We meet in the narrow doorway of a bar: I’m going inside, he – somewhere in his thirties, covered in tattoos, bushy beard – is leaving. We pass somewhat clumsily. But when we look at each other, his eyes begin to twinkle. Have we met before? No, right? He stands in the doorway, nodding appreciatively. His grin makes way for a smile, imbued with affinity. ‘Hey bro’, he says with a friendly chuckle, ‘nice beard…’, and he continues on his way.
Until 17 September ’23, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris presented Des cheveux et des poils (Hair & Hairs), a major exhibition exploring hairstyles in Western art history. Hairstyles in the broadest sense of the word: from haircuts to moustaches, beards and body hair – shaven and unshaven. By placing the exhibited artworks in the context of their time, the museum showed how a particular hairstyle and its popularity – as with all forms of fashion – are expressions of the obsessions and fantasies of the period from which they arise.
Christopher Oldstone-Moore, author of the book Of Beards and Men – The Revealing History of Facial Hair, carries this through to beard fashion. ‘Every age has new – and for different groups, at times, contradictory – masculine ideals, and these are reflected in whether or not facial hair is in vogue. The history of men is literally written on their faces’.
Beards (and smooth faces) do not have univocal significance. In the second half of the nineteenth century – a period of changing gender relations and colonial unrest – beards were popular because facial hair symbolised male superiority and Western dominance.
‘The association of a shaven jawline with bourgeois morality made rebels choose hair as the symbol of political protest and freedom.’
In the following century, facial hair took on a completely different meaning. During the Great Depression and later during the years of post-war recovery, it was important that men radiated youthful energy: a smooth face gave a man a younger and hence more capable air. The association of a shaven jawline with bourgeois morality (and later with Vietnam soldiers) made the critics of the established order choose hair as the definitive symbol of political protest and freedom. Hair, hair, hair! Oldstone-Moore: ‘The association of beards with rebellion and a return to nature now seems matter of course, but it only emerged in the late sixties’.
A more odious example: the reason that men once again parted with their facial hair in the late 1980s was the emergence of AIDS. Out of mortal fear and the associated obsession with survival and health, a new male beauty ideal arose in the gay community (which would ultimately be adopted by the mainstream): the body needed not only to be strong and athletic, but also observable. And therefore devoid of chest and facial hair; hair that could cover, conceal and transfer.
Facial hair was a faux pas for many years after, but beards have made a comeback in the last decade. Celebrities, athletes, and politicians have opted to dump the razor. Barbershops are ubiquitous in larger cities, and the internet is overflowing with blogs and Instagram profiles devoted to men with moustaches and beards. What’s going on?
Hilary Clinton called them the ‘basket of deplorables’: socio-economically disadvantaged, low-skilled men for whom the disappearance of the classical breadwinner’s role has come as a slap in the face. These primarily white and heterosexual men feel threatened by the successes of #MeToo, the LHBTQ movement, Black Lives Matter and other minority groups that are claiming their rights. These men do not feel at home in a feminist, gender-equal and now also gender-neutral society, and follow politicians and populists such as Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson, who champion the return of so-called Western values and a traditional division of gender roles. They are in the minority, but their voice is part of a general trend: men who think they are constantly in the doghouse.
For fear of the onward female march, many a film, soap and commercial hammer away at the so-called differences between the two binary sexes. Men are positioned as lord and master, gifted with traditional characteristics such as leadership and determination. As with everything that feels threatened, this masculinity ideal also needs to be constantly propagated, manifested and validated. Through behaviour and through appearance. And what is more masculine, more phallic, than a beard? The beard hype of our times is therefore not a non-committal show of vanity, but rather a weapon used to express traditional, hegemonic masculinity.
The beard does not only emphasise the difference with women, but also the uniformity (and inherent strength) of the male front. The beard is armour plating: for once not against each other, but with each other, and against everything and everyone who encroaches on the unity of the bro’s (or who is perceived to do so). This armour is naturally also a mask – part of the vulnerable face is covered and concealed from the outside world.
