Don’t get too close to me, I am a monster. I will try to bring you down because I can’t control myself.
–Kevin Blechdom, ‘Monster’
There’s looking like a monster and then there’s behaving like a monster. Looking like a monster sometimes means being treated in monstrous ways. We can reclaim monster identities but how do we deal with the monsters that try to bring us down?
I caught a train to a beach in Queens one day. As I waited in a Brooklyn subway station people began to stare. I used to look away: I’m not here, this isn’t happening. But part of my travel plan was getting fierce, so I started staring back.
I know the exact facial expression that says ‘I am trying to work out your gender.’ Am I the first seemingly female-bodied person with a beard that they have ever seen? Surely not in New York City – homo, sweet homo for fabulous freaks. Still they stare, I stare back, they look away, I catch them again, they look away. I get hostile: stop trying to assassinate me with your eyes.
I come from a long line of famous folks you might call monsters. Let me tell you about some of my favourite ladies.
Annie Jones was exhibited in the circus from the age of nine months. When she was still very young she was kidnapped by a phrenologist but was returned to her parents after some time. She married twice during her life and died young from TB. She is perhaps the world’s most renowned bearded lady. My favourite photograph shows her draped across a couch, one hand on her hip, confident and sexy as hell.
Jennifer Miller is a radical circus performer, writer and professor. I first saw her in a book of photographs called Women. In her portrait she is reclining nude on an antique chair; her hair is long, dark and glossy, and so is her beard. The angle of her legs and a coyly placed hand obscure her genitals. When I discovered this picture I was still a kid, not really understanding I was about to be told to pick sides on the gender team. Jennifer Miller was a question and an answer – I was transfixed.
Vivian Wheeler has the longest female beard in the world. She was recently reunited with her thirty-year-old son. His father took him from her shortly after she gave birth, and later abandoned him in a motel. Her son was adopted, and grew up not knowing who his biological mother was. They found each other and he learned that she worked in sideshows from an early age. She used to shave in between stints in the circus, but now she is proud to be a bearded lady.
The day before I took the trip to Queens I read this quote in the book Transgender History by Susan Stryker:
Because most people have great difficulty recognising the humanity of another person if they cannot recognise that person’s gender, the gender-changing person can evoke in others a primordial fear of monstrosity, or loss of humanness. That gut-level fear can manifest itself as hatred, outrage, panic, or disgust, which may then translate into physical or emotional violence directed at the person who is perceived as not-quite-human.
The more comfortable I feel breaking gender binaries, the more the boundaries break down between myself and strangers on the street. When your gender is unintelligible to others you do not become ineligible for basic social etiquette. But the way some monsters look at me tells me otherwise.
A student at a university in the United States attacked a transgender student in a bathroom. He pushed him into a stall and carved ‘IT’ into his chest. There’s looking like a ‘monster’ and then there’s brutal transphobic violence. Control yourself.