In the Egyptian Room, a primarily white lesbian bar in Portland, Oregon, a good friend and I drink beers and wait to play pool. On the green before us are two women. One, a short woman, her head shaved and covered with a blue handkerchief, watches me from across the table. I've always been attracted to the city's sense of open-mindedness. It seemed to me that Portland was the Mecca of congenial people, where community building and organizing appeared to be staple components of several types of communities there. As such, I perceived Portland offered queer/lesbian women a place to be, to live our lives in our bodies, expressing our genders and sexualities as we see fit.
I was surprised when Blue Handkerchief, as I'll call her, sauntered over to me and asked without hesitation, "What are you?" My semi-Utopian notion of Portland shifted briefly. I knew with astute quickness what she was referring to, but played as if I had never heard of social skills. When I answered, "What do you mean? I think I'm stripes," in reference to the billiard game at hand, she rolled her eyes, displayed obvious frustration, and tried again. I was determined to move her to rephrase what I thought was a blatantly rude question—no mere poor choice of words—in a less reproachful and more respectful manner. After repeating her question two more times and my stubborn refusal to acquiesce to her attempt to paint me as Other, she finally blurted, her tongue coated with annoyance: "How do you identify?" I gave her the answer she didn't know how to ask for: "I'm a woman, a lesbian, queer's the term some folks use today, and I am just very hirsute."1
Blue Handkerchief took this as her cue to tell me I was "beautiful," then disappeared to the other side of the bar and left me feeling very out of sorts. Though I wanted to believe her and I wanted to be flattered, I was not. Before I left later that night, we managed to talk briefly. Blue Handkerchief said she was attracted to "androgynous looking women," and also considered herself androgynous. Even after hearing her say this, I still didn't understand why she asked me, "What are you?" Whether she wanted some that night or just could not lasso the right words, I don't know. In this time of gender bending and hormone taking, I now think much more about the responses and reactions [End Page 230] that naturally hairy women elicit from straight people and queer/lesbian women. Though my experience as a hirsute woman is perhaps different from that of others, I've no doubt that some of the ideas here could easily be woven from similar strands of stories and experiences of other women who proudly display their natural beards or mustaches.
I have what some would call the growth of a teenaged boy's scruff; my chin is neatly lined with a visible, midsized colony of hair. Depending on the day, the position in which one sees my face, and the clothes I wear, I could very well be my younger brother. I've been watched and scrutinized by cops like most black men are, though not to the same extent, and have also been asked about using the women's bathroom. People often call me Sir.2 I've been addressed this way on several occasions, sometimes when I have a dress on, even when I wear pigtails. When I discuss such events with women who display no excess facial hair, three things usually happen. Some fashion my discussion about hirsutism into an issue of self-esteem and insecurity, seeing it solely in psychological terms. Some want to participate in my experience. Some claim they don't notice.
From the first response I often get, "Well, maybe you're not comfortable with your facial hair." Actually, I'm fine with it; those around me are not. Other women who might have no more than two to three short strands of facial hair like to participate in my experience by...