Slang City Mail

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November 29, 2007

Slang of the Week: beard (noun)
a person who helps another to cover up a clandestine relationship, often by acting as a sham romantic partner

After twenty years of unconsummated marriage, Jeff began to suspect his wife Jenny was more than friends with her constant companion Betsy, and he was just a beard.

Celebrity quote:
“…[Rudy Giulian's] press office started telling reporters, ‘He’s teaching Andrew how to play golf.’ Now Andrew’s old enough to understand—he has to be aware that his father used him as a beard.”
— Author Wayne Barrett, quoted by Judy Bachrach in Vanity Fair (September 2007)

While a beard can be a male who covers for his cheating friend, these days, it more often appears in stories about women who date or marry gay men. For sports figures, politicians and others in the public eye, being openly gay can be a serious liability, so some people go to great lengths to appear straight (heterosexual).

Though times have changed, and lesbian entertainers such as Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, Portia de Rossi, have successful careers, gay male actors are rarely offered heterosexual romantic leads or action hero parts; this cuts them out of a substantial number of roles. Even for those who claim to be straight, potentially damaging rumors abound. In Hollywood, Tom Cruise is chief among those targeted with such stories, so his past and present wives, Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes, have often been referred to as beards.

For conservative politicians, it is also important to maintain the appearance of being straight and those outed in national scandals, such as Idaho Senator Larry Craig ( recently accused of soliciting sex in a men’s bathroom) need beards in the form of wives to stand by them and vehemently deny their husbands’ infidelity and sexual orientation.

Not surprisingly, however, politicians from my own state are less concerned about this. (Massachusetts, in case you missed it, is the only US state to allow homosexuals to marry.) Our congressman Barney Frank, for example, came out publicly in 1987, long before it was considered acceptable. Even before that, Massachusetts congressman Gerry Studds came out in 1983, when it was revealed that he’d had an affair with a congressional page in 1973. All the same, we kept electing him and he represented the state until 1997. While I’m sure that the slang variety exists here, beards in Boston are more likely to be a result of not shaving.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime By Donald F. Reuter.