Derrick L. Middleton describes how, at 5 years old, he was afraid of his first haircut at a barbershop. But it wasn’t the flash of the scissors or the hum of the clippers that scared him as a child.
“My father took me to his barbershop in Harlem, and he puts me in the chair—in the booster seat—and he looks me in the eyes and says, ‘You’re a man now. Don’t be afraid because you’re a man now,’” Middleton tells Out.
Middleton is the director of Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop, a documentary that explores how gay black men face discomfort and discrimination in one of the few safe spaces for black men in American society.
“From that first haircut, my father’s words made me afraid of the barbershop, because that became a place where I had to perform masculinity,” Middleton says. “Even after I came out, I found myself retreating back into the closet every time I went to my barbershop.”
Middleton decided to document his and other gay black men’s experiences in barbershop after being thrown out of a barber’s chair two years ago.
“The barber waved for me to come in,” he recalls. “I started to ask for my haircut—the fade I wanted, the blend on the sides—and while I was speaking he said, ‘This ain’t no beauty salon. We don’t do none of that sissy shit in here.’”
Middleton left—as the barber snatched the cape off him—and described his walk home as a “walk of shame” for both what he just faced and how he didn’t speak out.
As he shared his story, he discovered other gay men who faced similar discomfort and discrimination. They hid; they stayed silent. They policed the way they talked, how they walked, what they wore—to make sure they wouldn’t read as a “sissy.” And suddenly, the documentary took form.
Shape Up premiered July 20 at the White House in Washington, D.C. The film won the best emerging documentary award from the March on Washington Film Festival.
While Middleton hopes his film challenges black barbershops to consider how they treat their gay or queer clients, he also wants to praise the importance of the barbershop in black communities.
“No matter what black neighborhood you go to, any black neighborhood, you’re going to find two things—a church and a barbershop,” he says. “And the barbershop for black males is about as sacred as the church. It’s one of the only safe spaces for black men today, where they can talk about politics or sports and speak completely openly. But these same black men just don’t realize they have gay men in those spaces—that we’ve always been in those spaces. We’ve been there in silence, and we want to be a part of this space as well.”
What Middleton discovered is that straight men in these spaces often call out “faggots” and “sissies” not just out of homophobia, but a genuine ignorance that there are any gay men there to hear them.
“Straight men will ask from a genuine place if this is a real problem, because they assume there just aren’t any gay men in their barbershop,” Middleton says. “That’s because most of us are hiding.”
The men in Shape Up prove that gay men participate in these spaces—and they’re done hiding. While Middleton hopes to see the black community rally around the barbershop as a more progressive space, he knows change is slow. But it’s coming.
“I was born in Harlem,” he says. “I walked those streets in my platform shoes and skinny jeans at night when it wasn’t safe. But everything’s changing. Business are hanging rainbow flags in their windows. It’s a beautiful transformation to see.”
Watch the trailer below.