Monthly Archives: October 2012

Beard Stories: Poker Face

(Originally written August 26, 2009, while I was temporarily clean-shaven in preparation for starting a job.)

 

My aunt A has a better poker face than her husband.
It’s the little widening of the eyes, the tell off a repressed startle. In some people it’s the tiniest flash. In some people I can’t see it at all.

Often I miss the obviously inquisitive ones. D tells me about them.
The waitress at the Chinese restaurant the other day, nearly craning her neck to check my chin for shadow, trying to figure out if I was the same person she’d seen with a beard (maybe 3 times in the past year, but still memorable).
The dyke-looking woman walking down the street towards us who gave me a full head-to-toe scan.
The couple we hiked past, who stopped hiking and turned around to figure me out. D was several paces behind me, so they didn’t realize we were together and that their staring might be reported.

I like watching the eyes though. Seeing if I can see the question, the surprise. Hardly anyone ever comments or asks.

Even when I shaved the beard, almost no one commented.
Joanna asked if I’d gotten a haircut. So did Kyle.
The scruffy guy down at the Lagunitas store asked what had happened to my beard. When I told him, he said he thought it looked good before and I should grow it back.
One of my labmates, Jeff, who I hadn’t seen since April, said “You shaved your beard!” in a friendly, disappointed way. He too seemed happy when I said I was growing it back. Then we asked how each others’ summers had been and he showed me pictures of his newborn son.

I wish I knew what was behind that flash in the eyes. I can see the question but I can’t tell what it is.
I wish I could know what people say and think about me. Not because I want their approval. Just out of curiosity. It’s like a secret. The flash in the eyes is, to me, the little kid taunting, sing-song “I’ve got a secret! I’ve got a secret!” Maybe I’m just nosy. Maybe I spent too much of my teen years with people gossiping about me. Maybe I’m bad at reading people’s expressions and that fires my curiosity more. I want to know who sees me as a woman with a beard and who sees me as a guy with tits and who’s just confused and whose mind works in a way that they see me without an instant label. I want to know what my relatives wonder. I can see all the questions people have, that they don’t ask.

I want a little pin to wear on my backpack strap that says “It’s ok to ask.” Saying that aloud when I see the eye-flash seems rude, like I’m calling them out on an impolite moment. But I want people to ask. For my own curiosity about the questions and so I can give them the answers they’re seeking. The questions I do get are often so simple – “How do you grow that?” “Are you a boy or a girl?” Not hostile, just seeking information.

I want more people to know how to ask respectful questions. How to precede a personal question with “May I ask you a question?” How to gracefully accept when a person declines to answer.

I’ve been told, by other queers and genderqueers, that I’ll get tired of the questions. That I’ll get tired of being an involuntary public educator. But I don’t see that yet. I’m not burdened by people asking me questions. It’s interesting for me to see what they ask. I hesitate to suggest, when teaching workshops on gender, that it’s good for people to ask when they’re curious, because I don’t want to increase the burden on the people who don’t want to answer. But I fear that valuable conversations and questions are much too often avoided out of fear of being impolite. It seems like the standard is to politely pretend like the person is normal. To do one’s earnest best to hide the flash of the eyes and to suppress the questions. I worry about this polite silence – how it denies the “clueless public” these tidbit chances to learn about queerness. For the vast majority of people who will never attend a queer-awareness training, I’m happy to do this bit of public-outreach queer-ally education. I know not every queer is, but I am. But no one starts the conversation.

And, to be honest, I’m not very good at starting it either. I don’t want to force queer education on people who’d rather not know. i don’t want to come across as having an agenda or hosting the all-about-me show.

Speaking of the all-about-me-show, I start teaching tomorrow. So, failing to find a tidy conclusion to this pondering, I’m off to bed.

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Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Family, Positive, Questions, Surprising | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Beard Stories: Cherry Medicine

…Continued from prior post.
(Originally written August 26, 2009).

D picked me up at the airport at 9am and drove me home.

We set up in the bathroom. Sheet on the floor, sarong around my shoulders.
Got out the scissors, electric razor, electric beard-and-mustache trimmer, and safety razor with shaving cream. Hot towels at the ready.

I’d been thinking about shaving for weeks. Alternately arguing myself into and out of shaving. Getting second opinions, and third, and fourteenth. Thinking about how it would be to be beardless. Trying to answer for myself the questions others asked. Grappling with the harsher, barbed questions I aimed at myself. Would it be denying my identity to shave? Would I be closeting myself – with all the implied queer guilt? Was I missing a chance to find out how wonderful and accepting my new employers really were? Was I being a responsible adult – getting rid of childish, attention-grabbing grooming habits?

I’d been pretty calm about the whole thing. Fretting a bit. Over-analyzing more than a bit. But generally, as usual, keeping it all on the ‘head’ level – analytical, not emotional.
So, with the scissors in hand, I had a last-ditch emotional flash of “shit I don’t really want to do this but I kinda have to and I’m fast approaching the point of no return.” I whined, I pouted, I got wriggly. I was five and didn’t want to take my medicine.
I clenched my jaw, opened my eyes wide with a last ‘please i don’t want to do this’ pathetic look, grabbed the scissors, grabbed a big tuft of beard, and, with a snip that seemed too inconsequentially easy for such a big change, cut off a clump of beard.
Then I did it again. And again. Remember discovering, once the dread medicine is in your mouth, it’s easier to swallow than to spit it out? Once I was committed, suddenly it was easy. I expected to feel unsettled and upset through the whole process of shaving. But after the first few snips, it was just like shaving always was. A non-event. The beard was mangled. The damage was done. All that was left was taking the rest of it off.

My beard is curly. Very curly. The severed tuft stayed together as a unit. We set aside a piece, and D put it in an abalone shell on the altar, between the candles I’d lit in asking for a job.

I trimmed with a scissors, then D took over with a scissors when the angles got strange. When it got too short and I got scared Dossie was going to snip my chin by accident, we switched to the electric trimmer. And, although we had the hot towels waiting to do a barber-style shave, I opted to shave in the shower, by feel, like I’m used to doing after all these years.

Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Surprising, Timeline | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Beard Stories: Remedial teen boy lessons

(Originally written August 20, 2009)

Earlier this summer, I saw an listing for a part-time job managing educational programs for Sonoma State’s biological preserves. The job description pretty much listed my entire resume. It seemed perfect. Part-time, interesting, well-paid work for while I finished grad school. I applied, hopeful. Even did a ritual with Dossie, just to hedge my cosmic bets. Pondered whether or not it would be wise to shave my beard to get a job this good. Never heard anything back from the job.

Then, on a Saturday in late June, my friend L mass-emailed her friends, saying she needed someone to sublet her place, asking to borrow a car for a road trip, and that the high school where she works was looking for someone to teach one section of AP Biology. Excited, I emailed her back saying I was definitely interested in the job. On Monday morning, L passed my name to her boss and I sent in my resume. By of lunchtime, I got a request for an interview. Problem was, I was scheduled to fly to the east coast on Tuesday, to teach at leather events for 3 weeks. So I did a phone interview on Tuesday with the head of school and on Wednesday with the head of the department. Both were barely interviews at all. No hard questions, just discussion of what the school was like and a bit of chatting about my background. It pretty much seemed like I had the job. I just needed to pass an in-person interview.

When I started growing the beard, I intended to grow it for 6 weeks, while I was in between jobs. Then, I decided to keep it for the summer. Then I decided to keep it until I needed not to have it – assuming that would be when I finished grad school and applied for real jobs.

Last year, I taught one day a week in a middle school. So, I know from experience that teens, teachers, and school administrators could all be fine with my beard. But, I figured I should shave. It would suck to lose a job that was nearly mine just because of the beard. I didn’t want to shave. I’d grown to like my beard, and I resented having to hide it out of fear of not getting the job. I knew that having it would distract the interviewer from my qualifications, but I wished that wasn’t the case.

I asked different people what they thought. When I was talking to Dad about shaving, he told me that when he shaves off a beard, it takes a week for his skin to get back to normal. Having never shaved off a beard, I hadn’t even thought of that. It was fun and funny to be getting remedial lessons in teen-boy-personal-grooming. I asked D, and I asked friends. I asked L what she thought, since she knows the school. The consensus seemed to be that I should shave. A new friend who’s inclined to the woo offered a quick divination on the matter. I pulled a rune, which he said represented “rapid change.”

I’d thought about trying to have some fun with the shaving, but the priority turned out to be getting me shaved as quickly and smoothly as possible so that my skin wouldn’t be visibly irritated at the interview. G suggested I call M, who was raised by a barber and a beautician and was a natural with a razor. So, with the benefit of M’s shaving experience, I asked Dossie to pick up a Mach 3 safety razor and Edge shave gel so I could shave as soon as I flew home on Sunday night. Airline delays ensued, and I didn’t get home until Monday morning. The interview was scheduled for Tuesday morning.

(To be continued.)

