The last day of school. The second-to-last class of the day.
“Ms. G, we have a question.”
This is nothing new. This is how many of my students – and these two in particular – often start class.
“Great!” I reply, as usual.
“Not about biology.”
“Ok!” I’m happy to go off-topic. And, if they’re asking me, even questions they think aren’t about biology often have a biological connection. These are the two whose questions, for months, probed the causes and intricacies of diarrhea, why a person might cry a little while pooping, whether there are biological origins behind the stereotypical lispy “gay voice” of some gay men, the ethics and methods of killing nuisance pigeons, the superhero potential of future human mutations, and whether our class lab methods could be twisted and abused by an evil scientist.
“Why do you have a beard?”
I nearly laughed. Really? Finally? All year they’d been wondering? I assumed they knew. I assumed that the rumor mill had taken care of that. When I told my students nearly 4 years ago that I was going to grow out my beard, I explained it all. I had imagined that this information had made its way through the collective student brain, along with the details of which teachers never checked homework and who was a stickler on tardiness. Apparently not.
“It just grows there. When I was thirteen, hair started growing on my chin. For years, I shaved and tweezed to get rid of it. Then, about, um, five years ago, I decided to grow it out. I was just going to grow it for a few weeks, to try it. But it was easier than I thought, and I liked it, and people responded well, so I figured I’d let it go for a few months. And it was easier than I thought, and I liked it, and people responded well, so I kept it.”
“Oh! Ok. Huh! Wow.” Nods and smiles.
“So it just grows there?”
“Yep. No added hormones or anything. Many men grow beards, but some don’t. Most women don’t grow beards, but some do. Most of those women hide it – I’ve had a lot of women tell me that they have beards that they tweeze and shave, and no one knows.”
“Huh! Really. That’s interesting.”
“Honestly, I’m surprised you’re only asking now.”
“Well, we didn’t want to upset you. We thought you might get mad, since, you know, it’s personal.”
“No, it’s fine to ask. Sorry I didn’t make that clear earlier. I didn’t mean to make you nervous!” I smiled.
“Well, we didn’t know if you’d be ok with it.”
“Well, I’m glad you asked,” I said, smiling.
It was a great end to the year. Two of my most delightfully inquisitive and open students, finally getting up the courage to ask a question that seemed, to them, more taboo than all the rest.
I’m relieved, I must say, to find out that the student rumor mill doesn’t work as well as I thought, and also to find out that the students have a strong sense of boundaries. Even if the outside observer wouldn’t describe them as having strong boundaries, as they ask about poop and sex, they apparently do have strong boundaries, just in a different place that I might have guessed. Personally, I like that their boundaries allow them to ask for information that relevant to them, on all manner of topics, but keeps them out of the personal lives of teachers. I don’t know that I would have guess that that was a school and community norm, but I’m pleased to find some evidence that it is. It also reassures me that, hopefully, other details of my personal life will stay personal in this school community.
And, considering this, next year I need to let students know early on that they can ask about my beard, or just explain it during a lesson on gender or hormones.
I haven’t been very active on this blog lately.
Partially this is because the frequency of new beard stories is dropping off – I’m getting repeats of the same ones or not getting any responses at all, as I run into the same people over and over again.
And, partially, this is because my life has been full of a number of new and fantastic things – including but not limited to a new and amazing partner, being president of one nonprofit and on the board of another, finishing up the school year, and moving to the east bay.
If things go well this summer, I’ll be working on editing and compiling these stories to turn them into a book. Wish me luck!
I moved from SF to Oakland a week and a half ago. I’m learning my way around – new errands, new routes, new familiar strangers – clerks, cashiers, etc. In the Oakland Kaiser Pharmacy this morning: A black butch-type person, maybe a few years older than me. Wearing black athletic clothes – jersey over tshirt, track pants. Flattened-looking chest, short short hair, no facial hair visible. We cross paths as I’m walking up to the dropoff line and ze is walking away from the counter. “How you get that?” motioning to hir chin. “It just grows there.” Shakes hir head. “Nah!” “Yep.” “I be hatin’!” ze says enviously. I shrub my shoulders and smile, “Sorry!” Ze smiles. An older black woman and a 7-year-old girl are sitting across from me as we wait for our respective medications. She smiles and says, “How are you?” I smile, “Fine, thanks. How’re you?” “I’m good, I’m good.” Which would be the end of the friendly-stranger encounter, but she holds my gaze a bit longer, still smiling. Then she turns the book she’s reading towards me, showing me that she’s reading Stephanie Brill’s “The Transgender Child.” She doesn’t say anything more, but still smiles warmly at me in a way that makes me think I should respond. “Ah, I’ve heard good things about that book. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read her other one, on lesbian parenting.” She tells me that she’s reading it because she’s got 4 children – 2 teens, I think, and I forget the details on the others – who are transgender, so she wanted to brush up a bit. “Ah, that’s great,” I say, while I try to figure out what she means by she “has” 4 trans kids – she’s a parent to these kids? Foster parent? Four is a lot. Teacher, maybe? She explains that these are kids at her church, the City of Refuge, a UCC church in SF. She asks if I saw the parade, because her church sang in the parade. I explain that I didn’t see the parade because I was in it, way back in the lineup. She tells me how the church is moving to Oakland soon, due to parking issues, and that they have people coming from as far away as Sacramento for her church. She invites me to services – Sundays at 1pm – and I smile and say that it sounds nice, but I think my hesitation is clear in my voice. She takes a phone call, lets the girl know that her mama’s meeting them soon, and then goes back to reading her book.
Several friends have now sent me links to the current news story about Mariam, a bearded woman in Germany.
These, among others:
Talking to M last night, we were trying to count up the bearded women we know or know of. Here’s the list of who I can think of –
The bearded woman who was talking about producing a documentary a while back.
E, a friend of M’s
The person who ran Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Cafe in the Mission
Someone M remembered seeing a few years back at a workshop
And this list from wikipedia:
- Josephine Clofullia – Madam Clofullia, circus star.
- Helena Antonia
- Jane Barnell
- Annie Jones
- Chapel Street Bearded Lady 
- Julia Pastrana
- Brenda, The Bearded Lady of Guildford 
This article says there are 30 people (both men and women) in China with congenital generalized hypertrichosis terminalis, a condition causing extensive body hair growth, including a beard.
According to womenshealth.gov, “Between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women of childbearing age has PCOS. As many as 5 million women in the United States may be affected.” Not everyone with PCOS has facial hair, and most folks don’t let it grow. But, still, there are probably a few who do.
Plus there are various other reasons for a woman to have facial hair.
I like graphs. I’m wishing for a graph of the number of bearded women throughout history (with the y-axis units being “bearded women per capita”). I want it to magically auto-update itself each time a woman stops shaving. I want a graph that would take a little dive if I shaved my beard again for a wedding or some such. I want a graph because I’m curious, and I like data, and I’m curious how my fellow bearded women are doing out there in the world.
And, also, I’ve got a bit of ego in the game. I want to know if I’m starting a trend. I want to know if the number of bearded women is rising slowly but exponentially as we bearded women become more common. I want to know if clusters of bearded women are popping up, centered around prior bearded women, in a pretty fractal pattern. I want to know if anyone else has looked at me, like I looked at Jennifer Miller ten years ago, and thought, “Hm. Maybe I could stop shaving mine.”
I kind of hope so.
There’s an after-school program for gradeschoolers that meets in the classroom next to mine.
When I left my classroom yesterday afternoon, there was a girl, maybe 9 years old, hair in high tight pigtails with colorful plastic balls on the rubber bands, standing in the hall with her back flat against the wall, looking bored and chastened while her classmates played inside.
She looked at me, and I smiled at her and locked my door behind me.
“Are you a boy?” No emotion yet, just checking.
“Nope,” in a cheery tone.
“A lady?!” her voice incredulous, quiet and breathy.
She raised her hand to her chin. “You have a beard?” sounding confused, like she was checking her facts, wondering if I was an optical illusion.
She considered this for a moment as I walked by her, towards the stairs. “How?” a straightforward question, curious about new information, the kind of tone I hear in my science classes.
“It just grows there,” shrugging my shoulders.
“You should shave it,” she instructed me, having resolved the issue.
“Nah. Too much trouble. And I kind of like it,” smiling.
Her eyes bugged out a little.
At this point I was at the stairway door. “Have a good afternoon!” I called to her as I left.
I forget which trans* writer said that they were friendly towards kids asking them gender questions but drew the line at puberty. The writer felt that after about age 12, a person should know better than to ask personal questions of a stranger (or a family member, neighbor, or co-worker for that matter).
I don’t feel the same; I like it when adults ask me curious and non-threatening questions. But, there’s something particularly fun about having a kid ask me about my beard. Their emotions flicker so rapidly, covering a charming range from shock to decisiveness to wonder as they work to fit these new pieces of information into their world.
A good friend of mine has a two-month old, who I’m lucky enough to get to spend lots of time with. It’s fascinating trying to figure out what her tiny brain is making of the changing lights and sounds that swirl around her. When she’s not sleeping, she spends most of her time wide-eyed, staring intently at the ceiling fan, a nose, a hat, a picture of black and white dots. One minute she’s smiling and then next she’s upset, but she spends a lot of the time in between with her little brow furrowed in puzzled concentration. As children sort out the world around them, they spend less and less time astounded, puzzling through the mysteries of everyday events. Grade schoolers still do it a lot, middle schoolers somewhat, adults almost never.
