In her monthly column for Document, acclaimed writer and theorist McKenzie Wark explores the catharsis of Halloween and the minefield of going home for the holidays
For queer folks, there’s nothing scary about Halloween—it’s Thanksgiving that’s the nightmare. It comes with the chilling reminder that one’s racist uncle and homophobic aunt are not outliers, but represent a broad swath of the country—that we’re not welcome at what was once considered home.
And then—for those of us whose version of family has grown complicated over time—there are the negotiations. How will I see my kids and co-parent, and see my girlfriend Jenny and our circle, and go dancing with the gaggle of queer ravers who, in yet a third sense of the word, are also some kind of family to me? Finding home within so many people is hardly a nightmare, but still. It gave me at least one stress dream, in which I’m trying to work the calendar on my phone while it melts into goo.
From the start, Halloween and Thanksgiving give queer kids some clues about all this. At Halloween, American children learn that strangers can be kind, and might reward them for creative self-expression. Then comes Thanksgiving, when they learn that their families can be complete assholes, ranting about putting queers (who those same kids suspect they might be) into camps—and not the fun kind.
The Halloween rave is an adult celebration built from those cultural lessons. The one I like is fetishwear-themed. It’s run by a popular party promoter. It lost its underground cachet some years ago, but it reliably puts on a professionally run night and morning in temporary spaces, filled with darkness, fog, and jet-engine-loud techno. Last year, it took over an empty Manhattan office block. This year, it was a bare-bones warehouse space. Not hard to find, once you spotted the black leather and vinyl-clad bodies lined up outside.
Much of that fetish gear is brand new, bought for the occasion. There’s a lot of straight vanilla here. I don’t mind. Before I came out as trans, that would have been me. Experimenting with different presentations of gender and sexuality was one of the things that helped me find who I’d rather be. I’m wearing a cracked black leather garter belt from back in those days.
The couple at the front of the line argue with the door bitch. Don’t ever be those people. When you’re chopped, you’re chopped. Keep your dignity, just walk away. When Jenny and I get to the front, I give the door bitch a quick hug. She knows me, but this isn’t a time to chat, as it is one of the most unpleasant nights she’ll work all year. Big holiday events, thrown by the more visible promoters, bring out the crowds unfamiliar with the customs of the rave.
“At Halloween, American children learn that strangers can be kind, and might reward them for creative self-expression. Then comes Thanksgiving, when they learn that their families can be complete assholes.”
Once we’re inside, we get water and take a tour of the space. They’ve done a fine job. There’s a big room for techno and a smaller one for house music. I prefer techno, but the house room has more of a vibe, so we end up there first. Earplugs in, we tunnel through the crowd to the front. There’s sharp elbows out this morning. Some raves are about dissipating aggression, and it’s one of those. Not my favorite, but this time, I’m feeling it, too. Most of us have jobs where we have to play nice all the time—so long as the rave dissipates more aggression than it generates, it’s working.
Jenny decides to hang back while I claim my favorite spot, right beneath the sub bass bin. I like to feel it with my whole body. I’m sardined between what I take to be a straight couple and a straight girl with her gay friends. Everyone is white. This party is an expensive ticket, and this is a bourgeois crowd. The kind that’s aggressive in a passive way. Frankly, I’m like that too, so I fit right in.
The straight girl with the gay friends keeps bumping into me—her dancing style takes up a lot of space. She keeps reaching through me to get her water bottle like I’m not there, and then glaring at me. It’s a feature of the bourgeois partier to think of space on the dance floor as private property. I find Jenny. We get water, and try the techno room instead.
It’s a little less densely packed. We find a good spot. The mushrooms work their biochemical magic. We’re gone, into the rave, into that sideways time. We could keep going, but the party ends right at 8 a.m. It’s not one of those homey affairs where, if the dancers are into it, things roll on through the morning. The nightlife workers here want to pack up and go home—or on to their own afterparties.
Filing out, calling a car in the cool morning, I wonder how many people will have really good sex after the party. Of course, it’s the kind where you can have sex during the party—there’s a darkroom for that. But I’m wondering about the energy people bring home with them. Almost everyone put on display some notion of the sexual schema of their body: of how its surfaces interact with others, with the world, in a sexual mode. The clichés of leather, vinyl, boots, stockings, harnesses, chains bring the sexual schema of the body to the surface even on the vanilla-sex body. Maybe especially on the vanilla body.
You’d think you’d be tired after the rave, but it’s energizing. That’s why there are after parties. Sometimes you need another party to wind down after the party. Or, sometimes, you need to go home and fuck hard. A good Halloween rave puts its finger on the surface tension of sexuality, that liquid feeling in which bodies find themselves bobbing in the current.
Adult Halloween is for sex for its own sake, for the intensity it brings to being bodies, pods of flesh and nerve. By accidental design, American culture gets that out of the way before we move on to Thanksgiving. To the consequences of proper sex as the straight world sees it—family. That difficult time for transsexuals, queers, and freaks. One of the things we learn, and maybe both these annual celebrations help teach us, is that just as there’s more than one way to have sex, there’s more than one way to make family.