Day 1: Here I am at Yiddish music camp (KlezKamp)—five days with 450 other people, extraordinary programs, so much Jewish talent, brains, attitude. Despite this atmosphere of abundance, however, everyone’s fixated on this one thing: this gender-ambiguous person. Is it a male or female? This person is on and off stage all evening (as a microphone techie), so you can really stare.
Day 2: I’m told her name is Jennifer. Now it seems obvious—she’s a woman with a full beard. It’s amazing how dominating her quiet presence is. Everybody’s whispering about her: Why doesn’t she shave? What’s her story?
Day 3: By today she’s got people fascinated by their fascination: How is it that a little bit of hair is so damn interesting? Here we have the hottest Klezmer bands around, witty instructors, great food, and everyone’s walking around: “Help me out with this HAIR thing.”
Day 4 Lunch today at a table that ends up all female. This young woman says: “There are lots of women here who would look exactly like her if they didn’t remove their facial hair. Like me.” (No! I would never have guessed. Now looking close I see: she must shave. Golly.) Then she challenges all 12 of us at the table: “If you’ve never bleached or removed hair from your face, raise your hand.” No one’s hand goes up. “See?” she says. I realize so many dark-haired women must walk around with some low-level shame; little leaching secrets. Who is this Jennifer person? None of us at this table, we decide, would ever have her courage.
Day 5: The last day of camp. A woman mentions how attractive Jennifer is. I agree. She looks like Jesus—mournful doe eyes, gentle body carriage. Courage is so attractive. We actually don’t see Jennifer’s beard anymore: just this beautiful face that presents itself unapologetically, just the way it is, to the world. It’s amazing what an education this face—wordlessly—has given many of us this week.
The lessons Jennifer Miller taught me—just by being in my world for a few days, walking around like any other person—were profound. She refused to apologize for herself. I realized, in experiencing her presence, how rare that quality is in women. It was liberating to just be around her. She’s what you might call a Jew’s Jew, in the sense that she’s the kind of outsider (like Moses, say) who is capable of “seeing,” of applying pressure upon a whole social structure, of pushing the envelope towards the checks-and-balances of diversity. To be a woman who likes her body the way God made it— this is treason; wanton, male, too independent.
Jennifer Miller told me her story, in several conversations:
BY SUSAN SCHNUR
I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut where both of my parents were college professors. I was a tomboy, very athletic, interested in juggling, clowning, gymnastics, dancing, acting—pretty much in that order. By the time I started to get a little beard hair, around age 17, I had a strong core, particularly from my mother and grandmother, that people should be who they are: true to themselves.
My mother and grandmother were both educators, tough dynamic women who stressed the individuality of each learner in a classroom. My grandmother, famous in her field, specialized in developing diagnostic materials for children with perceptual reading disabilities. Her classrooms (she had her own center for educational therapy) were all individualized instruction. My mother, inheriting her mother’s educational philosophy, fought the public school system in Hartford and eventually got every teacher re-trained to teach in open classrooms. So the message I got was fundamentally non-conformist: it’s appropriate, important, beautiful to be who you are; everyone is special and right; let’s encourage different ways of being. Their perspectives had a lot to do with strengthening my character. What I understood was: read at your own speed, do math according to your ability, and by extension, I guess, love your own face.
It took 10 years for my facial hair to grow in. My mother, with whom I was very close, died when I was 21 (she was 48; cancer), so she and I didn’t really work out my hair thing. For years I didn’t even talk to my closest friends about my beard—it was sort of taboo. I harbored fear and insecurity; I did not blossom overnight into proud beard ownership. At first it was just a few hairs, then a few more, then more: it was not at the beginning clear that this was going to be a beard.
Through these same years, though—I’m now 34—I was coming out as a lesbian, getting involved in issues of the 1970s: equal rights, “the matriarchy overthrowing the patriarchy,” this whole new aesthetic of reclaiming nature and naturalness. My beard grew really slowly, so I had a long time to think and change alongside of it. By the time I created my own theater [CIRCUS AMOK, a 12-person one-ring traveling feminist circus complete with musicians, jugglers, acrobats], I had developed a lesbian feminist ideology, and a circus image to go with it. I was growing up artistically in the East Village of New York, learning how to get away from the tyranny of gendered roles in performance. Women could dress like sword-throwing males, etc.
