This article was published on May 27th, 2015
For many years now, beards have been very popular in North America, nowhere more so than in the gay community. Bearded men, especially those with thicker, longer, fuller beards are sought after commodities, with not enough hours in the day to service all their potential lovers. But why is that? Well, it’s mostly because it’s a symbol of hypermasculinity – a tough, rugged man who can take care of both himself and his lovers.
The history of the beard in European culture, which includes white North American culture, is deep and complex. The Greeks saw it as a sign of maturity, masculinity, and wisdom, though there were times when it fell out of fashion such as during the time of Alexander the Great. Conversely, throughout the history of ancient Rome, beards were mostly seen as symbols of either Greek culture or of barbarian unwashed culture with most Roman men preferring to be clean shaven. The Crimean War, with its unsanitary conditions, saw veterans returning with beards, a trend picked up by the wider culture which again saw it as a sign of masculinity associated with the military. This spread across the Atlantic at the same time as the colonization of western North America and the beard became associated with the gold miner and the frontiersman-colonizer.
In modern times, gay culture has been hypersensitive to changing trends around male beauty. As smooth bodies became more fashionable in the early 80s and spread, bear culture arose in reaction to the shaving and the waxing that prevailed amongst most gay men. And as hipster culture and its love of elaborate facial hair arose, gay men copied this in an obsessive fashion, fetishizing the moustache and the beard.
But what gets forgotten is that this is a white-driven phenomenon. It is routed in European history and culture and doesn’t reflect cultural signifiers of masculinity in non-white cultures. And this is problematic when applied to a racially diverse society such as North America where, unfortunately, white culture still has a sense of privilege through which ideals of beauty take route. In many races around the world, facial hair and body hair is not nearly as plentiful. And in those cultures, facial hair is not often used to denote masculinity. Take Chinese men; on average, they have significantly less hair than your average caucasian male (this is the average though and no individual ever fits exactly at that middle point). However, Chinese men are no less masculine than caucasian men (whatever ‘masculine’ actually means but that is a different article). And if you doubt that, please watch a Bruce Lee film. Essentially, this embrace of hair as a symbol of male virility and toughness has marginalized huge segments of our community.
It’s not just other racial groups. Many caucasian men cannot grow significant amounts of hair. And this is troubling when bear culture itself was about increasing acceptance of our natural bodies and is now used by some to make other men feel less beautiful in their natural state.
This is the cost of any type of physical fetishization. Fetishes are not bad per se but they morph into something destructive when they exclude and marginalize. This is doubly problematic if it marginalizes the already marginalized as racial minorities usually are. So what can you do?
Well, obviously, you first need to care about the effect this has on your brothers in the gay community. It can be difficult to change preferences – though that very term recognizes that it is about choice, whether conscious or unconscious. Disentangling the subconscious ways in which we connect various visual clues with sexual attraction can be difficult (cultural norms have a very strong influence on our minds, even when we don’t always notice it) – though certainly not impossible.
But even if you personally don’t want to make that effort to think through your sexual choices, the gay community itself can make decisions about how it represents beauty. Whether it’s advertisements for events or what you post on Facebook, it’s possible to ensure a wider representation of beauty in the gay community. This ensures that, at least symbolically to begin with, the diversity of the gay community is better reflected. Creating inclusive communities should be the number one goal of gay communities in diverse societies such as North America.
Don’t forget, the more you focus on your particular fetish, the less you’re able to see the beauty of the many awesome men that you could be having in your bedroom.