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19 Sep

The identity-affirming power of LGBTQ+ hairdressers

Not only for haircuts, a rising variety of queer salons are offering protected spaces for people to work out their identity and what it’d seem like

As any queer one that’s lived through the reign of the undercut – mainly the handkerchief code distilled right into a single half-shaved hairdo, as beloved by 2010s lesbians – knows, hair is so far more than simply dead bits of keratin. It’s a source of pride, a type of self-fashioning and a method to signify your identity to others. 

Because of this, it may feel like traditional hair care spaces may be lower than welcoming to those under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Divided strictly into male barber spaces and feminine hair salon spaces, the world of hair care has traditionally been ruled by explicit gender norms which might create an uncomfortably cis-heteronormative atmosphere. And while researching this piece, I discovered loads of stories from trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people whose experiences backed this up. 

“Attempting to get a gender-affirming cut from a standard place may be nerve-racking, to say the least,” says non-binary 25-year-old Jei. “I actually have been turned away from men’s barber shops and had feminised versions of masculine cuts I wanted from a female barber.” But even in one in every of the rare instances where they were served and given their requested cut, Jei felt removed from comfortable. “I felt incredibly nervous, seeing as I used to be the one non-man within the shop on the time,” he recalls. “I felt the stares of others wondering why I used to be there, and wanted to go away the shop as soon as possible.”

It goes without saying that hair which aligns along with your identity and signals to the world who you actually are is a joy, so what’s the choice, beyond learning to do your personal DIY mullet at home? Well, organisations like Hair Has No Gender are working to make the established system higher, raising awareness amongst barbers and hairdressers and providing education on gender-affirming haircuts. But there are a growing variety of queer hairdressers who’re bypassing the system altogether. Uninterested in cis-het norms within the hair care space, they’re creating their very own non-judgemental spaces. 

Run by non-binary barber Sam Rubinstein, Rooibos caters to “99.9 per cent queer clientele”. Rubinstein’s intentions for his or her clients transcend just the aesthetic.“ Queer people deserve a spot where they will fully express themselves, judgement-free, and leave with a hairstyle that affirms their true identity,” they are saying. The problems regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion in traditional salons and barbershops have deep roots, roots they’ve all the time tried to get away from. 

“Classic hair education remains to be so heavily linked to gender and that tends to translate within the mainstream salons,” they are saying. This results in internalised gender norms, which might then be projected onto queer clients: whether it’s offering unwanted opinions or providing a more diluted version of the identity-affirming look the person of their chair has asked for. To counteract these tendencies elsewhere, Rubinstein tries to listen closely to clients’ needs throughout the method. “It’s just me and also you: no other stylists questioning or judging my client’s desired final result,” they are saying. “It’s a collaboration.”

A standard request at Rooibos is haircuts to assist clients “look more queer”. Even ignoring the very fact we are able to’t all the time trust a cis-het stylist to not subtly (or not-so-subtly) dissuade us from that plan of action, a queer hairdresser can have higher knowledge of what “queer hair” translates to IRL. A part of the appeal of heading to a queer hairdresser, then, is the existence of a shared shorthand and cultural context. 

Such is the case for 26-year-old Nora who, reasonably than go to salons, prefers to have her hair cut informally in the homes of LGBTQ+ hairdressers. Looking back at her first queer-affirming haircut, courtesy of Jadah Dale (who’s now a senior stylist at Bleach London Soho), Nora recalls that each one she needed to do was say the magic words “I would like a dyke-y haircut” and the look was delivered. “I showed up at Trans Pride having cut most of my hair off and with a vibrant fringe – everyone was complimenting me on my hair,” she recalls. 

Since then, Nora has had her hair cut informally by friend, multidisciplinary artist and former salon stylist Jade O’Belle, who gave her the arrogance to go “boy short” along with her locks and embody a glance that she’s traditionally found attractive in others but never felt she could pull off herself. “Queer hairstylists have modified my life and the way I move through the world,” she says. “They gave me the arrogance to match my outside with how I felt on the within.

The intimate sessions which Nora describes as a part of her hair sessions – one-on-one and in a peaceful, welcoming space – is analogous to the model utilized by multiple queer hairdressers, including Zara Toppin, who runs the hair studio Toppin’s in Shoreditch. From this sense of privacy, clients can develop real trust with their stylist. “The space is private and one-on-one, nobody will feel judged by other people inside the salon,” says Toppins. 

A visit to a queer hairdresser is about so far more than a haircut; it’s about having the ability to be your most authentic self around individuals who see you as you actually are. Understandably, then, queer salons and barbers can feel like a crucial community space, something which Toppins is keen to cultivate – hosting the exhibition Close Shave, of Lydia Garnett’s black and white photography, in October. Similarly, Rubinstein has previously hosted queer speed-dating events. When so many LGBTQ+ spaces are available in the types of clubs or bars, it’s essential to have spaces or events that queer people can turn to through the day and feel connected to their identity without an environment of medicine or alcohol – and queer salons do exactly this. 

The ability of queer hairdressers as spaces for community, where you may feel more at home in your identity and connect with like-minded people, is something which 31-year-old Martha can attest to. She first headed to Open Barbers in 2017, where they willingly obliged her request on the time to “seem like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic,” and the affirming environment had her coming back for years. “It’s an incredible community space and it’s possible to satisfy friends,” she explains. Open Barber isn’t a neutral substitute to a mainstream salon, it’s somewhere you may be yourself. There’s a respect for the role that hair can play in queer self-fashioning.”

Martha’s comment hits the nail on the top: queer salons and barbers aren’t just offering an LGBTQ+ version of what straight people can get. As an alternative, they create rare, queer-centred environments. They’re protected spaces for people determining their identity and what it’d seem like, who can trust that they’re in protected and affirming hands. And – perhaps most significantly – they’re a haven away from cis-het beauty standards and the straight gaze, where baby queer caterpillars can blossom into the butchest, campest or most fantastic of butterflies. 

Not all people can have access to an LGBTQ+ hairdressers or barbers of their area. For advice on the best way to navigate a visit to the barbers or hairdressers as a trans, non-binary or gender-non-conforming person, seek the advice of charity Gendered Intelligence’s guide for practical suggestions and advice.

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