Halloween in the Castro
The Halloween celebration held in The Castro district of San Francisco began in the 1940s as a neighborhood costume contest. By the late 1970s, it had shifted from a children's event to a gay celebration that continued to grow into a massive annual street party until 2006 when a shooting wounded nine people and prompted the city to call off the event.
San Francisco's gay Halloween celebration in the early 1960s originally centered on the early gay bars in the Tenderloin district. They had moved there from the North Beach neighborhood which continues to be a magnet for adult entertainment and nightlife. In the late 1960s, the celebration was centered on Grant Avenue in North Beach. From 1970 to 1978, the Halloween celebration was held on Polk Street in Polk Gulch. In 1977 gay-bashers clashed with police and tear-gas was used to disperse the crowds. By 1979, the city's gay village had moved to the Castro and "gay Mardi Gras" followed. The event became known as the leading Halloween celebration in the U.S., where costumes ranged from "the outrageous to the spectacular."  By 2002, Halloween crowds had grown to the hundreds of thousands and became difficult to control.
- 1 History
- 2 Notes
- 3 Bibliography
- 4 External links
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In 1948, Cliff's Variety Store began hosting a children's Halloween festival that featured a costume contest and ice cream-eating contest. By 1979, the Children's Halloween ended as the neighborhood's population shifted from families with children to more single men. But in the mid-90s, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence revived Children's Halloween with an annual party held at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center, including a costume contest and gifts from Cliff's.
Rise of the LGBT population
Halloween in the Castro was tied to the LGBT culture of San Francisco and began in the 1950-1960s in the Tenderloin/Polk street area of the city where the mainstream gay bars were first centralized. The event traces its history to the ostracism of LGBT people in the first half of the 20th century from mainstream culture which led to community identity and using gay bars as a focal point for socializing, networking and organizing politically. After World War II, in the 1940s, the San Francisco Bay Area became a haven for LGBT military personnel who didn't want to go back to their old lives. In the 1950s, a group of gay bars in San Francisco's Tenderloin area helped create a strip of venues for "sex, drugs and late night fun". There has also been a South-of-Market (SoMa) leather subculture and BDSM bar scene with gay-focussed sex clubs sharing Folsom street, a tradition which is carried on with the annual Folsom Street Fair. The nearby business- and tourist-oriented area, Union Square, was also popular for cruising for sex and was open to gay men whereas the Tenderloin was where drag queens, t-girls and prostitutes of all orientations were known to congregate publicly in the city, because they were unwelcome in gay bars at that time.
Since the end of World War II, the major port city of San Francisco had been home to a sizable number of LGBT people expelled from the military who decided to stay rather than return to their hometowns and face ostracism. In addition to those outed militarily there were arguably many more who successfully remained closeted, left voluntarily when able to or never entered the service in the first place. San Francisco's history as a more pluralistic culture allowed for LGBT people to find employment and housing; being a tourism and entertainment destination also meant that more creative- and service-oriented work was available.
José Sarria and political power
Activist and openly gay entertainer José Sarria had served in World War II but afterwards when using the GI Bill to earn a degree he dropped out of college because he wouldn't be able to get work as a teacher. "People were living double lives and I didn't understand it. It was persecution. Why be ashamed of who you are?" At his main performing venue at the time, the Black Cat Bar, he would encourage the customers to stick up for their rights. He exhorted the clientele, "There's nothing wrong with being gay–the crime is getting caught", and "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one". At closing time he would call upon patrons to join hands and sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens" to the tune of "God Save the Queen". Sometimes he would bring the crowd outside to sing the final verse to the men across the street in jail, who had been arrested in raids earlier in the night. Speaking of this ritual in the film Word is Out, gay journalist George Mendenhall said:
It sounds silly, but if you lived at that time and had the oppression coming down from the police department and from society, there was nowhere to turn ... and to be able to put your arms around other gay men and to be able to stand up and sing 'God Save Us Nelly Queens' ... we were really not saying 'God Save Us Nelly Queens.' We were saying 'We have our rights, too.'
Sarria fought against police harassment, both of gays and of gay bars. Raids on gay bars were routine, with everyone inside the raided bar taken into custody and charged with such crimes as being "inmates in a disorderly house". Although the charges were routinely dropped, the arrested patrons' names, addresses and workplaces were printed in the newspapers. When charges were not dropped, the arrested men usually quietly pleaded guilty. Sarria encouraged men to plead not guilty and demand a jury trial. Following Sarria's advice, more and more gay men began demanding jury trials, so many that court dockets were overloaded and judges began expecting that prosecutors have actual evidence against the accused before going to trial. One favored harassment technique, employed especially on Halloween after midnight, was to arrest drag queens under an old city ordinance that made it illegal for a man to dress in women's clothing with an "intent to deceive". In consultation with attorney Melvin Belli, Sarria countered this tactic by distributing labels to his fellow drag queens (hand-made, in the shape of a black cat's head) that read "I am a boy". If confronted, the queen would simply display the tag to prove that there was no intent to deceive. Sarria's actions helped bring an end to Halloween police raids.
Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, becoming the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. Although Sarria never expected to win He almost won one of the five available seats until city officials realised only five candidates had registered. Sarria ended up getting 6,000 votes and finishing in ninth. However the voting stunned the political community who now saw the LGBT community as a voting block with power.
Along with Guy Strait, Sarria formed the League for Civil Education (LCE) in 1960 or 1961. The LCE ran educational programs on the topic of homosexuality and provided support for men being ostracized for being gay and for those caught in police raids. In 1962, Sarria along with bar owners and employees formed the Tavern Guild, the country's first gay business association. The Guild raised money for legal fees and bail for people arrested at gay bars and helped bar owners coordinate their response to the harassment of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the police. Sarria continued to perform and agitate at the Black Cat until, after some 15 years of unrelenting police pressure, the bar lost its liquor license in 1963.
With the demise of the Black Cat, Sarria helped found the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) in 1963. SIR grew out of a split between Sarria and Strait over the direction that LCE was heading; Sarria and his backers wanted to maintain focus on street-level organizing. SIR sponsored both social and political functions, including bowling leagues, bridge clubs, voter registration drives and "Candidates' Nights" and published its own magazine, Vector. In association with the Tavern Guild, SIR printed and distributed "Pocket Lawyers". These pocket-sized guides offered advice on what to do if arrested or harassed by police.
Halloween in the Tenderloin, North Beach, and on Polk Street
Halloween in the Tenderloin grew in the early 1960s with the growing LGBT community and welcomed tourists – who many of the prostitutes and hustlers relied upon for income. By the late 1960s, a major celebration area during Halloween was along Grant Avenue in North Beach, on which there were many gay bars in the late 1960s between Broadway and Union. By 1969, San Francisco had more gay people per capita than any American city; when the National Institute of Mental Health asked the Kinsey Institute to survey homosexuals, the Kinsey Institute chose San Francisco. Beginning in 1970, an annual Halloween celebration was held on Polk Street in Polk Gulch, then still the most important gay neighborhood. By the mid-1970s, Polk Street was overwhelmed and closed to traffic – at least for a few hours - each Halloween to make room for the costumed revelry. In 1979, the adult gay Halloween party moved to Castro Street in The Castro, which by the early 1970s had replaced Polk Gulch as San Francisco's most important gay neighborhood.
The Castro becomes a gay community
The Eureka Valley of San Francisco, where Market and Castro Streets intersect, had for decades been a blue-collar Irish Catholic neighborhood synonymous with the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Parish. Beginning in the 1960s, however, suburbs in Berkeley and Oakland attracted young families with children, and the city's economic base eroded as factories moved to cheaper locations nearby. Mayor Joseph Alioto, proud of his working-class background and supporters, based his political career on welcoming developers and attracting a Cardinal to the city. Many of the blue collar workers–who were also Alioto's supporters–lost their jobs as large corporations with service industry positions replaced factory and dry dock jobs. San Francisco had been "a city of villages": a decentralized city with ethnic enclaves that each surrounded its own main street. As the downtown area developed, neighborhoods suffered, including Castro Street. The Most Holy Redeemer Parish shops shut down, and houses were abandoned and shuttered. In 1963, real estate prices plummeted when most of the working-class families tried to sell their houses quickly after a gay bar opened in the neighborhood. Hippies, attracted to the free love ideals of the Haight-Ashbury area but repulsed by the crime rate, bought some of the cheap Victorian houses. In the 1970s, the LGBT community shifted to the Castro with a string of gay bars opening up and multitudes of gay men filing the sidewalks of the small business district. The Castro became the home of the Halloween event starting in 1979 amid concerns of gay bashing at the Polk street event in the Tenderloin.
Halloween as a "gay" holiday
There are differing and complementary ideas on why LGBT communities, and expressly, gay men, are attracted to the holiday. Throughout the 1980s, Halloween street events in gay villages Key West, Florida, Christopher Street in New York, Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood and the Castro in San Francisco have evolved from informal parades into Mardi Gras-like events with "drinking and dancing and carrying on in the streets". San Francisco's Polk street Halloween developed in the 1970s as people came out and moved to Castro street in 1979. In addition to stereotypes about why LGBT people are attracted to fashion, theatricality and dressing up there are cultural reasons why the events have become "the major holiday" for LGBT people. In addition to the holiday's pagan roots, which is attractive to those who have been shunned by mainstream religions, many LGBT people are able to be outrageous and flamboyant even if they remain closeted. In the days before gay liberation, wearing masks symbolized that most gays were in the closet—if gays were interviewed on TV before 1969, they often wore masks so no one would know their real identity.