When I teach science, I get to reawaken that “what the heck?” response. I get high schoolers, who think they have it all figured out, to be amazed. I get to make them curious by showing them something completely perplexing. I love the bug-eyed “What just happened?!” look on their faces when I convince them, for example, that plants are made of air or that a clump of atoms has the information to make them who they are. (I feel particularly proud of myself on days when they actually, literally say things like “Whoa!” or “Wow!”)
I’m only just realizing this now, as I write, but I think this is part of what I like about having my beard. I get to give adults the experience, rare in their grown-up lives of routines and schedules, of encountering something utterly new and yet not dangerous or even upsetting. Usually if an adult encounters something completely new, it’s a scary situation like a disease or a car crash. Outside, perhaps, of international travel, it’s hard for adults to find new experiences in the daily routine of work and home.
On a kid’s face, the stumped curiosity is more visible, but I like catching glimpses of it on an adult’s face, too. I like when an adult is willing to break through everything in their brain telling them they should understand everything already. I like it when an adult is willing to engage with something puzzling, rather than pushing the experience away under the guise of politeness or dismissing it as unimportant to their life.
I like curiosity, fascination, inquisitiveness, and wonder. I like it in babies, I like it in my students, and I think I like it in the people who go a little bug-eyed as I walk by.
7 pm. It’s dark and chilly, feeling later than it is, in the early-dark way of winter. I’ve been walking for 10 blocks, trying to find the Chinese takeout place that’s 3 blocks from work. I’ve finally figured out I was going the wrong way, turned back the right way, and then overshot by a block. So I’m feeling sheepish as I turn back and walk up the same street I just walked down. I cross the street, both to be on the right side to get to the restaurant and to avoid walking by the same folks hanging out on the sidewalk and looking silly wandering back and forth.
On the corner, there are four tall black men in baggy hoodies. As I walk by, they stare, craning their necks. I avoid eye contact, so I can’t see what their expressions are. It’s dark, they’re big. I keep walking purposefully forward.
Ten minutes later, I’ve got my food, and I step out of the restaurant. One of the men is standing right outside, leaning on a parked car. I make eye contact, and he smiles widely. I’m surprised, and I beam back.
I keep walking, still smiling. The other three men are still on the corner, standing in a huddle, blocking the middle of the sidewalk. As I walk around them, they again lean my way, to see better. But this time I look at them and see that they’re smiling.
“How you grow that?” one asks.
“It just grows there,” I reply.
He tips his head back, in the motion of a laugh. “Tha’s craaazy!” he says, with a smile and a tone of wonderment. He gently backhands his buddy, in a “will you look at that!” gesture.
I chuckle as I keep walking. I look back over my shoulder and smile. “Yeah, it just grows there.”
“Wow!” He nods a few times, smiling.
On Friday, I’m being interviewed by a PhD student for her dissertation research. We’ve arranged to meet at a restaurant on Market. She emailed to confirm:
“Great! See you 2p Friday. I have blonde hair and will be wearing a pink scarf so you can recognize me.”
I wrote back, “I’ll be the woman with the beard. And glasses. =)”
I’ve been neglecting this blog for the past few weeks because I’ve been caught up in getting moved. It’s been a bit of an ordeal. The place I was so excited about last time I posted (the cottage in Berkeley) fell through – the landlord had a family emergency and couldn’t get the place ready to rent out. But by the time it fell through, I had already made plans to move, and there was already someone slated to move into my old room by Dec 16. So, I was in a bit of a bind… which is a far more delicate way of expressing it than what I actually had to say about various parts of this moving %$#&%.
So, I ended up putting all my stuff in storage and I’m staying with K for a few weeks, to give me more than just a week to find a new place.
I hired movers from the La Raza Day Labor Program, and, as always, they were fantastic. The two men both had names starting with R, which confounds my semi-anonymity habits on this blog, as calling them R1 and R2 seems either impersonal or Seussian. Both men introduced themselves at the start of the day, but after that, their limited English and my limited Spanish constrained our conversations to “Are these going?” and “Las muebles aqui, si.” They worked for eight hours loading and unloading and loading and playing a fabulous game of tetris with my furniture. My friend V drove them from one location to the other, while K rode with me in the truck. After it was all done, V was asking me where I’d hired them from, and I was explaining about the Day Labor Program. I mentioned that I’d used workers from this program a few times before. My first move, the movers handed me their phone numbers at the end, asking me to call them directly if I had any work in the future. Each time after that, the movers hadn’t done that, which made me worry that I hadn’t been a satisfactory employer. Had I not given them enough breaks, or had they not liked the lunch I provided? Had I been annoyingly unclear in my instructions or hovered too much? Maybe the stairs were too steep and windy, and they just didn’t want to deal with that property again. I voiced these fears to V, and she made a confused, dismissive face. “But R said he worked with you last time, moving you out of Market Street.”
