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Navigating the Intensely Gendered World of Hair Salons When You’re Queer

Companies like You + Sundry are trying to make the experience a whole lot less harrowing.

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My hair is a dark mass of broom-like bristles. It sticks out of my head in different directions no matter what I do, thanks to my Central and South American background. And while I’m usually pretty lazy when it comes to my appearance, it’s the one aspect I put effort into. Because even if I could afford to keep it short, to have it trimmed every two weeks, the intensely gendered world of hair care is simply too scary for a queer kid like me.

Short hair on female-assigned folks has been considered an indicator of queerness for certainly as long as I’ve been alive. After butchering my own mane at 14, my mother dragged me to a Supercuts in a Florida strip mall. I was coming into my sexuality as a brown kid in Orlando during the George W. Bush era, so feeling unwelcome followed me everywhere.

And from the looks of the salon’s bare surroundings, from the walls to the expressions on everyone’s faces and the clothes that they were wearing, I understood that this wasn’t a place where individual personality, style, or identity was supposed to be celebrated.

For $9, I wasn’t looking for a makeover, just some simple maintenance, but things got complicated once the stylist told me to say ‘stop’ once she’d reached the desired length. I never did, but that didn’t stop her from asking me, over and over, if I wanted her to, warning me throughout that I was “going to look like a boy.”

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Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I had an experience like that at a beauty salon; in fact, it’s essentially the only experience I’ve had in beauty salons. My other choice was to go to barber shops, but their dudebro vibes made me feel out of place, too. Sitting in barbers’ chairs was like going to a TED talk I didn’t sign up for: I’d either get advice as to how to better appeal to men, or when the conversation would eventually lean toward my sexuality, how to better appeal to women. I’d always leave those spaces looking like a baby dyke Drake. And so I’ve been cutting my own hair ever since.

Recently, after a panicked DIY hair cutting session meant to tame the half-assed situation sprawling across the back of my head, I came upon You + Sundry on Instagram, a pop-up parlor for women and the LGBTQIA+ community that focuses on short hair, with prices ranging from $12-60. It bills itself as a “a safe space where anyone can get their hair cut, no matter their gender identity or expression.” Their most recent pop-up took place in Brooklyn this past summer, and though I’d just missed it, the idea of it fascinated me — or really, the fact that this idea isn’t as widespread as it clearly needs to be.

“Going to get a haircut — and we have some cool, interesting haircuts — can be such an intimate experience,” You + Sundry founder Kim Goulbourne told me, “and some people will refuse to get a haircut just because they don’t want to tolerate ignorance or harassment.” It’s a very vulnerable position to be in, asking a stranger to alter your physical appearance to help you express how you see yourself and how you want to be seen. “Being part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Kim continued, “[and] already knowing most places may not be safe to be yourself immediately triggers discomfort.”

Though many may not have considered the binary nature of hair salons, for a lot of queer and non-binary people, it’s another reminder that this society wasn’t built with us in mind. On one hand, you have hyper-masculine barbershops, and on the other, ultra-feminine beauty salons, both considered to be safe havens for their respective genders; community spaces, even.

“How the world sees us and how we choose to present ourselves plays such a huge role in our everyday lives and interactions,” You + Sundry patron Marley Jean told me over email. They relayed their experience at an “artsy, hipster” barbershop in SoHo where they were mistaken for a man the whole time. “[The barber] started telling me about past girls he had been with [and] about his screenplay that was critiqued by his friend in the industry for being too misogynistic. I felt I was already in too deep and just awkwardly pretended I was a boy to avoid any discomfort.”

Another patron, Denise B., also had embarrassing experiences at the barber. “Where other male-presenting clients were welcomed with a ‘Hey boss! How are you? We’ll be right with you,’ I was greeted with, ‘Can we help you?’ as if there are other reasons to walk into a barbershop.” Denise also shared these stories with the folks at You + Sundry, saying: “It was a huge weight off my chest. I’d realized I’d never expressed those feelings to anyone, somehow thinking that I was the root of the problem.”

F R E S H with @straydaze - Cut by @tinybarberbk - @tonhyakae

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Kim said that her own experiences in hair care brought her to start You + Sundry, telling me, “I’ve had short hair for about six years now and I’ve always felt uncomfortable in barbershops.”

After a queer woman barber she’d made a connection with left her styling spot, Kim got the idea to create a salon that went out of its way to be inclusive, first for a weekend in March, then for two weeks this summer, and now once a month for the next five months. (The next pop-up will run August 25-26 at The Phluid Project, a gender-neutral shopping space in Brooklyn.)

Ultimately, she’s aiming to make You + Sundry a permanent space in 2019, something her patrons have asked for. “I hate having to say that we’re closing up shop at the end of each pop-up because they end up having to go back to where they don’t want to be,” Kim said.

While You + Sundry may not be the first salon with these goals or communities in mind — with New York City’s first unisex salon, Seagull, serving queer celebrities since 1971, and Philadelphia’s X salon implementing their own “Ten Commandments” to discourage discriminatory and prejudicial behavior — it’s certainly one of the few affordable ones.

With the rate at which my hair grows out of my head and on a writer’s income to boot, the upscale unisex salon experience is largely unaffordable for me. My hope is that the concept of accessible and inclusive community hair salons is replicated beyond You + Sundry while maintaining the same radical spirit. (They also host sex toy workshops and Pride parties, and plan to offer makeup classes for trans folks, too.)

It might seem silly to that something as simple as using scissors on someone’s hair would be so fraught with emotional triggers and social implications. But what may be easy for cisgender, heterosexual, or just plain monied individuals can become an obstacle course for queer and trans people, especially those of color with few options available to us.

Hair is a part of our bodies, and the way our bodies move and exist in public space becomes political when they’re restricted to so few options. We deserve much, much more. Doing someone’s hair in a space where all of them are welcome can be a small but powerful affirmation, a way of saying, “I see you.”


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