Halloween Costumes and Opposing Gender Norms

Halloween is at our doors! This means that a number of you are currently finalising your choice of costume for the holiday. A number of articles have certainly circulated on your newsfeed regarding culturally appropriative costumes. If you haven’t read them, I highly encourage you to do so!

Other common costumes include dressing up as “the opposite sex,” or in other gender non-conforming ways. Undermining gender norms is great! Don’t get me wrong. However, it’s important to remember that just because you intend to undermine gender norms doesn’t mean you are doing so.

The first issue arises in the context of dressing up as “the opposite sex” in a “humoristic” way. This is the simplest case, given the very obvious transmisogynistic undertones of this humour. “Haha, a man dressing like a woman,” i.e. what most people in society still think trans women are, “so funny.” But even when not done with humoristic intent, several issues remain. For one, you have limited control over how your audience interprets it, and they might interpret it as a humoristic costume.

The second issue, and this is the one I wish to focus on and which applies to a wider variety of costumes and which is less categorically unacceptable. It is related to the context of the representation. Halloween, like costume parties, photoshoots, etc. are times when one is invited to dress up in ways one would not normally dress-up. In the case of Halloween and costume parties, your usual clothing is frequently looked down upon. By restraining gender non-conformity to such events, what people are doing is less undermining gender norms, and more entrenching the marginalisation of non-conformity. Pay attention to what is being done here: gender non-conformity is being pushed to the margins of social life. By putting on this as a costume, you are sending the message that it is something to be made a costume of, and therefore not something that would be normal sartorial choices outside of this context.

If you want to undermine gender norms, don’t make gender non-conformity just your Halloween costume. If you want to undermine gender norms, wear whatever you want — however it may be gender non-conforming — in your daily life, when the message you are sending is that this is something normal and perfectly acceptable to wear, instead of sending the message that this is a peculiar way of dressing up, enough to deserve being considered a costume and worn on Halloween.

Of course, there are valid reasons to dress up in gender non-conforming ways. It may not always be safe to take up gender non-conformity outside of Halloween. Halloween has been of central importance for me prior to transitioning, because it allowed me to express my gender identity in a safe setting. It plays a similar role for many, especially for people who do not have access to queer spaces in their daily life. However, it is crucially important to be aware of the impact that dressing in gender non-conforming ways might have on others, and take this into account when making your choice of costume. When choosing, be alive to the possibility that you might be entrenching the marginalisation of trans people — whether binary or non-binary — and gender non-conforming people, and thus be playing a part — perhaps small, but present nonetheless — in the insults and harassment we’ll face in the future, in the depression we’ll continue to have to deal with, in our deaths to suicide and murder.

I know a lot of you will not have considered this. The impact of these costume choices is not immediately obvious. Let’s be clear about what I am saying: I’m not saying that people can’t dress in gender non-conforming ways for Halloween. Nor am I saying that those who do it, at least where the second trope is concerned, should be called out on it. What I do hope is that those words will encourage critical self-reflection, and that people will make their choice knowing more about the factors that are at play. It’s a very personal inquiry, and only you know best the reasons for action which apply to you.

I don’t believe we’re hateful,
I think we’re just asleep,
But when we wake up we can’t just call up the dead and say,
“Sorry, we were looking the other way.”
(Andrea Gibson, See Through)

Transfeminine jurist and bioethicist and doctoral student at the University of Toronto. https://www.florenceashley.com/

Transfeminine jurist and bioethicist and doctoral student at the University of Toronto. https://www.florenceashley.com/