One day when I was 20, my grandmother made an appointment for me for electrolysis. I held this rubber rod to ground the jolts of electricity; this needle prodded my face. It felt like mutilation, a losing battle. I felt defeated. I felt like a traitor to myself, to the cause—as I was beginning to understand it. If the electrolysis was a one-time permanent removal, I would have gotten rid of the beard (it’s not; you have to go back many times). Anyway, I was beginning to see my beard as a process, not a medical condition. The questions that arose for me were about my relationship to the outside world; not my relationship to my body. About electrolysis I thought: I don’t think I should have to make this change. This is a feminist issue; women’s power in relation to their bodies. When I’m asked hormone questions I get angry. It’s tedious, patronizing. It’s prosthetic advice: You’re definitely not all right the way you are; here’s how you can change your defect, become normal. Yes, there have been times that I’ve shaved—to get employment, to travel with Ben and Jerry’s circus, but it never really worked for me. There’s a beard line that makes me feel embarrassed and nervous. People are thinking, ‘That’s a woman who wants to hide her imperfection but she can’t.’
I walk around with a tremendous amount of anxiety, but I can’t easily separate out “beard anxiety” from general ‘starving artist anxiety” that so many people I know walk around with. There have been painful and depressed times in relation to the beard. For example, I have a fear of going to the bathroom in a public place. I always bring someone with me so people can hear my female voice and they won’t look at the beard and say, “What are YOU doing in here!” I have to steel myself to walk in and be seen. There are times I literally don’t pee. When I’m traveling outside of New York I pee in a jar in the car.
Recently in an airport, I used the men’s bathroom for the first time. I just went in—it seemed less scary than the women’s room. When I came out of the stall, a man was at the sink. We looked at each other in the mirror and he didn’t gasp, so I felt somewhat comfortable in there. Many public places are hard— lines in movies, stores—people have the opportunity to stare. I have to be so alert all the time. It’s hard.
My biggest difficulty is financial— there are so many jobs I can’t get with a beard. I have a desire to teach like my mom and grandmother, but how can I invest in an education for myself when I could never get a teaching job with a beard? I did, many years ago, teach in an after school program, but then I stopped for a while, my beard grew fuller. I couldn’t return to it. It’s too hard to approach administrators, to have so many points against me. So this has definitely affected my choice of work and community. It’s also very hard to go to new places, to leave New York. I’ve often wished things were different. In my 20s, I pretty much intellectually withdrew from the straight world, decided not to go to college, not to climb a career ladder. It was much easier to have my alternative look within an alternative community. It’s different for me now: I feel able and eager to participate in all kinds of communities.
A few years ago I worked at a Coney Island sideshow as “Zenobia, the Bearded Lady.” It was heavy; something I thought I’d never do. But I got to talk about the world being full of women who have beards or at least the potential to have a beard if only they would reach out and live up to this potential. I talk about saving money and energy on waxing, plucking, electrolysis. I let it be known that I choose to let my beard grow; it’s not a curse; it’s a choice. I educate. I say, “I’m not the Other—I’m You, I’m just bearded.”
Interestingly, coming on-stage as the bearded lady wasn’t different from people staring at me anyway. But, like gay drag behavior on stage, calling yourself the bearded lady is an empowered response to being looked at. It justifies my being looked at; makes me feel safer, in control of the staring. I can express things with my own timing. I can act instead of react.
There’s also the issue of becoming what one looks like. I am so often assumed to be a male on the street, and I respond to that. For that moment I am in fact a male. This widens my construction of my own gender. A woman with a beard is a bigger gender than a woman without a beard. So my character is affected, my interaction with society creates my gender, and I feel consequently that I’m something that’s a little different from just a woman.
Being bearded gives me lots of power. Power from feeling I have no secrets, the striving for womanly perfection is over. The power that comes from being liberated from going for anything mainstream. As much as I sometimes WISH pluckeis and shavers were at this place with me, I don’t think they should do what I do unless they’re ready. It’s hard to do what I do unless you start when you’re young, because it takes many years to grow a full beard, and you have all that time to grow and develop strategies along the way.
Having a beard has given me cause to become radical, of course, to have courage. As I get older, I get more and more committed to the beard. Its fibers are woven in deeply with who I am. The cost of giving it up now is a cost of selfhood. I’m wearing this beard as a political act, because I have some hopes for a changed cultural future. I wear the beard because I intend to effect change with it. Therefore, on some level, I’m teaching, doing political work. I couldn’t maintain this very difficult thing if I wasn’t coming at it from many angles: a subversive act, a teaching tool, a lifelong conceptual art piece, it’s who I am.