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Beard Stories: Rare

(Originally written August 19, 2009, when I had shaved my beard in order to get a job.)

 

It’s strange writing up the beard stories while I currently don’t have a beard. I guess it works as a consolation-prize connection to beardedness, while I adjust to the unsettling feeling of walking through the world looking relatively normal.

The curious scientist in me wishes there was a way to rigorously compare people’s reactions to me bearded and unbearded, but of course my presence and behavior completely negates any neutral controls. So, as a biologist raised in the biology culture of looking down on social scientists, I’m now adjusting to the seductive appeal of reporting single, uncontrolled incidents as significant data. The idea that an incident counts because it happened and is therefore true and is therefore important and worth discussing is strange, unsettling and enticing to my well-trained biologist brain.

Actually, this is just one symptom of my larger crisis of confidence in science. Partially influenced by my recent life as an outlier, I’ve found myself receptive to arguments that scientific research and the statistics that support it are problematically reductionist. D loves to remind me of Kinsey’s assertion that those with atypical sexual practices should be viewed not as deviant, abnormal, or diseased, but as “rare,” with all its jeweled connotations of alluring value.
In introductory biology, I was taught to delete anomalous data, presumably because it was the result of poor lab technique or random errors. But, as a proud anomaly, I now wonder. I still believe in the utility of science when it is applied. I can accept that a medicine that cures 99 people might kill the outlier hundredth, but I’m willing to accept imperfect medicine in the interest of saving more lives. Same goes for applied conservation. But, for pure academic work, in the interest of increasing the world’s body of knowledge, I’m becoming less certain of the intrinsic value of research.
I was already frustrated that research concerns itself with the minutiae, and that only rarely does a discovery have implications outside of its community of a dozen specialists worldwide. And now, I’m starting to believe that the practice of research in general is flawed. It’s awfully inconvenient to be losing my faith in research right as I need to finish my masters thesis in biology.
This isn’t quite as bad as when I took a class in existentialism my first semester of college, but it feels familiar.

Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Positive, Questions | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beard Stories: And again

A tall, thin man with stringy blond hair shook a paper cup, rattling a few coins. He wore an oversized nylon windbreaker that once was white, and the creases in his pale face were highlighted by a faint accumulation of dirt from days without washing. “Spare some change?”

“Sorry,” I said. I didn’t have any in my pockets. Pan-handling must have been easier in the days before credit cards.

I turned to enter the store. “Hey!” he called out. “Hey, I like that!”

I turned. Yes, he was pointing to my chin. “Thanks!”

“That’s awesome!”

“Thanks!”

 

I used to be kind of scared of homeless people. They were foreign to me, and, growing up in suburbia, I associated them with a kind of rough urban grunginess that included muggers and pickpockets and people who smashed in your car windows – various kinds of people who were trying to get some tidbit of the relative wealth I enjoyed. The overlap in homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues added to my apprehension. I knew, growing up, that giving money to homeless folks was a complicated issue, because of the potential that they would spend it on drugs. I had seen homeless people (or people I perceived to be homeless – I conflated homelessness and panhandling and dirtiness) screaming and yelling at the sky, or, worse, at passersby. I saw homeless folks as irrational, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.

As I started to collect the beard stories, I started to notice patterns. Who responds and how, under what circumstances, and with what emotions.

Of all the people I see, talk to, interact with, or walk by on any given day, almost none of them have any visible reaction to my beard. Now and then, someone will ask a question or say something about it. But, out of the hundreds of people I might pass on a given day, typically none of them respond.

Far and away, the group that’s most likely to comment on my beard is homeless people – or people I perceive to be homeless, anyway. Today, for example, I probably walked by a few hundred people who live under roofs, and not one said anything about my beard. I walked by two men panhandling, and one of those two responded.

But, what surprised me more than the number of responses from homeless folks was the quality of those responses. Almost without exception, the responses from homeless folks are enthusiastically, sometimes jubilantly, positive and complimentary.

I don’t quite know why that is. D suggested that maybe it’s because they’re a group of people who are used to living outside of society’s rules and expectations, so they may have more fondness for other folks who are living outside the rules, including gender rules. I wonder if some of the mental health issues might be working in my favor – maybe folks who struggle with impulsivity and following standard codes of politeness are, in general, more apt to blurt out whatever’s on their mind, while others maintain good manners and “appropriate personal distance.”

