Bastian Fox Phelan, member of Still Fierce
I started growing my beard in December 2009 when I first moved away from my family home to a new city. The beard began as a moustache, which was no stranger to my face, having come and gone over the years.
The beard, however, was new. Not because it hadn’t been possible, but because I had been keeping it at bay for 10 years. It began as stubble – I had been shaving my face for several months in between laser hair removal.
As I grew increasingly frustrated with the painful, expensive process that yielded poor results, I realised that there was an option that was never offered to me: rather than finding new ways of removing the hair that grew on my face, I could live as a hirsute person and build a hairy identity.
But my desire for autonomy was clouded by fears of how others would respond to my facial hair. Would they see me as a bearded lady? As a trans man? As a cisgender teenage boy? As a freak?
How should I act in order to fit these categories? Which category did I fit? I knew that growing my beard – let alone talking and writing about my beard – was radical. As the stubble became more than a shadow I began to transgress the gender binary.
Throughout the summer I let my beard grow. I monitored its progress daily: at one month it was a sparse line of dark hairs along my jaw line, mostly concentrated on the underside of my chin, with a few hairs straggling down my neck like disaffected youth on a school trip.
As the weeks passed and the hairs grew longer and more abundant I noticed a great deal of variation: the hairs were black, gold, red, sometimes starting blond and growing darker towards the tip; some hairs were straight, others curly, some fine and others thick and wiry.
There’s one hair that comes and goes on the left hand side of my moustache – it’s huge, curly, thick and red and sometimes I play with it until it drives me crazy. I wish that my entire moustache were made up of these hairs – I would buy a hot air balloon and become an adventurist.
But at five months, my beard is not dissimilar to a teen boy’s beard: it has accumulated on my lower chin and neck, it is light, curly, unevenly distributed – you could call it ‘bum fluff.’
In January 2010 I wrote a zine called Ladybeard – a month after I started growing my beard. At the time I still identified as a woman, albeit a woman that didn’t fit – a different woman. The decision to grow my beard in the first place was tied into a long, confusing process of questioning my gender identity (and as a related matter, my sexuality).
I have been making zines in Australia as Maddy Phelan for five years and this was the most personal zine I had ever made. When I glued the last piece of paper into the master copy I felt it was a zine that would divide people. So far I have been wrong. What I have experienced is a huge amount of support and positive feedback.
I’ve received more emails from people about this zine than any other zine I have made. Folks love Ladybeard: it sells out in zine shops and distros, gets rave reviews in newsletters and on blogs, has been namedropped on the radio, and has even resulted in praise from strangers in public places.
I made a fan page for it on Facebook as a kind of joking, kind of serious way to gather Ladybeard enthusiasts.
Growing my beard was part of a decision to express my gender variance. I became very interested in female masculinities as espoused by Judith Halberstam and JD Samson, and transmasculinities, especially transfag masculinities – see Jason Cromwell and Athens Boys Choir.
I spent a lot of time reading, watching, thinking, talking. For a while I identified as a masculine woman but that didn’t exactly fit. I’ve never been butch and in the past I had transitioned to (mostly hetero) femme for a few years. It took some time to realise that I was more like an effeminate boy: a fag.
I joined a new collective for sex and/or gender diverse folks called Still Fierce and my trans* literacy has skyrocketed ever since. I’m starting to identify as trans* – it answers some questions but raises a lot more. Like, if I’m not a lady, what’s the next issue of my zine going to be called?
When I wrote Ladybeard my biggest concern was that I would become known as the bearded lady and that this identity would define me. I worried about the stigma attached to mannish women, the cultural connotations of female facial hair as being freakish, dirty, unkempt: an affront to society.
But I decided that I didn’t want to reproduce social norms and I carved out a space for my identity. Social recognition is important to all kinds of folks, and responses to Ladybeard helped me hold my head high.
It wasn’t just polite acceptance that I received – I was praised for doing something brave, for being myself, for writing about living a different life and thereby giving permission to others to do the same.
From bearded lady to bearded boy
The question for me now is how to reconcile being a bearded lady with being a bearded boy. I’m starting to think that I will never fit and that’s not such a bad thing.
In the context of transmasculine facial hair I almost fit. My moustache and beard are different to the moustaches and beards of guys on T [testosterone] but it is a kind of T beard: a recent blood test showed raised testosterone levels.
I have PCOS [Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome] and facial hair is a common feature of this hormone disorder (I prefer to call it a hormone distinction). Then again, I can’t really classify my beard as a T beard: I don’t take T, a certain amount just happens in my body.
I’ve made a mental note to avoid ‘me too-ism’ because it’s usually insulting to people whose experiences you don’t share. I know there must be a lot of trans guys who have PCOS but it does feel a bit lonesome, belonging to both groups and not belonging to either.
I keep thinking that because I wrote Ladybeard I have a responsibility to be a consistent character in the stories I tell. It’s not like trans* was absent from the zine: I wrote about my trans* heroes, wanting to be more masculine, deciding to be whoever I wanted to be.
But I feel the need to clarify that my personal identification is not an abandonment of my previous beliefs.
I think that while women with facial hair transgress the gender binary, facial hair in itself is not essentially masculine.
Beards are a secondary sex characteristic, like breasts and pitch of voice, but in the same way that a deep voice does not define one’s gender, I believe beards cannot be read in such simple ways.
‘The ‘other beards’ project
I am for femme beards, butch beards, trans* beards, drag beards, post-menopausal beards, female beards of all varieties. I think the beard – as an attribute of that unmarked identity, the white cisgender man – needs to be displaced.
We need to make visible those ‘other’ beards that have been erased from history, depilated into oblivion, yearned for, induced, born of artifice, and set free after years of repression.
Which brings me to my plan. I’m working on a project and it’s all about these ‘other’ beards. I’m not sure what form it will take but I want it to have words and pictures. I want to meet women, trans* and other folks with facial hair, share our ‘hairstories’, document our experiences, photograph our lives.
If you want to get involved, I’d be very happy to hear from you.
Author’s privilege: Bastian Fox Phelan is white/Jewish, trans*, queer, currently able-bodied, neurotypical, hormone-distinct, thin-ish, upper-middle class, currently artist class. Bastian is 23 years old, an Australian citizen and has a degree in Arts (Honours). Email Bastian at email@example.com to get involved in the ‘other beards’ project and find out how to get a copy of Ladybeard.
Reposted from The Scavenger: