My first barber was my mother. She would trim my bangs in the double sink bathroom that she shared with my father, while I stared at my awkward little self in their big mirror. It was framed by vanity lights straight out the eighties but my chubby face- long hair- slightly crooked bangs look was timeless.
At eighteen I cut all my hair off and began going to barbershops. I was a fade freshman and there were things I had to learn - mainly how to ask for the haircut I wanted. I had to learn the clippers formula, which numbers equaled which lengths. I had to learn if I wanted my lineup boxed or tapered, and to say NO before they rubbed me down with alcohol followed by baby powder and olive oil sheen, leaving my neck burning and my hair so shiny it was reflective. But I was also learning how to move as an outsider in a new space that I had no experience in. I went to barber shops for ten years before I transitioned while living as a masculine woman. Most of the time it was fine. I got dapped up, sat down, lined up, and then I left. Not a lot of chat, no problems. But I still always felt a little anxious right before going.
If barbershops are dens of masculinity, I’m a different kind of bear. I’m a panda at the barber. For anyone who does not possess masculinity in a “standard” way, be it a cis-gay man, a boi, an older woman, a trans guy, the shop can sometimes feel like walking into a party you weren’t invited to. You know this space wasn’t made for you and most of the people in it might not even consider your existence. No one is going to kick you out, but you are going to be the awkward one in the corner alone by the punch bowl all night. I found myself speaking more quietly than I usually do and sitting tensely through the entire cut.
As I grew into my own masculinity more I was able to relax a bit. Confidence became my cure. If I knew who I was and worked to be grounded in that, then I could bring myself into any space, even uncomfortable ones, and be my own baseline. But that is easier said than done. I ‘dated around’ with different barbers. I would find a new shop, go to the first barber available, and put my chips on the table (the chips being my hair, which is an aesthetically significant feature to roll the dice with). If the cut was good and the barber was chill, I would get his name and number and we might do it again.
When I did settle down with a shop, I never really interacted with the other barbers or customers. I got good at tuning out the buzz of conversations since they were at best, basic and boring, at worst, macho and maddening. There are few, or actually zero, other times that I am around that many cis and straight men, for good reason. And my barber is the only cis man who touches my face.
My current shop is my favorite ever and I love my barber. For the lines and the looks, I knew I wanted to go to a Dominican spot, so I tried one not far from my house. My guy had long hair and a shape-up, like me, and he was new there, like me. He smiled a lot and spoke softly. He was handsome and I was very jealous of his luscious beard. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to be him or be his friend, which is nothing I had ever felt for a barber before. Plus, the shop played good reggaeton and all the mirrors had vanity lights like my first ever bathroom barber. (Each mirror also had the barber’s name spelled out in varsity-jacket type block letters framed by the lights. Classic.)
The first time I went to him was a month before I had top surgery and a month after I had started T. Maybe I passed from the beginning, but I never got one strange look or stiff exchange when I came back a few months later with a flat chest. As I slowly squeeze a beard out of my face, my barber has never laughed or raised an eyebrow (but he has non-consensually shaped my eyebrows one or two times).
I am not sure what they think of me in there. At first they, like most of the world, probably thought I was a gay Puerto Rican man. After coming in with my girlfriend a few times and failing to respond in Spanish many times, they have probably deduced I am neither of those things. And they don’t care. I come in with my voluptuous bun, dap my dude, we exchange two or three lines of banter, and then I sit quietly and get my cut.
I am thirty years old now, twelve years into living as a gender-queer person, two years into living as a trans man, and I can finally relax. I close my eyes and let myself be soothed by the soft hum of the clippers, the Dominican ballads, my barber softly folding down my ear or tilting up my chin, the warm soap before the razor. Then I leave looking and feeling clean, sharp, and confident. I want everyone to feel that way. True comfort and safety in the barbershop for trans and queer people is dependant on truly shifting cis straight men out of misogynistic mentalities and fear-filled hate. But until that monster is felled, here are some small ideas to make going to the barber more manageable and less anxiety provoking.
1. BRING A FRIEND
I have found that going with someone at first can really help. Do you have a friend, lover, family member who is down to roll with you to check out a new barber? Preferably someone who also needs a haircut, but they can also just sit and wait with you and then go to get some pizza after. Asking other trans or queer folks where they get their haircut is a good bet too because then you can assume they have vetted that barber to some degree.
2. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT
Also, know exactly what you want so you don’t have to get nervous when they ask, “What will it be?” If you know someone who has a cut you like, ask them how they tell their barber what they want so you can have the language needed to communicate your desires. For a new cut, bring in a reference photo. And if you get a cut you like, say to the barber, “This is perfect. What should I ask for if I want this exact cut again next time?” They will give you the lingo.
3. REMEMBER THAT YOU BELONG HERE
Lastly, and this one is the hardest, try to remember that you are the shit, that you have every right to be there, that you are a special creature, that who you are is not shaped by how you are perceived, and that you are not the only panda in the barbershop.
Want to read more tips for navigating the barbershop, read Naomi Gordon Loebl's piece: The Queer’s Guide to Surviving (and Thriving in) the Straight Male Barbershop.