I wonder what the homeless subculture might be like. I imagine that there’s some subculture there, forged by these groups of people who live and eat and sleep and beg together. I’ve heard of rules of etiquette and territory among those who work the freeway off-ramps. I imagine there are many details of the subculture that I don’t know, and I wonder if I’m seeing a little glimpse into this subculture through these responses to my beard. What is it about homeless subculture that makes folks so easygoing about talking about my beard? What makes them compliment me so enthusiastically?

Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Positive, Surprising | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Beard Stories: Published!

I got an email the other day asking me to write an article about my experience as a bearded woman.

Here it is! http://www.yourjewishnews.com/Pages/23059.aspx

It was interesting figuring out what to focus on in writing this article. I realized I know what’s interesting to me but not very much about how these stories are received. So, I’m interested in your feedback! What do you find interesting about these beard stories? What do you want to hear more about? What do you think of the stories? What questions do you have? What has struck you or stuck with you from these stories? Thanks!

Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Positive, Questions, Surprising | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beard Stories: “How come she can grow a beard and I can’t?”

“How come she can grow a beard and I can’t?” my 14-year-old cousin A asked his mom, enviously.
(Background/ Context)
Friday after thanksgiving, 2008.
My brother, aunt M, uncle G, and cousins A (14) and C (10) and I had dinner in SF.

They hadn’t seen the beard before. When I arrived, M said something like “Wow, you’re getting fuzzy” with a smile and a gesture to her cheek. G said it looked good. C looked like she didn’t know what to say, in a kid way. Aaron looked pretty neutral.

Apparently, after we left, Aaron asked his mom, with a tone of envy and injustice, “How come she can grow a beard and I can’t?” M relayed the comment to my mom by phone. My mom relayed it to me, several months later, while we were up late talking about anything and everything, sitting on the kitchen floor in my brother’s apartment in Switzerland.

Categories: Beard Stories, bearded lady, bearded woman, Family, Positive, Questions | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beard Stories: Nothin’ wrong with that!

Today. Oakland, CA

It was 6pm and still in the eighties, a Bay Area snippet of summer. As I got out of my car, two preteen girls on scooters were wandering leisurely up the street. One had a razor-style scooter, the other was on an orange scooter with big “offroad” wheels. Both of them wore jeans and had deep brown skin. One was in a black velour hoodie and had pigtails, the other wore a tshirt and a ponytail.

“Is that your house?” one called out. I assumed she was talking to the other girl, as I was already partway up the street and my back was to them. But when the other one didn’t answer, I turned. The girl with the ponytails was looking at me. She repeated, “Is that your house?”

“Nope.”

“How many bedrooms you think it’s got?”

“I don’t know. Sorry.”

“It’s a big house.” She seemed to be talking to her friend again, but I maybe still to me. “I think that’s a four bedroom. Maybe five.” She turned to me. “How many bedrooms you think it has?”

“I don’t know. I don’t live around here. Sorry.”

It struck me as an odd conversation for preteens. But, maybe it fit in with a certain sort of preteen future-dreaming; the same kind that makes the fortune-telling game MASH (Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House) a perennial playground hit. Maybe this was a version of dreaming up their futures – picking a dream house within the neighborhood, filling it with a dream husband and dream children.

Her friend made some comment in response, which I didn’t hear, as I was now a quarter block up from them. They were headed the same way I was, a bit more slowly. The street kept getting steeper, turning their scooters from useful transport into awkward items to straddle-walk along with.

They followed me for the length of another house, and then the ponytailed girl pulled up alongside me. “What’s your name?”

“Rae.”

“What?”

“Rae,” I said, louder.

She nodded.

I was almost to my friend’s house when she called out again.

“[mumble mumble] like a boy.”

I turned. “Hm?”

“You look like a boy.”

“Yep!” I almost had to yell, given how far they were behind me, but I tried to keep the tone chipper.

“Are you a boy?”

“Nope! I’m a girl.”

“You look like a boy.”

“Nope, I’m just a girl with a beard.”

“What’d you say?”

I was now on my friend’s porch, again a few houses away from the girls. Plus, my friend’s dog had heard me coming and was now barking loudly through the door. I turned back and tried to pick a volume that would let the girls hear me but not disturb the neighbors. Or alarm my friends with the sound of shouting on their doorstep. “I said ‘Nope, I’m just a girl with a beard.'”

She made some small noise of assent and nodded. “Nothin’ wrong with that!”

“Mm hm!” I smiled and nodded back.

When they didn’t seem to have anything else to say, I called out, “Have a nice evening!”

“You too!”

I rang the bell as the girls moved up the street past me.

Categories: Beard Stories, Positive | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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