‘What’s more masculine, more phallic… than a beard?’
Part of the current beard hype is flaunting your facial hair to other men. Not only in male domains such as the barber’s or gym, but also online. This is more than simply a competition to see who has the biggest and the best (which determines the position in the hierarchy), it also acts as social glue, binding men together. Because their beards distinguish them as a group, and therefore unite them. ‘Hey bro, nice beard…’
And that is precisely my problem. I have never wanted to be a man. For as long as I can remember, I have identified with notions that are attributed to women and femininity. I played with dolls as a child, dreamt of being a princess, and my mother – a strong Jewish woman – was my heroine. It is not that I identify as transgender or want to be a woman, but nothing associated with men appealed to me. It seemed like a world of shoving and shouting, a world in which everything was dominated by competition and constant struggle, a world of rigid metals and dark colours. In short, not my world. And the aversion was very much mutual, I did not belong and was left alone.
But then puberty reared its head, bringing with it confusion. I noticed that I started to feel attracted to the very group that I thought I wanted to avoid: lads. In the changing rooms, for the obligatory shower after PE, I felt increasingly like a Fremdkörper. I anxiously ensured that a towel covered everything. Not only because of my chubbiness, but mainly for fear that my body would reveal my excitement about seeing the other naked young males.
Maurits de Bruijn writes of this feeling, which so many homosexual men have in common: ‘That I did not fit into the framework of what a high school student was supposed to be was clear to me, and to everyone who understood what the framework entailed. But that it was me who lusted after the boys who did fit in, was something that I did not even want to comprehend’. (‘Three Changing Rooms’ in: Sfinx – Thirteen Essays about the Man).
My desire shifted into shame, because what I wanted from the boys would of course not do. As the world around me made perfectly clear. This was at the peak of the AIDS crisis: words like ‘pansy’ and ‘faggot’ were rife, not only at school, but also in films and on television. Homosexuals were unabatingly presented as being perverse and degenerate. And the most important message: a homosexual can never be a real man.
Fine. Because even before I could be rejected, I had turned my back on that masculine world. And as an adult, I identified out and proud as gay, as a femme presenting homosexual, perhaps even non-binary or gender fluid. But never as a man.
The new millennium dawned: I dressed rebelliously, got into queer activism and looked down on the muscle queens, the turncoats who complied with the laws of masculinity.
And then, about a decade ago, there they were: the men with beards. I was fascinated and because it hardly required any work – just to wait a while – a full beard soon also adorned my face. It looked better than good. I was pleased to finally have a manly jawline (or in any case, the illusion thereof), something that I had always secretly been after. But when straight men continuously complimented me on my rugged looks, when they called me ‘bro’ or ‘mate’, and I found myself enjoying these exchanges, I wondered if I hadn’t ultimately caved in to the enemy.
They were called Castro clones. Young gay men who, following the Stonewall riots of 1969 – which saw the LHBTQ community protest en masse and rise up against homophobic police violence – moved from all over the United States to neighbourhoods including Greenwich Village in New York and Castro and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, to together build a new counterculture alive with rebellion and sexual awareness.
One of these men, photographer Hal Fisher, published Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding Among Homosexual Men in 1977: a light-hearted photo essay exploring the iconography and codes of this subculture. We see everyday things such as handkerchiefs and sneakers, and we see queers in jeans, rugged jackets, and sports clothes. They are all accessories that belong in the male, i.e. heterosexual, domain. But by having them modelled by homosexuals and sexualising them (we read that the colour and position of the handkerchief in the back pocket communicates the sexual desire of the wearer), the accessories acquire fresh meaning. And more importantly: the subjects thereby appropriate masculinity, and on their own terms.
‘The love generation’s symbols of liberation were quickly assumed in the new gay self-representation.’
