoming separated from the development of their own unique identity. In my fantasy study unit kids would be assisted, through the work of guest artists, to design a costume that is meaningful, original and a good exploration of those aspects of identity that tend to get buried on other days of the year.

It seems obvious that if we spend more time allowing our children to explore identity when they’re young, they will spend less time feeling lost in their own skin as adults. As every art therapist knows, it is in play that the serious stuff comes out.

I’ve written before about the chicken and egg of my gender identity, how I don’t know which came first: The feeling that I wasn’t fully a girl or my perception of my body as not girl enough. It took me 29 years to do a good boy on Halloween. It doesn’t have to be so literal, but it can be that liberating.