Why a trip to the barbershop can be a traumatising experience for queer people

Queer people living in Ireland detail how a simple trip to the barbershop can be a difficult experience.

A person seen from behind getting their haircut in a barbershop

A trip to the barbershop is, for many people, a simple functional exchange that we take for granted. But for many lesbians, trans and non-binary people and others across the queer spectrum, it can be the occasion of real distress and danger.

Outright discrimination on behalf of the barber is not uncommon (announcing out loud for instance that ‘we don’t cut women’s hair’) and can lead to profound feelings of anxiety and insecurity, sometimes combined with the impression of physical threat.

This kept cropping up in my interviews with those affected; “feeling unsafe”, thinking, “what’s going to happen to me now?”, “people staring”.

These are powerful attestations, making clear how devastating a simple trip to the barbers can be. One interviewee, Anna, who is queer, stated simply, “I know when I’m not welcome”.

Non binary person wearing a baseball cap and glasses: in this piece queer people describe the difficulties of a simple trip to the barbershop
Casey Hevey

BeLonG To held a day’s activities during Transboree celebrations in November 2018, which was organised in conjunction with the group IndividualiTy, for trans and non-binary young people. It was a day dedicated to body positivity among a cohort of young people coming together to celebrate their identity and get a free haircut from a strong advocate for safe spaces and diversity in barbering – Casey Hevey.

According to Casey, who is non-binary, “After I came back from Australia, I thought I’d like to be that safe space for other younger queer and gender diverse people in Ireland. I reached a level and thought I could successfully give good haircuts, and [thought] I could use these skills to pay it back – to BeLonG To specifically. As a young queer person in Ireland, I’d used their services. Not for very long, but I did go. And I made my own connections in that place, so I thought it was the perfect place to try to sort something out – to give back and do something.”

The crux of safe spaces for gender diverse individuals in barbershops was something also emphasised by Cameron, a young trans man – and a very strong advocate for LGBT+ rights. Cameron is currently living and studying in Galway. As he said, “To have a place where you can explore your own identity and your own expression in a safe way so that nobody is going to give you any judgement for it – it can be hugely significant. It can be the difference between a person being happy or not”.

Man sitting on steps: in this piece queer people describe the difficulties of a simple trip to the barbershop
Cameron Keighron

Trans men and non-binary people may be particularly vulnerable in this regard. As one interviewee from the IndividualiTy group, Jake – a Galway based advocacy worker and student – stated, “Say a trans man goes to the barber to get his haircut. He might be pre-hormone replacement therapy; he might be pre-any surgical procedures, and a haircut might be something that he really uses to alleviate his dysphoria. A refusal of service at the barbers can cause huge anxiety and add to depression. It can really impact mental health.

“People I know bring their cis friends to the barbers with them, and the majority of the time then their hair will get cut, but if they were to go by themselves – pre-transition, pre-hormones – they wouldn’t get accepted into the barbers at all.”

Man sitting on steps. Behind him a red door: :in this piece queer people describe the difficulties of a simple trip to the barbershop
Jake Tyler Prunty

Take the case of Lee McLoughlin, who in September 2018 went for a ‘short, back and sides’ cut in a barbershop in Nutgrove shopping centre, Dublin. Lee, who was 28 at the time, simply asked for the cut, and was told by the barber “I don’t cut ladies’ hair.” Lee then went on to explain to the barber that he was trans, to which the barber stated, in front of all of the other customers there – “I am sorry, we can’t cut ladies’ hair. It’s a contract that we have with another hairdresser around the corner, so if we cut a woman’s hair we will be fined.”

Lee had to go for an emergency counselling session after the incident.

Yet even in the face of such blatant discrimination, it is a solace to know that we live in a country where Lee could take the action further. The Workplace Relations Committee stated it was discrimination on gender grounds, and fined the barber €5,000 in damages.

In Dublin, Anna, who works and goes to the barbers in the city centre, gave a greatly insightful tour of her experiences of the capital. As she explained, “It ranges from: we won’t serve you, because they read me as a woman, to an amazing environment where nobody bats an eyelid when you walk in the door. So it’s a very big spectrum of experiences. I do have a barber I use on a regular basis, but it’s taken me a while to get there. It’s taken me a good few years actually, and I’m about a year with them, but getting there was pretty hard.”

Woman wearing a floral t-shirt
Anna MacCarthy Adams

Having been refused service, and having been made feel very unwelcome in another barber in Dublin, Anna finally settled on BlindEye Barbers in George’s Street Arcade. As she put it, “It’s really nice going in there – they’re lovely and they do amazing cuts. They’re really reasonable as well.

“I should also mention Sugar Daddy on Exchequer Street. They’re super lovely and Suzanne is very nice.” Another trans-friendly barber which got a singing accolade from Cameron is Fat Tony’s on Middle Street, Galway.

Finding these barbers is largely a case of googling, online reviews, as Anna put it – “the queer grapevine”, and Facebook groups. All of the interviewees mentioned pooling knowledge and using the internet to reach people, building up grassroots resources for sharing as much information as possible on trans and gender diverse friendly barbers across the board. Casey has their own spot in a barbershop in Malahide – Club Man Barbershop – and it is a case in point.

As a Club Man Barbershop spokesperson explained, “The ethos is that you’re coming into a barbershop, so you want a barbers haircut. And it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. You’re coming here for us to provide a service, and we want to do that to the best of our abilities.

“So we like to get to know our clients. We do a lot of walk-ins but we do an appointment system as well. We do have people who constantly come back to their own barber and we build relationships and we find out more about the people who are on their own journeys. The space in Malahide is a very welcoming space. There’s no ‘macho-ness’; there’s no bravado. We try to foster a welcoming, safe space for everybody. I have a very wide spectrum of clients including cis females who come in because they want a very specific haircut, and they want to be able to go into a barbershop.”

Man wearing a black t-shirt
Ianto Lynch

All in all, the experiences recounted around barbershops show that it is a serious problem for trans and gender diverse people across the country. But barbers like Casey Hevey are paving the way for the future of a more inclusive, diverse vision of barbering which is more in line with a human and gender rights perspective.

As Casey so eloquently made the point, “Barbering is an industry dominated by men. Women make up a very small part of the industry. As a result of that, it’s become a bit male-centric. Men deserve safe spaces, but it’s a case of broadening your definition of what a man is. Just broaden your ideas of having options. There are women who like those particular shapes in their haircut, and they shouldn’t have to fear going into those spaces. They should feel safe in those spaces also.

“Allow people to self-identify – don’t place your ideals, your images – on what a man or a woman or a person is. Be open to everybody. Because at the end of the day you’re running a business and providing a service – you’re turning away money, and that’s not good business.”

This story was originally published in GCN’s Pride Issue 355.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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