When Halloween in Detroit Was a Drag Queen Celebration

By |2021-10-18T11:02:03-04:00October 18th, 2021|Opinions, Parting Glances|

As the Allies began to beat the Axis in World War II, a mood of cautious celebration took hold in Detroit’s gay bar clubs. 

Downtown side streets Farmer and Bates, home to Rio Grande, Silver Dollar and LaRosa’s bars, became less secretive. More carefree and obvious (nearby Palais bar was a notorious dyke heaven).

When Halloween 1944 swished around, the Grand Night of Enchantment became an opportunity for daring celebration. Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, getting in drag was accomplished without too much hoopla — 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 4F with “homosexual tendencies” — along with straights who had flat feet (not necessarily because of high heels) kept the home fires burning and factories going 24/7.

These service rejects — no relation to recent biblical “left behinders” — were in a party mood. The war in Europe was winding down. Finally! So, why not celebrate?

What better time than the only day when cross-dressing is permitted without penalty, threat of incarceration, or, if your makeup’s thick enough, likelihood of recognition?

The first Halloween display of queens numbered 25 or 30 brave patrons. Those in other costumes, about 50. 

Some wore rhinestone tiaras and sequin embroidered titles across their ample, canary seed-filled boobies.

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

War-relieved and weary Detroit cops looked the other way.

Each year after World War II’s end, Halloween was planned to outdo the last. Gatherings grew large. More flamboyant. 

Sometime in the early ’50s, streets were cordoned off. Hundreds came to see and applaud, and “Ooo!” and “Ahh!” at the queens who arrived in convertibles and on roller skates. Everybody behaved.

In 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots, things got out of hand. Rednecks threw rocks. Tossed bottles. Shouted, “FAGS!” Ripped gowns. The party was over. Insulted — and very, very smart — gays moved northward to the seemingly safer Diplomat, Gigi’s and Woodward bars.

Once home to the Motor City’s first Gay Pride Halloween “Parades,” Farmer and Bates Streets are now bare-ass naked. Silent, haunted, empty streets. Forgotten. RIP. Rest in pride.

About the Author:

Charles Alexander