Questions

Beard Stories: Finally

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.

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

Beard stories: Welcome to Oakland

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.

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

Beard Stories: Sir? Ma’am?

“You have your pick of liquor stores,” K joked, touting the dubious benefits of the apartment I was viewing. The building, which had badly patched stucco on the outside and badly patched plaster on the inside, was situated next to kitty-corner bottle shops. Across the street was a boarded up house, while next door there was a perky little bright yellow house, remodeled and sparkling, perched like a canary in a cage, inside the tall black spike-topped fence.

When we were done, we sat in the car, figuring out where the next apartment open house was. It was a warm day, so I rolled down the window all the way as we talked. When I pulled out my computer to see the address on my house-hunt spreadsheet, I was a little nervous to be flashing around electronics. The yelling match that had erupted outside the liquor stores earlier and the person who wandered down the middle of the street loudly cursing everything they saw had made me a little vigilant.

So, when a person walking up the street appeared to be headed for my car, my shoulders rose and tightened a little. As she approached the car, I don’t think my posture changed visibly, but I felt my whole body go a little bit more tense.

She was a thin woman, draped in four or five layers of clothing; I could see a white sweatshirt with big polka dots, a black shirt buttoned wrong, and worn navy blue trenchcoat, none of this sat squarely on her shoulders. Her dark brown skin showed deep creases, but I couldn’t begin to guess her age.

“Excuse me, sir?” she said, standing a few feet away from the window and leaning towards us.
She looked again.
“Ma’am?”
She looked again, still puzzled.
“Are you a woman?” she asked.
“Yep,” K replied for me at the same time as I answered.

She then proceeded to explain how she had fifty pennies but they wouldn’t take them at the store because she didn’t have the wrapper to make them into a roll of pennies. So she wanted to know if we had two quarters that she could trade for her fifty pennies, so she could buy something that the store.

We apologized for not having any change. She shuffled away.

 

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

Beard Stories: Me too

(Originally written August 29, 2009.)

“Large chai latte, please.”
“Venti chai. That’s three thirty-five.”
“Thanks.”
I’m in the DC train station, waiting for the next train to Baltimore. Not in a total hurry like usual.
A black woman in her forties, wearing a beige trench coat and a long, business-woman skirt and blouse, is in line behind me, so we end up standing together waiting for our drinks. She catches my eye and asks, smiling in a friendly, wide-eyed way, “How do you grow that?” with a hint of pleasant fascination in her voice.
“It just grows there.” I reply, smiling back and shrugging. “It started growing in when I was thirteen, and I used to spend all this time shaving and tweezing and plucking and doing chemicals and whatnot. So I decided to just let it grow.”
She’s smiling broadly now. “That makes sense!” she chuckles. “If I had one, I’d grow it myself!” she says with a chuckle.
I laugh and say something generic like “Cool!”
“Venti chai.” The barista sets my drink on the counter. We smile and nod, and I head off to my train.

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

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.

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

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: 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: Another one of us!

Several friends have forwarded me links to the photo of a bearded woman on reddit, followed by her response and a flurry of internet discussion.
http://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/109cnf/im_not_sure_what_to_conclude_from_this/?limit=500
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/25/balpreet-kaur-sikh-woman-proudly-sports-facial-hair-faith_n_1913355.html

It’s exciting to find another bearded woman. I know of a few of us – women who have decided to let our facial hair grow, for one reason or another. I know of bearded women in New York, Provincetown, Germany, and now Ohio, plus myself in San Francisco. I think it’s interesting that there are a scattered few of us out there, living similar lives in disparate parts of the world.

I’ve had the experience that Balpreet had, minus the internet notoriety. I’ve had my picture taken, with and without my consent. Sometimes I’ve found these pictures online. I’ve had a blogger post snide and mocking comments about my facial hair. I’ve had a blogger make an apology of questionable sincerity when confronted on the issue. I’ve had people call my facial hair disgusting. And, most commonly, I’ve had people compliment me, my beard, and my courage and dignity in letting my facial hair grow.

I admire Balpreet Kaur for having such a clear and strong rationale behind her decision to grow a beard. She articulates her choice and her faith clearly. I was a little disappointed to see her apologize for “causing confusion” or “uttering anything that hurt anyone.” I could find nothing in her post that was hurtful, and I don’t think that “causing confusion” is a problem that any person should apologize for.

A lot of the discussion of Balpreet Kaur’s beard centers around the religious basis for her decision to be bearded. Sadly, many of the negative internet comments have been critical or hateful towards Sikhs, “unusual” religions, religious individuals, and people of color. Similarly, many of those defending and praising Ms. Kaur have focused on her religious conviction. The discussion of gender has been secondary to the discussion of religion.

My reasons for growing my beard are varied, and, to be honest, I’m still discovering some of them. Artist (and part of my chosen family) Nayland Blake (http://naylandblake.net/) has written that he makes art in order to figure out what he thinks – the process of creating art leads him to an understanding of his own thoughts and mind that he didn’t have previously. I feel similarly about my beard. I started growing my beard out of a “why not?” curiosity. I had six weeks between jobs, so I didn’t foresee any real-world consequences to growing my beard. I started growing my beard because I didn’t have a strong sense that I shouldn’t. I was raised to believe that, as a woman, I could do anything I wanted. I was raised to believe that there are many ways to be a woman. My parents taught me I could be a woman who wore skirts or a woman who wore pants, a woman who raised children or a Nobel laureate science geek (or both); either way I was still a valid and valuable woman. My parents never said I could also be a woman who had a beard; I extrapolated that part on my own.