This is also the decade in which the leather scene gains popularity: a subculture in which gay men dress in hypermasculine, often quasi-military, outfits. Not to pass as straight, because they present themselves as both object and holder of the gaze. Although over the top, this is more than a game: by presenting themselves as self-confident sex objects, they stretch the boundaries of masculinity and undermine the notion of a fixed form of masculinity (in a postmodern sense, one could argue that this hypermasculinity, like drag, shows how every gender expression is both legitimate and performative).
In the seventies, moustaches and beards were a marvellous omnipresence. The love generation’s symbols of liberation were quickly assumed in the new gay self-representation. The leather queens and the Castro clones (and everyone who wanted to look like them) all had them.
It felt natural. Because after all, what is more manly and more sexual than hair that exclusively grows out of male adult bodies, hair that is imbued with the sweat and fragrance of those bodies, and that presents itself shamelessly and even proudly to the world?
Gay Semiotics is testament to a unique period in history in which queers collectively demanded their rights and subsequently joined in expressing who they were and what they wanted. I am still moved when I see pictures of the brave new world in which heroes stand on the barricades and smiling Castro clones endlessly parade, cruise and dance to disco.
All free and easy, valiant and luxuriantly hirsute.
This period has an iconic status for many queers, it’s an anchor for our identity. Not only because of all of its positives, but also because the period is such a sharp contrast with the devastating backlash that followed. We all know where the Castro clones would end up not even a decade later: in hospital beds and graves.
In order to survive a world where you don’t belong, finding images that do represent your story is pivotal. My beard is a way of honouring my history and the people who paved the way for my community, and those whose lives have been erased.
Shortly after the pandemic, I travelled to Berlin to interview men about what gender meant to them. Young heterosexual hipsters who are proud of their ‘female side’ and happy to show it (nail varnish, pearl necklaces and at festivals, a dress or a skirt) told me that their beard brought balance to their appearance. They do not want to give women the wrong impression.
Facial hair is not at odds with the zeitgeist of gender diversity and fluidity, it rather seems a perfect match. Many young queers and non-binary people combine their beards and staches with a flamboyant appearance, which is often associated with femininity. The aim of their mix and match is both to claim and unsettle all identities. Drag queen George N Roses puts it like this: ‘My beard is a political statement, it’s a big fuck you to gender norms’.
I have conversations with bears about their appearance, which is often hard to distinguish from (some) straight, often working class, men: large, robust and hairy. They tell me that this has little to do with incorporating a straight norm, but rather with celebrating their bodies. As such, they distance themselves from the gay beauty ideal, which was the norm prior to this age of body positivity, and which left many of them feeling excluded.
A transgender person emotionally told me that his beard is a symbol of the masculinity that he was denied at birth.
‘I explained how it was to grow up among them.’
I also listened to men – mainly white, mainly heterosexual – who were unable to connect with the current times. Those who clutch onto a masculinity that has become untenable. Those who feel threatened and who cling to old images.
I listened to men who were in an impasse because they were overflowing with emotions, which they never learned how to express. Men who have had it drummed into them that boys don’t cry, and that you should drown out pain with noise. Men who feel a connection with other men, but who can only express this through competition and by crudely slapping each other’s backs when faced with even the scarcest threat of an embrace.
And in turn, these men listened to my story. I explained how it was to grow up among them. How their world both rejected me and drew me in. How I admired the self-confidence with which they swaggered naked through the changing rooms, their courage and their noise. I explained my longing to be seen by them and to be admitted to their domain. And I shared with them the pain of realising that this would never happen, my feelings of failure and shame.
‘Hey bro, nice beard’, he says to me with a smile, in the entrance to the bar.
It is brief, just a passing compliment from a stranger. And yet I am touched by his words.
Not because I am a bro or do I want to be, and also not because I am being fully seen for who I am – that needs much more. But because his words, however flippant and casual, could initiate something that is essential for every human being: Connection.
This article was published in the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland in June 2023.