The October air was crisp when Mayor Muriel Bowser counted down to zero.
Then in a matter of seconds, hundreds of men and women, decked in elaborate costumes and high heels, click-clacked their trek down 17th Street.
As the participants of the 32nd annual 17th Street High Heel Race wobbled through the District’s most iconic LGBTQ neighborhood Tuesday evening, onlookers and passersby of all ages, genders, races and sexual orientations were cheering on. The celebration – one of the most popular events of the Halloween season – was hosted by Bowser for its first year officially run by the city of D.C.
Dave Peruzza, who organized the race for the last 20 years, said the event originates from a drunken competition between two drag queens who agreed to run in full outfit from JR’s, the gay bar where Peruzza used to work, to Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse one Halloween night. From then on, the race was informally scheduled every Halloween, but Peruzza said it became more regulated and popular in the past decade.
The high-heel race has become a staple of both the Halloween season and D.C.’s LGBTQ community, he said, and has exponentially grown in popularity.
“It gets bigger and bigger every year,” Peruzza said. “Even when there’s bad weather, people still show up for it. It’s crazy.”
As Peruzza recently opened his own gay bar, dubbed Pitchers, he confirmed that this will be his last year as the head organizer, given he no longer works in the competition’s vicinity.
When the event’s future became uncertain, he said he decided to contact Bower’s office, which helped organize the event and cover costs each year, to see if they would be interested in taking over.
The decision for the mayor to sponsor the event has not come without controversy. Felix Culpa, a five-year race veteran who dressed up as one of the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” said he is concerned the event will not continue under a new mayor because of financial restrictions.
But at the event Tuesday, Bowser confirmed her administration would honor the tradition.
“We want to make sure that this race always happens in D.C. and I’m proud to help make sure it can happen for years and years to come,” Bowser said.
The event kicked off at 7 p.m. with a parade led by a marching band and teeming with costumed characters. Drag queens and kings walked back and forth on 17th Street, taking pictures with spectators, dancing and twerking to music while showing off their performance chops.
The participant’s costumes varied from a simple wig and high heel combo to elaborate costumes topped off with hats decked out in flashing lights. In line with D.C.’s political climate, some contenders raced as politicians, including Dennis Readdon and Kevin Eggleston, who dressed up as U.K. Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, respectively.
“We wanted to let it be known that there is strong, female leadership in the world,” Eggleston said in an exaggerated English accent. “We’re leaders in heels, and it’s not as easy, whatever you might think.”
Others chose more traditional Halloween costumes, like William Baker who dressed up as Myrtle Snow, a witch from the hit T.V. series “American Horror Story.” Baker said the event is an outcry for the LGBTQ community, given President Trump’s recent proposal of “erasing” transgender individuals.
“I think this event, specifically, makes a statement about how we are here to stay, and we are visible, and trans lives matter,” Baker said.