The eight of us are gathered around the TV, captivated by the string of YouTube clips that we’ve compiled, our usual combination of pop classics and comedy sketches. Two empty pizza boxes lie on the counter next to a quarter-bottle of gin, a splash of vanilla vodka, a few shriveled lime wedges, and several empty bottles of tonic and coke.
When the queue brings up the Google Live version of “Lights” by the Scissors Sisters, a sudden hush falls over the assembled gaggle of gays – followed three minutes and forty-seven seconds later, by an eruption of commentary.
“Jake Shears is the sexiest man alive,” John declares.
“No way!” insists his boyfriend. “I’d much rather have the bearded one on the right.”
“Yes–men who shave are a travesty, not worthy of their manhood,” says Aaron.
“Oh, just google ‘Jake Shears shirtless’ and you’ll change your mind,” replies John with a confident smile. And on the conversation goes… Such lively exchanges are nothing out of the ordinary, at least in my world. It’s what I like to call… (cue heroic music) The Beard Wars. In a living room, bar, or Facebook chat not so far from you, this epic battle is raging between the Facial Hair Fanatics and the Clean-Shaven Crusaders.
Perhaps in the company of good friends, bellies full of greasy pizza and booze, such conversations are just harmless jest. But we all know that
jest often springs from seeds of deeply guarded truth. And this battle definitely extends beyond the scope of a few friends watching YouTube clips on a Saturday night.
Of course, we each have our preferences: tall vs. short, skinny vs. muscular vs. curvy, hairy vs. smooth, engineer vs. artist. And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with naming and owning your preferences. Being honest about what turns you on saves you and others a lot of trouble.
But as a bearded man with my own definite preferences for hair, I tire of men that insist on attaching value and masculinity to facial and/or body hair. I have heard friends make some cruel statements with not even a feigned shred of humor. Like one who used to shave his entire body but who now proclaims that even to trim one’s body hair is to part with one’s masculinity. Another friend goes off on riffs about how men without beards are not men. And all of us in my circle have made our fair share of demeaning remarks about twinks. The generalizations that we draw concerning beards and body hair deny a simple truth: There are hairy men with full beards who don makeup, big hats, and corsets. And small, smooth-skinned men who guzzle Miller Light and play rugby with their “bros.” Hairy or smooth, aesthetic labels and their connotations fail to properly capture reality.
My friends and I have had many conversations about the possible causes of this categorization. We imagine its genesis to be with scruffy men, not unlike ourselves, who didn’t care about Cher or Audrey Hepburn, had only seen The Wizard of Oz once, as a kid, and who never identified with the Wills or Rickies of TV land. This group of men who didn’t fit into the culturally prescribed, clean and primped image of gayness, sought to create an alternative. But some of them overshot the goal of earning a place at the table, instead creating a gay caste system in which hyper-masculine attributes like body and facial hair (the beards) are deemed superior to effeminate features (the beard-nots).
My struggle is not with the temporary glorification of lumberjack beards, combable mustaches and stubble, nor with the inherent variety of personal romantic and sexual preferences that we carry. It’s with how quickly and completely we separate ourselves based on these superficial characteristics, as though they have the power to convey one’s worth.
My introduction to this distinction between the beards and the beard-nots came long before Saturday evening critiques of YouTube videos. I was newly out of the closet and in need of a cheap place to live. Perusing Craigslist, a woman named Marcie’s post caught my eye. “ISO a superhero to join us at the Purple Bay. Must love cats and dogs and be able to keep Superman’s and Batman’s identities safe. It wouldn’t hurt to be a hippy at heart either.” Before meeting, I was asked to answer a number of questions that seemed completely random but which I later learned were very calculated. One of the questions was, “What do you think about twinks?” I had to google the word. Marcie had asked me that question to see if I would get along with one of her other housemates: Jake. Experience had taught her that gay men have a variety of alarmingly strong opinions about small, young, hairless men like him.
I’ve since moved across the country. But I know that in spite of our differences, Jake would definitely be welcome in my group of friends. I can picture him sitting with us in front of the TV, droopy pizza slice in hand, joining in the conversation about The Scissor Sisters. Yet, I wonder: without the connection of having lived with me, would Jake or someone like him ever find his way into our circle? It seems doubtful that he or we would venture across the battle lines as we’re all too busy sizing up strangers by frivolous things such as how much hair clings to their faces.