One definition of the word beard is found mostly in slang dictionaries, though the New Oxford Dictionary of English added the alternative definition a few years ago.
A beard is defined as a woman who dates, or marries, a gay man to provide cover for the man’s homosexuality. The term also applies to a man who does the same for a lesbian woman. Current chatter at ABC.com is filled with beard comments concerning Tom Cruise’s new lady love. Cruise has long denied he is gay, but the rumors persist that Cruise dates and marries beautiful women, these so-called beards, to quash speculation about his sexual orientation.
A subtext to the Jim West story is the fact that West, who acknowledges he is a gay man, has also dated women, and married one. I know some of these women. I haven’t talked to them about this, and I don’t intend to. It’s none of my business.
But it has stirred for me this whole business of the “beard phenomenon” and the harm it does to women who assume the role of beard (unwittingly or not), the men who seek it out, and our society that colludes in the deception, rather than accept the reality that gay men and women work and love among us.
This beard phenomenon is nothing new. In 1955, Rock Hudson, the heartthrob of the ‘50s and ‘60s, married his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. His true sexual orientation was purportedly about to be exposed, and the sudden wedding stopped the rumors. The couple had sex, but Gates knew something was missing in the intimacy department. The marriage broke up after a couple of years.
More recently, Dina Matos McGreevey stood by her husband, James E. McGreevey, as he announced his resignation as governor of New Jersey. Last August, he finally admitted to living a double life. The surface life included the beautiful wife. The secret life involved gay relationships.
In a photo taken the day of the announcement, Dina McGreevey has perfect blond hair and a gentle smile. But her eyes, cast downward, hold a thousand sorrows.
In the past two years, I’ve co-authored two books on marriage. My collaborators and I interviewed dozens of couples about their long-term marriages. We learned that marriages are as unique as the individuals in them. We also learned that the daily practice of marriage – especially sticking together through the tough days – offers people a unique opportunity to mature.
As clergyman and writer Joseph Barth once said, “Marriage is our last, best chance to grow up.”
Bearded relationships don’t always lead to marriage, but they always create secret spaces between a couple, like compartments in a submarine that must be tightly closed to prevent disaster.
Women in our culture fought long and hard to become equal partners with husbands in matters of finances, sexuality, household chores and child-rearing tasks. They fought to be treated as human beings, not property.
To be a beard for a man who cannot live out his authentic sexuality, either because of his own “stuff” or because of societal pressures, denies a woman her right to a full partnership. It compartmentalizes a relationship in an oppressive way, even if the woman chooses it knowingly and benefits through financial support, social prestige or respite from loneliness.
Spiritual writer M. Scott Peck defines mental health as “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”
Society has extracted great costs from women and men who openly live their gay and lesbian reality. This has allowed the beard phenomenon to prosper, covering up the fact that some men commit to men, and some women commit to women, and these relationships can be as strong and fulfilling as the best conventional marriages.
Being a beard forces a woman to live a lie. This lie has the potential to hurt many others, including children, in-laws and friends. It also lets society off the hook. And that’s what made it my business to write about today.
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