Bearding is Still a Thing in Hollywood

“Bearding” is a slang term describing a conscious attempt by a lesbian or gay man to hide her or his homosexuality from others by appearing to date or marry someone of the opposite sex. The “beard” (or in the case of a man used by a lesbian for the same purpose, the term used in the U.S. is “merkin,” which is a pubic wig, or in the U.K.“frock” (according to the Internet)) is normally witting and participates in the ruse as a favor to the other person or in return for some benefit.

Bearding has been around probably forever, but the use of the term “beard” specifically to describe the practice became more widely used in the 1960s. Before then, such relationships, particularly before World War II, were often called “lavender marriages.”

In Hollywood, bearding became almost normalized beginning in the 1920s, when studios began including morality clauses in the contracts they presented actors. In the 1930s and 40s, censors under the Motion Picture Production Code—also known as the Hays Code—kept a so-called “Doom Book” of 117 names of Hollywood figures whose private lives were “contrary to public morals” and therefore should be blackballed from working in Hollywood. Some gay actors and actresses responded by either self-initiating a bearding relationship or having one arranged for them by the studio to which they were contracted.

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For example, then-Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson, hearing that Confidential magazine was planning to expose his homosexuality, married his agent’s secretary as a cover in 1955 (she herself is rumored to have been a lesbian). When Hudson dated Lee Garlington from 1962 to 1965, they would go together to red carpet premiers, but each had to bring their own dates to avoid public scrutiny. Hudson was only outed to the public after his death of AID-related complications in 1985.

In a 2011 interview with Joy Behar, Betty White implied she occasionally bearded for the flamboyantly gay Liberace. Liberace, who never publicly admitted to being gay, in 1954 announced his engagement to actress Joanne Rio, but they never ended up marrying.

While most people are aware of at least some Hollywood bearding efforts, the public is probably less aware of efforts by lesbians in Hollywood to hide their sexuality than gay men. Although not exactly a “bearding” situation, Rosie O’Donnell’s self-professed infatuation for Tom Cruise in the mid-90s on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” helped mask her homosexuality from the stay at home mom crowd that formed the bulk of her viewership.

In 2016, actor Johnathon Schaech discussed in a Reddit interview taking Ellen DeGeneres on dates at the request of their shared manager because Ellen was scared no one would watch her show if it came out that she was lesbian.

Country singer Chely Wright dated fellow singer Brad Paisley in the early 2000s even though she’d just moved in with her female partner partially to use him as a beard and partially because of a belief that she’d have to settle into an unfulfilling heterosexual relationship to fill societal expectations.

Getty Images
Getty Images

But does bearding in Hollywood continue in this decade? Yes, although the participants are unlikely to admit it until years later at best. Although the Hays Code was replaced in 1968 and gay marriage has been legal since 2015, the drivers behind an individual choosing to beard (avoiding public scrutiny that would result in blackballing/loss of income, fear of rejection by family and friends, etc.) remain.

In 2013, Ellen Page filmed “The East” with Alexander Skarsgard. In June 2013, director Zal Batmanglij posted a picture of the two on Twitter, and as the UK’s Daily Mail describes it, “Cuddling up to each other as they kicked back in a San Francisco park, the Swedish actor could be seen planting a tender kiss on his girlfriend’s cheek as she reclined happily in his arms.” According to other press reports, the two had been “dating for almost a year,” with some going to the extent of reporting that they were already expecting their first child.

Unnamed representatives for both sides denied the two were dating at the time, and Page has not admitted to bearding specifically (though she admitted, “I’m tired of hiding. And I’m tired of lying by omission.”), but nevertheless, the picture certainly did not look platonic, and Page indirectly benefited from speculation that they were dating because it diverted attention from her sexual orientation before she came out publicly in February 2014.


Although Americans are more likely to be familiar with bearding by gay men (skepticism at “American Idol” singer Clay Aiken’s protestations of heterosexuality greatly exceeded credulity about them), rumors about Oprah being in a secret relationship with Gayle King and, to a much lesser extent, Dolly Parton and Judy Ogle, have shown astonishing resiliency over decades, suggesting that at least some Americans understand that some celebrity lesbians (if not actually Oprah and Dolly) still feel a need to remain closeted.

Historically, it is difficult to pinpoint whether relationships have been bearding relationships, because of the theory of fluidity in human sexuality.  For example, the singer Ricky Martin came out in 2010 as gay, but does that mean the women he dated in the 1990s were beards? Only they know. In January 2016, Rick told Mexican magazine Fama! that he likes both men and women.

(Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images)

Many people have claimed that Whitney Houston once dated her best friend Robyn Crawford, and her ex-husband Bobby Brown himself in his 2008 autobiography implied that Houston had used him as a beard to avoid speculation about her sexuality, but only Houston knew the full truth. Conversely, Sarah Paulson had only dated men before embarking on a relationship with actress Cherry Jones and then Holland Taylor, but as she identifies as bisexual, there’s no reason to believe her previous male partners, including playwright Tracy Letts, to whom she was engaged, were beards. Overall, often the public only finds out about a true bearding relationship retrospectively, after the individual comes out (or in some cases, dies).

One obvious but loaded question that follows from the continued practice of bearding is should lesbian actresses who are worried about their careers beard, or should they simply refuse to discuss their personal lives? The answer to that question is for another article.