Hairs decorate my chin, dark and delicate. My mustache is a gentle brush across my upper lip. Sandpaper scratch of stubble on my sideburns and neck.
I have been on testosterone for 4 years. Testosterone continues to shape the body across the lifespan, but I’m told that after 5 years, the puberty stage is complete. I figure at this point, what I see is what I get, more or less.
When I first began to contemplate transition, I was 19 years old and still waiting for my mustache. I squinted my eyes at the tiny hairs, sure that any day now, they would multiply and darken. The hairs didn’t come. Something was very wrong.
Life continued; two years passed. I got my first shot of testosterone. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that I needed to grow a beard. My mustache dream receded.
It’s a beard moment. My friends have them; the hip guys on the street have them. I was disappointed when my facial hair began growing in slowly, slowly.
I told my mom about my hirsute aspirations. “A beard?” she said. “I don’t know. We’re not a very hairy family.”
I look into eyes of my grandfather and great-grandfather, their perfectly smooth faces suspended in gelatin silver. No beards in sight. Just the occasional shadow of stubble in a candid shot of my saba.
I was extremely embarrassed to grow in my mustache. I couldn’t resist it; I liked the sight of that fuzzy shadow far too much. But who has a mustache like mine? I was afraid to look foolish.
I think it was Alma who finally put the idea in my head. I’d been looking at white guys’ facial hair, bushy beards in sandy brown. The image of “man” in my mind was dripping with racism. Nice beaner stache, my brother told me, teasing. I don’t think he had any clue how racist that sounded.
My eyes were opened. Suddenly, mustaches like mine were everywhere. Thin, perfectly formed mustaches crowning the upper lips of brown guys of all varieties. Strolling around the university on a sunny day, I see facial hair like mine on Latino, Asian, Native and Middle Eastern guys.
My legs are a forest of brown hairs. My arms are smooth, haloed in delicate gold fuzz. My mom touches my arms and says it’s a Sephardic thing. Staring in the mirror, I laugh when I remember that they used to call us Oriental.*
My people spent 500 years in the place where the Middle East collides with Eastern Europe. It’s a place of varied features, of thick black hair and soft fair locks, where gazes may be the darkest brown or silver-green as a still lake. Complexions come in rich shades of olive, brown and gold. Some men have long, thick beards; some have bushy, carefully groomed mustaches; some have a slender frame of hair at the edges of mouth and face; and some men don’t grow facial hair at all. I have always known this, but somehow in the rush of my American youth culture, I forgot. I have to look outside the mainstream if I want to see a person who resembles myself.
So I like my little mustache. There’s something slightly counter-cultural about it. I like that it’s a little unusual–and I like who I share it with. I’m not waiting for a white man’s beard anymore.
* Until the mid-20th century, it was common for white people to call the Jews of the Middle East “Oriental Jews.” It was not a term of affection. We had our own words. My people have always called ourselves Sephardim.