Not just for haircuts, a growing number of queer salons are providing safe spaces for people to discover their identity and what it might look like
Like any queer person who has lived through the reign of the undercut – essentially the handkerchief code distilled into a single half-shaved hairstyle, as adored by the 2010s lesbians – knows, the hair is So much more than just dead chunks of keratin. It is a source of pride, a form of self-construction and a way of signify your identity to others.
For this reason, it may seem like traditional hair care spaces may be less welcoming to people under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Strictly divided into male barber spaces and female hair salon spaces, the world of hair care has traditionally been governed by explicit gender norms that can create an uncomfortable cis-heteronormative atmosphere. And while researching this article, I found many stories of trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people whose experiences confirmed this.
“Trying to get a gender-affirming cut from a normal place can be nerve-wracking to say the least,” says non-binary Jei, 25. “I was turned away from men’s hair salons and had feminized versions of men’s cuts that I wanted from a hairdresser.” But even in one of the rare instances when they were served and given the requested cup, Jei felt far from comfortable. “I felt incredibly nervous, being the only non-male in the store at the time,” he recalled. “I felt the gazes of others wondering why I was there and wanted to leave the store as soon as possible.”
It goes without saying that hair that aligns with your identity and signals to the world who you really are is a joy, so what is the alternative, beyond learning how to make your own? diy mullet at home? Well, organizations like hair has no gender work to improve the established system, raising awareness among barbers and hairstylists and providing education on gender-affirming haircuts. But there are a growing number of gay hairdressers who completely circumvent the system. Tired of cis-het norms in hair care, they create their own spaces without judgement.
Run by a non-binary barber Sam Rubinstein, Rooibos caters to “99.9% queer clientele”. Rubinstein’s intentions for his clients go beyond aesthetics. “Queer people deserve a place where they can express themselves fully, without judgment, and come away with a hairstyle that affirms their true identity,” they say. The issues around LGBTQ+ inclusion in mainstream salons and barbershops have deep roots, roots they have always tried to steer clear of.
“Classic hair education is still so heavily gendered and that tends to translate into traditional salons,” they say. This leads to internalized gender norms, which can then be projected onto gay clients: whether offering unwanted opinions or providing a more diluted version of the identity-affirming gaze that the person in their armchair asked. To counter these tendencies elsewhere, Rubinstein tries to listen carefully to customer needs throughout the process. “It’s just me and you: no other stylist questions or judges my client’s desired outcome,” they say. “It’s a collaboration.”
A common request Rooibos is a haircut to help customers “look more queer”. Even ignoring the fact that we can’t always trust a cis-het stylist not to subtly (or not-so-subtly) dissuade us from this course of action, a queer hairstylist will have a better grasp of what “queer hair is.” ” translates to IRL . Part of the appeal of going to a queer hairdresser, then, is the existence of a shared shorthand and cultural background.
This is the case of Nora, 26, who, rather than going to salons, prefers to have her hair cut informally at LGBTQ+ hairdressers. Thinking back to her first queer-affirming haircut, courtesy of Jadah Dale (who is now senior stylist at Bleach London Soho), Nora recalls all she had to do was say the magic words”I want a dyke-y haircut” and the look delivered. “I showed up at Trans Pride with most of my hair cut and with colored bangs – everyone was complimenting me on my hair,” she recalled.
Since then, Nora has had her hair cut informally by friend, multi-artist and former salon stylist, Jade O’Belle, who gave her the confidence to go “short” with her locks and embody a look. who she traditionally finds attractive in others but has never felt she could get away with. “Queer hairstylists have changed my life and the way I move around the world,” she says. “They gave me confidence to match my exterior with how I felt on the inside.”
The intimate sessions that Nora describes as part of her hairstyling sessions – one-on-one and in a quiet, welcoming space – are similar to the model used by several queer hairstylists, including Zara Toppins, who runs the Toppins Hair Studio in Shoreditch. From this sense of intimacy, clients can develop real trust with their stylist. “The space is private and individual, no one will feel judged by other people in the living room,” says Toppins.
A visit to a queer hairdresser is more than a haircut; it’s about being able to be your most authentic self with people who see you for who you really are. So it’s understandable that queer salons and barbers can feel like an important community space, something Toppins is keen to cultivate by hosting the exhibit. Close shave, from black and white photography by Lydia Garnett, in October. Similarly, Rubinstein has hosted queer speed-dating events in the past. When so many LGBTQ+ spaces come in the form of clubs or bars, it’s important to have spaces or events that queer people can turn to during the day and feel connected to their identity without a drug atmosphere. or alcohol – and queer lounges do just that.
Martha, 31, can attest to the power of queer hairdressers as community spaces, where you can feel more comfortable in your identity and connect with like-minded people. She first went to Open barbers in 2017, where they voluntarily agreed to his request at the time to “look like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic,” and the affirmative environment kept it coming back for years. “IIt’s an amazing community space and it’s possible to make friends,” she explains. “Open Barber is not a neutral substitute for a traditional salon, it’s a place where you can be yourself. There is a respect for the role hair can play in queer self-shaping.
Martha’s comment hits the nail on the head: queer salons and barbers are not simply offering an LGBTQ+ version of what straight people can get. Instead, they create rare, queer-centric environments. They are safe spaces for people to discover their identity and what it might look like, who can be sure that they are in safe and assertive hands. And — perhaps most importantly — they’re a haven away from cis-het standards of beauty and straight gaze, where queer baby caterpillars can blossom into butchest, campest, or most fabulous butterflies.
Not everyone will have access to an LGBTQ+ hairstylist or barber in their area. For advice on how to manage a trip to barbers or hairdressers as a trans, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming person, see the charity Gendered Intelligence. guide for practical advice and tips.