I’m a Monster, Can’t You See?

Written by Bastian Fox Phelan for Queer Honi Soit and performed at the Penis Tower Anti-Slam at This Is Not Art, 2010

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.


Ladybeard: a ‘transhairstorical’ story

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 bastian.fox.phelan@gmail.com to get involved in the ‘other beards’ project and find out how to get a copy of Ladybeard.

Reposted from The Scavenger:


A trans-masculine perspective on feminism

Griffen Jones, co-founder and member of Still Fierce

I wanted to write about my relationship to feminism, as a trans-masculine person. I identify as a queer transgender masculine person who has in the past, identified as a queer woman.

My feminist politics have strengthened and solidified throughout my transition, despite the fact that I no longer identify as a woman. I think that my realisation of, and my acceptance of my own masculine identity has transpired partly because of this consolidation.

I’ve never held a feminist politic that sees everything male and masculine as anti-feminist and the root of all sexism. Rather, I’ve always seen capitalism – as a system and a social relation – as the architect of patriarchy.

Or rather, patriarchy and misogyny are necessary elements of this brutal class society that sees the wealth and privilege concentrated in the hands of a few.

The institutions of marriage and the family, which are central to the maintenance of capitalism, all uphold sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

In coming to terms with my trans identity, I decided that if I was going to identify as trans masculine person and use male pronouns, then it was imperative that I actively practice my feminist politic.

I’ve been compelled to be wholly aware of the ways in which socialised masculinity serves to reinforce patriarchy and sexism.

When it comes to the day-to-day passing as male, I consciously wanted to ensure that the male I embodied was not one that zealously upheld sexism.

It is often that the aspects that stand out so much when thinking of masculinity and male-ness, are those that are, in many ways, anti-feminist. This hegemonic masculinity is comprised entirely of gender stereotypes, such as: taking up space in a room, talking loudly over people and talking a lot [as though what you have to say is always of the utmost importance], and a rejection of the feminine.

Whilst I don’t identify as a man – I identify as trans and I celebrate my gender trajectory, passing as male can constitute a recognition of my trans identity. It can also be a question of safety, as often problems arise, including violence, if people can’t identify your gender. And simply, I also want to pass.

The big question or contradiction that arose for me was figuring out ways of embodying a masculinity and a male-ness that I was comfortable with and that did not represent or feed into a hegemonic masculinity.

Being aware of, and owning my masculine privilege has become particularly imperative for me since I decided that I wanted to start taking Testosterone [T]. Before making this decision, part of my reluctance to start taking T, was truly being perceived as a man by other women.

I consider there to be a certain sense of trust and solidarity between women that can exist and I think there is amazing strength in this. I want to recognise here that, as bell hooks proposes, this isn’t always the case, as the intersections of race, class and sexuality mean that not all women share a common experience.

Before I started taking T, I very rarely completely passed. As my body slowly changes and I begin to fit the characteristics that broader society associate with being a man, I’ve begun to pass more.

The more I pass, the more of this instant solidarity and trust I lose. It’s not as though I’m sad because I’ve been kicked out of some club – my immediate community is full of amazing queer women and trans folk – it means that I need to learn new ways of gaining trust and solidarity with women.

I need to learn how to be man and to reconcile my revolutionary politics with this. I’ve realised that I can’t be the trans man that I want to be, without owning and working against my masculine privilege, celebrating femininity and continuing to a be a feminist ally to women and other feminine folk, who are forced to deal with sexist shit every day.

It is there that I want to point to the strength and necessity in recognising the interconnection of a women’s liberation movement and a trans liberation movement.

I also want to note that I’m in no way suggesting that in order to become a ‘better feminist’ people need to identify as trans and nor do I think that every trans person practices amazing feminist politics.

Similarly, I’m not suggesting that my past identification as a woman means that I’m a ‘better equipped’ feminist than, for example, a cis-gendered man.

Rather I’m suggesting that a feminist struggle and a trans struggle, complement and inform each other in necessary ways. The extension of the gender system beyond the binary, which is so heavily entrenched and maintained under capitalism, assists both trans folk and women.

What it creates is the space for new identities and bodies that can be embraced outside of those afforded to us by the capitalist patriarchy, such as the celebration of fat identities.

I’d like to leave you with a quote from the inspiring Leslie Feinberg, an amazing transgender activist, speaker and author. The quote is taken from ze’s book Trans Liberation: beyond pink or blue, in which ze articulates, among other points, the interconnection between gender discrimination and sexism:

“The struggles with those of us at this conference also overlap with the struggles of the women’s liberation movement. We could gain strength by working together, along with all our allies, to fight for sex and gender freedom. That means the rights of people to define their sex, control their own body, and develop their gender expression, free from violence, economic barriers, or discrimination – in employment, housing, health care, or any other sector of society.

“None of us can be free while others are in chains. That’s the truth underlying the need for solidarity. Trans liberation is inextricably linked to other movements for equality and justice.”

Griffen Jones is a 25-year-old trans guy based in Sydney, Australia, who is involved in various political organising and collectives, including STILL FIERCE: sydney sex and gender diverse collective, Mutiny Zine collective, Black Rose Anarchist Library and Bookshop.

Reposted from The Scavenger: