When Halloween was a drag queen celebration in Detroit

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When the Allies began defeating the Axis Powers in World War II, a cautious celebratory mood took hold in Detroit’s gay clubs.

Downtown Farmer and Bates back streets, home to the bars of Rio Grande, Silver Dollar, and LaRosa, became less mysterious. More lighthearted and obvious (the Palais bar nearby was a notorious dyke heaven).

With Halloween buzzing around in 1944, the Great Night of Enchantment became an occasion for daring celebrations. After Prohibition ended in 1933, boarding the drags was accomplished without too much commotion – or cross-dressing arrests – but only once a year.

During the war years, Detroit’s non-military gays – those 40 or older, or those classified as 4F with “homosexual tendencies” – along with straight people with flat feet (not necessarily because of high heels) kept house fires on and factories on 24 hours Day / 7.

This service declines – no reference to more recent biblical “Left behind“- were in a party mood. The war in Europe was coming to an end. In the end! So why not celebrate?

What better time than the only day that you can cross-dress with no penalty, threat of detention or, if your makeup is thick enough, recognition?

The queens’ first Halloween show drew 25 or 30 brave guests. Those in other costumes, around 50.

Some wore rhinestone tiaras and sequined titles over their large canary-filled boobies.

Miss Victory Garden, Red Cross Rita’s Revenge, Rosey Rivet Me and Miss Harry James’ Trumpet (husband of Betty Grables bandleader). It was great fun.

War-relieved and tired Detroit police officers looked away.

Every year after the end of World War II, Halloween should trump the last one. The meetings grew large. Rather extravagant.

At some point in the early 1950s, roads were cordoned off. Hundreds came to watch and applaud and “Ooo!” and “Ah!” to the queens who arrived in convertibles and on roller skates. All behaved.

In 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots, things got out of hand. Rednecks threw stones. Discarded bottles. Shouted: “FAGS!” Torn clothes. The party was over. Insulted – and very, very smart – gays moved north to the seemingly safer bars of Diplomat, Gigi’s, and Woodward.

Farmer Street and Bates Street were once home to the Motor City’s first Gay Pride Halloween parades, and are now nude. Quiet, haunted, empty streets. Forgotten. REST IN PEACE. Rest in pride.


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