By Emma Ryan
Last Halloween, I had a beard. I had many beards. They all had to go by 10 p.m.
I was a closeted trans girl doing what I could to hide that fact from everyone, including myself. Since leaving high school, I had curated a personality to throw anyone off the scent of me being queer. These were my beards.
I had deep opinions about whiskey and IPAs. I had a collection of classic rock and jazz vinyls. I clung to dozens of sea stories (some of them true!) from my four years in the Coast Guard. I wore oxford shoes, cotton twill trousers, and collared shirts with sleeves cuffed just below the elbow. And, of course, I had an actual beard.
After faking my masculinity for twenty-five years, I accepted what I was avoiding—I am a woman. COVID isolation, a breakup, and a soul-crushingly toxic workplace broke me down to the point where I could be honest with myself. When I realized and accepted my identity, I felt freer.
I was in the Coast Guard though, which was led by (like every military branch) President Trump. Trump was partially successful in banning trans people from military service during my enlistment. Even without the ban, people I served with were disapproving if not outright hostile towards trans people. I was worried about being outed and bullied by people I worked with. Worse still, I could be discharged early, which would taint my employment record and wipe out my benefits. Just as I came out to myself, I had to dive back in further than ever before.
Fast forward one year, to mid-August 2021. I completed my military service at twenty-six years old and kept my secret intact. I was accepted to Columbia’s Journalism School. Even though I was free of the military, I initially jumped back into the person I was before. I put on my oxford shoes, my cotton twill trousers, my collared shirts, and cuffed my sleeves just below the elbow. I grew out my beard again.
I proceeded as usual. Except now, I was fully aware that I was faking my manhood. I couldn’t pretend I was cis anymore, nor did I have to for my own survival.
Tired of boring men’s costumes and longing for cute women’s outfits, I decided Halloween would be my full feminine debut. I settled on a punky cat-girl look which was far from my self-imposed clean-cut look. With glee and apprehension, I began planning my transformation.
I broke the task down into two main parts: outfit and body. The outfit was simple enough to put together. Some Etsy pages and my local Spirit Halloween store provided me with the essentials —cat ears, a tail, a wig that didn’t look too fake, and a pair of fishnets. During my shopping high, I even bought thigh-high cat socks and a kitten face mask. I rummaged through my small femme wardrobe for a pair of jean shorts and a black top and repurposed my old military boots. Somehow, I found a makeup tutorial that didn’t use 30 products.
The next step was to get my body ready for the outfit. French tips with a black base became my cat claws. I bought special cross-dressing underwear to hide one part of my body, and breast forms to accentuate another.
My body hair was a huge roadblock for me in feeling more feminine. One week before Halloween, I Nair-bombed every inch of skin from my collarbone to my toes. After an entire afternoon and two bottles of the foul-smelling lotion, I felt more like myself.
I couldn’t bring myself to shave my beard though. My beard was my disguise. It was the last thing anchoring me to a masculine identity. Columbia was more accepting than the Coast Guard, and yet I was still scared of being ostracized afterward. If I didn’t shave my beard, I didn’t have to come out. I could still pick a different costume last minute, or pretend I was a cat girl “ironically.”
Like my other beards – the whiskey, the vinyls, those f***ing collared shirts – it was from another time in my life. My comfort became a prison. It was scratchy and stiff. It needed constant maintenance like a lie. The Friday of Hallo-weekend 2021, I took one last selfie with my beard for posterity.
I tried not to “look” at my face as I shaved, focusing only on removing the hair. Remove the bulk with clippers, get the stubble with a razor—the same hated routine I’d performed for the last four years. This time felt different. I wasn’t shaving to look like a clean-cut military man on a recruitment poster—I was removing the last piece of my old disguise.
I didn’t stop to look after it was gone. I felt my chin for any patches of remaining hair, dabbed at some knicks, and avoided eye contact with the person in the mirror. Straight away I began applying foundation and contour, coaxing the face of my dreams into existence.
At 9:00 p.m., one hour before the party, I allowed myself to really look in the mirror. She stared back at me, beautiful and confident albeit surprised. Neither of us expected that I’d voluntarily lose my beard. She smiled at me, happy to be free. It was a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time, one that melted away my anxiety of the night. I was ready to be seen—really seen —for the first time.
I arrived at my friend’s apartment fashionably late and stood outside for a moment before buzzing her door. After a moment of doubt, I climbed four flights of stairs, my heart pounding in time with the music coming from apartment 4C. With one last deep breath, I knocked on her door.
“Oh my god, I LOVE your outfit!” was the first thing I heard walking in. The compliment was the most intoxicating thing I had all night, and I drank more than my fair share of vodka punch. A pair of girls (an undead Danny and Sandy from Grease) immediately pulled me in to do vodka shots and told me how good I did on my makeup. One of my classmates introduced herself to me, not realizing I’d sat next to her in class earlier that day.
I felt beautiful. I felt femme. I felt right for the first time in a long time. I drank and danced with the other girls until after last call. Stumbling and giggling, we poured ourselves into an uptown Uber and one by one arrived at our respective apartments. I fell into bed happier than I’d ever been after a party. As I drifted off to sleep, a small voice in my head pitied that I’d have to go back to normal when I woke up.
The next morning, and every morning since I refused to let my beard grow back.
Featured Image by Dids.
Embedded photos courtesy of Emma Ryan.
Emma Ryan (she/her/hers) is a journalist, scriptwriter, competitive sailor and US Coast Guard veteran living in Massachusetts. She has been to 12 countries, including Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Emma recently graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, having previously studied political science at Western Washington University. As a freelancer, she has covered rent, religion, business, and tabletop gaming. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.