My first reaction was to feel shitty – I had clearly spent a whole day with this man before, and I didn’t remember it at all. I nervously, with a cringing feeling of guilt, ran a quick “-ism”-check. Did I not remember him because all Latinos look the same? Did I pay insufficient attention to him as a person because he was working in a service job? It took me a minute to remember my beard, to remember that there were various imbalances in our experience of each other – that we had non-equal positions based on race, class, and employer/employee dynamics, but also on freakishness.
But, I still feel a little sheepish for not remembering him.
So, I’ve been neglecting this blog for a bit, because my life has been in a phase of general upheaval, most of it good. (You’ll see me mentioning K a lot more, as he’s become a much bigger part of my life.)
The less fun upheaval has come from an unexpected apartment hunt. Due to some disagreements with my roommates [drama details redacted], I ended up looking for a new place to live, with a potential deadline to get out or face living with a cat and/or angry roommates.
So, as you do in San Francisco, I got on craigslist. Or, more specifically, K got on craigslist and started sending me listings. Which I then screened, compiled into a spreadsheet, and contacted every single one that seemed at all suitable.
By Sunday, I had a list of about ten places to view – back-to-back appointments every half hour or so, driving all over Oakland and Berkeley. At half the places, I showed up for the 30-minute open house along with a dozen other people, all clamoring to get a place to live that wouldn’t drain every last bit of cash. They all looked so normal. A young, thin, feminine, white woman, with her mother helping her look. A 30-ish het couple dressed in sweaters. A 30-something man with a tidy haircut and polo shirt. Some folks asked for applications, some didn’t. At one place, I asked for an application and filled it out as three het couples in skinny jeans examined the studio, yard, and garage. I handed it to the agent, a brusque, long-haired, middle-aged white woman dressed in gardening clothes and asked if she needed a credit report or anything else. She said, “No, we just look at everything all together,” which didn’t seem to make much sense to me. I never heard back from her and she didn’t call my references. A shy, mumbling, middle-aged white man showed an apartment and asked us to list our emails so he could send applications. I listed mine clearly and then emailed him to follow up. There were several others on the list – an undergrad whose mother was asking all the questions, a man with an eager Labrador, an Asian man with black-framed glasses.
I started to worry that the landlords didn’t want to rent to the queerdo (queer + weirdo, a term I like for myself most of the time). I started to wonder if I’d need to shave my beard in order to get a place, just like I shaved it to get my job. Of course, no one said anything about the beard, but then no one ever does.
Over Thanksgiving, I kept looking. I scheduled a half-dozen places on Friday, bouncing around the east bay solo this time, which was much less fun than driving around with K for company. This time, it was almost all individually scheduled showings, not open houses. When I showed up, it was just me and the agent.
As before, I made a point to mention that I was a teacher. As before, I made a point to make friendly small talk with the agent or landlord.
This time, I saw an inlaw cottage in Berkeley that looked appealing. The young black man in a grey hoodie showing the place didn’t have applications, so I pulled an application from the other day out of my trunk and filled it out on the spot. I thought it might seem pushy, but I also thought it would be the best way to get my application in first and hopefully get priority. He seemed to young to be the owner and too disorganized to be a property manager. My guess was owner’s son. Then, I went to see an apartment down in Oakland. The property manager, a very chatty, 40-something, rotund, shiny-headed bald black man in track pants, talked nonstop as he sorted through a gallon-sized bag of keys to try to find the right one. I asked if he had other properties for rent for under a thousand, and he offered to knock the price on a nearby apartment down from $1100 to $1000, “to get the right person in there.” I think I might have mentioned being a teacher, but he hadn’t seen my financials yet, so his suggestion that I was the “right kind of person” had to be based almost entirely on looks. We drove over to see it, I filled out an application, he called in to check my credit, found out it was good, offered to throw in a parking space, and offered the apartment to me on the spot. I told him I wanted to think about it, and he said to just let him know. Then he spent another ten minutes continuing to tell me his life story – how he’d lived near where I live in SF, which schools he’d gone to (since I said I was a teacher). Then he mentioned, apropos of what, I forget, that a good friend of his (or maybe one of his tenants?) directed the Gay Men’s Choir. I perked up, asked who. He couldn’t remember the name, but he thought he had a photo of the guy. He searched his messy desk but could only find a photo of the back of the guy’s head, which didn’t give me enough to figure out if I knew him. But we got to talking about the Chorus and how great it was. Finally, I managed to extract myself from the conversation, to go see one last place.
Two days later, I got a call back offering me the inlaw in Berkeley, which I’ve now got a deposit down on. I get the keys on Friday.
I’m glad that someone thinks that a butch-haired, red-bearded, bespectacled, 30 year old white woman in a tshirt and new jeans is the “right kind of person” to rent to. I’m glad I didn’t have to shave. And I’m looking forward to my new place.