Queer People Are Changing the Toxic Culture of Barbershops

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I have many intimate childhood memories involving hair. Whether it was sitting on the floor between my mom or older sister’s knees as they wrangled my thick mane into neat ponytails, or settling in for the hours-long process of my mom visiting a neighbor’s house to get box or French braids, I learned early on that Black hair was a sacred labor of love. Sure, that labor was always painful, and I was prone to squeal and squirm my way through every single blow-drying session, but I also craved the intimacy of a space that was just for Black women. And since it’s true that beauty salons are mostly gender-normative spaces, I was a Black woman who didn’t quite fit.

What does it mean to be a Black woman? This was the question I grappled with throughout my twenties. I had identified as queer for most of my life, but my gender — the clothes I used to express it, the hair I wore to claim it — was a work in progress. All my life I’d been told that my hair was an important marker of my womanhood. My mother, grandmother, real aunties and play aunties alike, all told me that my hair was just so pretty and that I bet’ not ever cut it off and that they wish they had hair like mine. There was an economy to gender, and my so-called “good hair” was currency. As a Black woman, there wasn’t much to spend. It was best to keep what I already had.

But I cashed out anyway. At 31, after years of mulling it over, I did the Big Chop. I spent weeks looking for Black queer barbers who could hold the significance of the moment, and found a handful in Brooklyn: Dez Marshall, who worked independently downtown; Gaia Earthpeace, co-owner of Chokmah Hair Lab in Bed-Stuy; and Khane Kutzwell, whose client I became when they rented a chair in a Crown Heights barbershop.

Thanks in part to visual platforms like Instagram and YouTube, it’s easier than ever to access queer style tips and the people who create them. Instagram hashtags like #QueerBarber or #QueerCuts show scores of barbers and clients posing with fresh fades, bold colors, and intricate designs. That growth has been coupled with a general resurgence in men’s grooming — barbering is one of the fastest growing professions in the United States.

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For me, the Big Chop was nothing short of liberating. Afterward, I felt a jumble of emotions: anxious, exposed, nervous. But mostly I felt free. No more tedious upkeep. No more headaches whenever I leaned my head back on the subway and felt the crush of my ponytail against the train’s walls. My jeans were a little baggier, my shirts grew a little looser. I was happy.

Still, I faced my own challenges every Sunday as I rushed along the main thoroughfare of my Brooklyn neighborhood. I prided myself on efficiency when I ran my errands, and the fact that my laundromat was next to my grocery store, which was next to the nail shop where I got my eyebrows done. I loved caring for myself, and feeling cared for, and it should have been natural to add a trip to my closest barbershops on that same commercial drag. But I felt intrinsically wary of them. When I did venture in, there was a vibe, and it wasn’t good. Client after client would be chosen ahead of me. Barbers suddenly lost their ability to make eye contact. Mostly, I was wracked by an all-encompassing self-doubt as I sat in awkward silence. Was it awkward because I’m awkward? Or was this a sign of something more nefarious? I’d heard stories, from other friends who were masculine-of-center, of barbers cracking homophobic jokes with each other as they sat in the chair. Mine was a subtle discomfort — but it was there nonetheless. So I looked for something different.

It’s on the ground floor of a nondescript block in Crown Heights. There’s a red, white, and blue barber pole out front. On a wintry day in early February, two customers sit in the shop’s burgundy chairs, deep in conversation. In the chair closest to the front door, the stoutly-built owner, Khane Kutzwell, rocking a pair of blue jeans and high-top Nike Air Force 1’s, entertains a client’s thoughts about whether a person over 30, like New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, could realistically still claim to be at the top of a sport meant for the young.

“There’s always Beyoncé,” Kutzwell offers, speaking in a gentle voice and Brooklyn accent. “She only gets better with age.” Two chairs over, Light McAuliffe, 31, is taking book recommendations from another client. McAuliffe is wearing a red jumpsuit beneath a denim work apron. She moves with a dancer’s precision, gliding from one side of the chair to the next, holding the clippers in her right hand, angling her wrist just so. She banters about James Baldwin with the guest in her barber’s chair, and then they move on to existential literature.

“Have you read Kōbō Abe?” the client asks, referring to the Japanese writer and photographer. McAuliffe hasn’t, but promises to, and makes a note of the name just in case.

Maybe it’s the obscure literature, or the respect for a Black woman’s hustle. Maybe it’s the free condoms near the register, the rainbow-colored swag on a shelf right next to it, the homemade incense, the argan and mongongo soap for sale. It could be the coffee, tea, or water that every barber offers a client who steps through the door. Whatever it is, Camera Ready Kutz is not your typical Black barbershop. And that’s the point.

When I ask about gender identity or pronouns, Kutzwell, who opened the brick-and-mortar shop in December 2017, casually waves a noncommittal hand, like I’ve just asked what to watch on Netflix on a rainy day. “It’s really a vibe,” the 47-year-old tells me about their approach to identity. If I want to refer to them as queer, that works. If I want to use female pronouns, that’s fine too. Kutzwell was born in Trinidad and raised in Far Rockaway, Queens. A barber since 2007, they spent years cutting hair out of makeshift studios in spare bedrooms in the apartments they lived in all across New York City. “I went into barbering after hearing stories from friends in the LGBT community about bad treatment at neighborhood shops,” they say.

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A “vibe” is also what drew them to McAuliffe a few months before, during a visit to an old instructor at New York’s American Barber Institute, where McAuliffe was studying to get a barber’s license, along with Fay and NATO, two of the shop’s other barbers. Kutzwell measures people’s energy, and uses it to calibrate which of the shop’s five barbers might work best with their clients. It could be how they sound on the phone when they make an appointment, how they talk about the services they want, or the actual services themselves. Perhaps a client wants a simple curly-top fade or loc maintenance. There are probably a lot of words that could nail down the shop’s “vibe” and “energy,” but maybe it simply boils down to one: freedom.

“Most barbershops are these machismo, hypermasculine places,” Kutzwell says. “I want this to be a place where everyone feels welcome.” Kutzwell adds, related to the attention to detail of the space: “People who have had bad experiences have anxiety because of those experiences, so my job is to try to put them at ease when they sit down.”

Black hair isn’t just about politics, or even style; it’s labor. Whether it’s scouring the countless YouTube tutorials on maintaining natural hair, or the nightly ritual of twisting and covering that hair, or wading into the world of locticians and weavologists — the maintenance and celebration of Black hair relies on an industry of well-trained professionals. And it’s a lucrative one: The Black hair care industry is valued at more than $2.5 billion — and that’s considered a low estimate.

But barbershops hold an outsized level of cultural significance. They’re known for epic amounts of shit-talking, political-posturing, sage life-advising, bad life-advising, and community-building. These are all reasons why Ice Cube produced three films about them, and, more recently, why the hit ABC sitcom black-ish devoted two separate episodes in two different seasons to them. The power of the barbershop wasn’t lost on Barack Obama in 2008, when he launched a grassroots campaign in battleground Southern states based entirely around them during his first Presidential campaign.

But Black barbershops can also ooze — unapologetically, intentionally, and sometimes violently — with the worst strands of toxic masculinity. For people assigned male at birth, there’s very little room to safely express a different gender. And in an era where people assigned female at birth have the space to express their gender as queer, trans, or gender nonconforming, short hairstyles have become an important part of gender expression. Businesses like Camera Ready Kutz have become more than just safe spaces. They’re necessary ones.

Kiana is a Black, 23-year-old Brooklynite who rocks a close-cropped reddish-orange fade. She identifies as a woman — “today,” she laughs. Kiana’s been a client of Kutzwell’s for more than a year, and lets out a long sigh when she describes the relief of finding a barber who would just let her be herself. At the time, she wore locs, and she knew exactly what she wanted: a fade on the sides in order to make a mohawk. But she didn’t know any barbers, so she went to her father’s barbershop where every man had an opinion on what she should do instead of cutting off her hair. “Why cut off such womanly hair? Just add a weave,” they counseled. She didn’t go back.

“I’m coming here for a service and feel so uncomfortable,” Kiana remembers thinking about that barbershop experience. “I let my hair grow out for three months and I kept saying to myself, I don’t wanna look like this anymore.” McAuliffe has worn short hair since she was 13, when she, too, went to a barber who was recommended by her father. “No matter how good the cut was, I’d be in the bathroom crying afterward because it was so uncomfortable,” she says. That discomfort underscored the essential function of barbershops in the first place.

“The barbershop is a place where people get taken care of,” McAuliffe says. “We all value the space of the queer barbershop and helping fellow queer people realize there are spaces where they can be themselves.”  

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