According to Bruce Mailman, a gay events organizer, "public partying on Halloween fits into gay liberation in general, being seen and heard" in a heteronormative society where media watchdog groups like GLAAD have had to campaign to ensure that LGBT people are portrayed and done so accurately without perpetuating negative stereotypes. In addition to visibility issues there is also escapism components as the LGBT community dealt with the AIDS pandemic and faced the generally negative domestic policy of the Reagan administration towards LGBT people and the AIDS crisis that was impacting the gay male communities.
On Halloween night in 1989, two weeks after San Francisco was devastated by the 6.9 (Richter scale) Loma Prieta earthquake, the Sisters performed street theater and used donation buckets to collect thousands of dollars for the mayor's Earthquake Relief Fund from the Halloween crowds that poured into The Castro for the massive street party. The group formally added donation gates, a stage and structure to safely manage the event from 1990–1995, until "drunken gay-bashers out to get their kicks" convinced the group the event was unsafe without official city support. In 1995, the Sisters agreed to host a costume-mandatory dance, HallowQueen, in a SoMa gay nightclub – which raised over $6000 for charities – as their contribution to helping move the event out of the mostly residential neighborhood. In multi-year planning discussions on how to address the events challenges, New York City's Village Halloween Parade, the United States' largest Halloween celebration, was often cited as an example of the potential for the event to attract tourists and benefit local businesses as well. Started by Greenwich Village mask maker Ralph Lee in 1973, the evening parade attracts over two million spectators and participants, as well as roughly four million television viewers annually. It is the largest participatory parade in the country if not the world, encouraging spectators to march in the parade. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book on collective joy mentions this as an example of how Halloween is transitioning from a children's holiday to an adult holiday and compares it to Mardi Gras. Halloween is now the United States' second most popular holiday (after Christmas) for decorating; the sale of candy and costumes are also extremely common during the holiday, which is marketed to children and adults alike.
2000 to Present
A decade later, San Francisco still struggled to manage the event. The massive crowds quickly overwhelmed the streets, mass transit and due to the Castro's location along two major transport corridors, disrupting traffic flow well outside the neighborhood.
In 2006, nine people were wounded when a shooter opened fire at the celebration. Halloween in the Castro was canceled, and in the following years a heavy police presence kept the event from happening spontaneously. In 2007, 600 police were deployed in the Castro on Halloween, a practice that continued in 2009 according to a police press release that announced a "zero tolerance policy for public drinking and other crime." By 2010, the city had cracked down completely on Halloween in the Castro, directing celebrants to various balls and parties elsewhere.
In 2009, The Sisters, through their 2009 Pink Saturday Grants program, donated money to an opera about Halloween in the Castro produced by the Lesbian and Gay Chorus of San Francisco. The opera ran in the Castro at MCC for two weeks, culminating in a final performance on Halloween night.  In hindsight, the Sisters were seen as a bargain of sorts, raising money every year for charity without city funds while keeping the chaos under control by providing entertainment and structure. They continue to stage and consult on large city events like Folsom Street Fair and Pink Saturday. The city, through the Entertainment Commission established in the early 2000s, is charged with addressing the ongoing issues of Halloween in the city with widespread agreement the Castro can no longer be the focus of a citywide celebration.
As of 2011, the City of San Francisco's official site on the topic states:
"Halloween belongs to all of us. Following last year’s successful campaign to keep everyone safe and maintain the Castro’s tranquility, we’re continuing and expanding the Home for Halloween campaign. Like last year there is no party or special event in the Castro. However, there are lots of events and celebrations around San Francisco, throughout the Bay Area and right in your own “home” neighborhood!
This October 31st, bars and restaurants in the Castro will be open for business. However, as was the case last year the streets will not be closed to traffic. As in every other community in the City, there will be zero tolerance for behavior which doesn’t respect the celebrated diversity of our communities. And again like last year, there will be zero tolerance for individuals and businesses that do not obey alcohol consumption and distribution regulations. The Home For Halloween website will help promote your events so please let us know about what you have planned in your community.
The Castro is not appropriate for a party with 100,000 people. So, the Home For Halloween campaign enters its second year of celebrating Halloween throughout the Bay Area and encouraging people to respect everyone’s home, including the Castro. With your support, we can indeed make Halloween a “home” for celebrations that are fun, festive and respectful. Halloween is for everyone."
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- Halloween In The Castro – San Francisco city official event website archived version from 2008 with press releases and news updates.