I didn’t expect to keep my beard. I expected to grow it for six weeks, see what it looked like, and then shave it. I didn’t expect a lot of things. I didn’t expect the compliments. I didn’t expect the women who whispered to me that they had facial hair they took great pains to remove, who told me that no one knew about their facial hair and that I was the first person they were openly talking to about it. I didn’t expect the silence – the general lack of reaction from people around me, the collective unfazed shoulder-shrug. I didn’t know I would like how it looked on me. I didn’t guess that people to think it was sexy and to flirt with me because of it. I had no idea that it would feel so comfortable and so right. And I didn’t expect the near-total absence of vitriol, scorn, and mockery. I suspected that it might expand my ideas about my own gender, but I didn’t realize how far it would throw that door open. I didn’t realize it would change how I interacted in the world, to pull me out of a life as a wallflower. I didn’t expect it to teach me about my assumptions, about other people, about race and class and nationality. I didn’t expect that it would teach me about the experience of being disabled. And I certainly didn’t expect that it would give me a special fondness for homeless folk and street beggars.

I’m excited that this story about Balpreet and her beard is getting so much attention on the internet. However fleeting the attention on one bearded woman is, it’s undoubtedly reaching scores of women who have facial hair that they hide. One of my reasons for growing my beard was that I met a bearded woman. Jennifer Miller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennifer_Millerhttp://www.circusamok.org/about-us/jennifer-miller-2/) was a visiting artist and scholar at the Claremont Colleges during my time at Pomona. I barely met her, but seeing her was enough. The idea was planted in my head: this could be possible, that could be me.

I hope that there are others out there, the potentially-bearded women of the world, who might see in Balpreet’s story some hint of possibility, some glimmer of bearded ease.

And, for the vast majority who aren’t Future Bearded Ladies of America (or elsewhere), I think Balpreet’s story has been one more tiny step forward in the long march towards women’s rights, queer rights, trans rights, and religious freedom. From what I’ve read in the comments, this story has left most people with a positive impression of one bearded woman. So that now, when they meet another one of us, the first thing that comes to mind with be that nice Sikh girl.

Thank you, Balpreet.

Categories: Beard Stories, Negative, Positive, Questions, Surprising | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Beard Stories: Customer Service

(Originally written August 17, 2009)

I get great customer service.

——

At the Borders near campus, where I stop and get a chai latte once or twice a week, the teenager working the counter addresses me by name. I’ve never introduced myself. He must have gotten it off of my credit card.

(08-09 school year, Borders near SFSU)

—–
I walk up to this gate agent, to check about some detail for the flight I’m waiting to board. She answers my question, addressing me by my legal first name. I’m confused for a minute, wondering, illogically, if I’ve got my name on me somewhere. I think for half a second that maybe I forgot to take off one of those name-tag stickers from a workshop, even though I haven’t been to any workshop recently. I wonder, in a flitting second, if she’s got amazingly good eyesight and is reading my name scrawled in little print on the paper luggage tag on my backpack. I glance down to see where the telltale tag is that’s giving away my name, and think about how they tell little kids now not to wear shirts with their name on it, so that some grownup can’t address them by name and pretend to know them.
And then I realize that she must have been working at the ticket counter earlier and checked me in – and saw my ID, with my legal name. And remembered me.

I find it odd that, even after this has happened to me several times, the first few explanations my brain comes up with are pretty far-fetched.

(summer 2008? Some non-CA airport. FL maybe or OH?)
—–
“You were here about a month ago, right?” the woman in the box office at the museum asks me in a friendly voice as I pay my entrance fee.
“Yeah,” I reply, in a half-questioning, half-amused tone. This time I’ve picked up quickly on why she remembers me. But still, I’m surprised. Last time, I bought my tickets online, and I distinctly remember that a different woman took my ticket on the way into the museum. So I didn’t interact with this woman last time.
“You were down at the big coral reef tank, right? I saw you there.” She’s friendly. A nice 20-something white brunette, indistinguishable from any other other cute young presumably-straight girl.
“Yeah,” I say, smiling mildly but chuckling inside. I had been there a month before, with D and her daughter A. It was a weekend. The place had been packed. We’d barely had space to squeeze in to see the big reef tank for a few minutes, peering over the tiny shoulders of wiggly children. So, she had to have noticed me from within a pretty big crowd. I wonder what she thought of me.
“Cool.” A pause, with a smile with no particular meaning. That’s all she had to say on the subject. “Here are your tickets. Enjoy the museum.”

I wish I had a way to dip inside someone’s head and see what they think of me. What their judgements are, yes, but also just what they make of me – how they interpret things, whether they think of me as a ‘woman with a beard’ or a ‘person with tits and a beard’ or a ‘guy with tits’ or what. And what they assume. What explanations pop into their heads before they can think – like the illogical ideas that I’d forgotten to remove a name tag popped into my head. In this case, I also wonder what else she noticed – if she even saw D and A, and what she thought our connection to each other was.
(December 2008. Going to the California Academy of Sciences with Mike from Pomona.)

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

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: