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Beards, binaries and the dangerous hypocrisy of Republican gender essentialism

This Election Day, we are seeing the elevation of a national political platform that seems to draw some of its main inspiration from grade school bullying.
Big Bearded Man Portrait
RyanJLane / Getty Images

A couple weeks ago, I shaved my face for the first time in several years. It was only the second time I’d used a blade to scrape away my beard in the last two decades. And, because I had not done it in so long, the act felt exceedingly strange and … unnatural. I’d had that realization as a young hippy, as well. But now, as many on the political right turn the gender binary and our physical expressions of it into a political platform, face-shaving hits differently.

Now, as many on the political right turn the gender binary and our physical expressions of it into a political platform, face-shaving hits differently.

Mimicking my dad, I pretended to shave for the first time when I was probably 4 years old — before I ever started school. And my parents talked about it in terms of “grooming,” to echo another word increasingly deployed by right-wing gender essentialists. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and plenty of other high-profile Republicans and their allies have spent the past few months targeting and demonizing drag queens, trans people and anyone not fitting into their specific definition of how someone should look or act. (Meanwhile, both Carlson and DeSantis have cultivated a look that is smooth and impeccably groomed — not exactly in line with the gender essentialist version of a testosterone-filled male.) 

Of course, logical consistency isn’t driving these attacks against trans, queer and nonbinary people — the point is to stoke hatred.

But, as the razor buzzed away my secondary sexual characteristics, and the hair fell onto the folded newspaper I’d placed over the counter, I thought of the countless, traumatic ways the gender identity of “straight male” was forced upon me. This gender indoctrination was violent and constant. I had hoped that the younger generations might be freed of this tortured relationship with gender. But as we’ve seen and experienced acutely these past few years, the bullies have returned to stoke fear and panic, including among parents. That, too, feels familiar.

My dad loved cars and sports. I was a dorky, uncoordinated kid with no interest in sports at all. Doctors told my parents that I should play as many sports as possible to develop my coordination — except football, because I’d probably get killed. Those years of suffering through basketball and baseball games from the bench did not teach me much in the way of coordination. But it was a constant source of masculine indoctrination. And it came from all levels — kids, coaches, parents. 

“You throw like a girl.”

“Let’s play 'smear the queer.'” 

Being “gay” at the time was an all-purpose put-down — a synonym for bad, but it was also specifically tagging and naming sexual orientation. At school, because my name was Bay, the name-calling was constant. “Bay is gay” was the mantra of my youth, peaking in fourth grade when one of my best friends was named Jay. It’s not surprising that the next year, as puberty really started roaring, I became a terrible person to the girls in my class, commenting on their changing bodies, grabbing them, making lewd suggestions I didn’t myself understand.

It wasn’t just happening in school. Even my parents were scared that my brother and I and the other neighborhood boys might be gay.

All of the taunting was a way of creating and enforcing the worst kinds of masculinity, what we’ve come to call “toxic.” Rather than an adventure or exploration between two people, sex was marketed as a performance of masculinity; the ultimate proof to your friends that you weren’t gay. 

And it wasn’t just happening in school. Even my parents were scared that my brother and I and the other neighborhood boys might be gay, or not manly enough. There were posters of Farrah Fawcett in our playroom and once my mom and our neighbor allowed us boys to all go up into the attic to look at my dad’s Playboy magazines. (There weren’t many girls in the neighborhood.)  

Today, there are well-meaning parents around the country who are being manipulated by activists and politicians looking to weaponize the young generation’s radically different perception of gender and pronouns. This is not just bad for gay people — it is bad for us straights as well.

And when I think of the harm I caused to girls and women because of the early gender indoctrination that was bullied into me, I feel both like a perpetrator and a victim. How much better my life, as a not macho, not masculine, mostly straight boy would have been without this constant and brutal gender indoctrination.

Why would parents my age want their kids to grow up like this? We were all miserable in school. Everyone was being bullied by someone. Almost no one was masculine — or on the girls’ side feminine — enough. So many Americans have suffered or made others suffer because of our gender insecurities.

So instead, we should rejoice when we see masses of high school students protesting in support of their queer classmates. And sure, I know it must be awkward for parents — I don’t have kids — who may not understand the use of different pronouns. But isn’t that the role of the parent? 

Paradoxically, the very fact that the political right is fighting so hard to demonize trans and queer people shows how concepts of “natural” gender roles are anything but. These are socially created norms that take constant reinforcement to maintain. And they change throughout history. (Beardlessness had long been a sign of effeminacy for the Ancient Greeks, for example, but in 331 B.C. Alexander the Great ordered his men to cut them all off. It was an outrageous flaunting of the established and “natural” gender norms. But Alexander saw a tactical advantage. Clean-shaven faces deprived the enemy of a handy way to grab your face and cut off your head.)

Today, we are seeing the elevation of a national political platform that seems to draw some of its main inspiration from grade school bullying. And it operates according to the same, near totalitarian logic. The only way not be suspect is by attacking someone else with more force, vehemence and hatred. By using a fear and hatred of queer, trans and nonbinary people as weapons, many of today’s Republicans are attempting to subject their children and grandchildren are as bullied, insecure and unhappy as they were.