“I’ve had all sorts of spats with cis het barbers,” Icarus says. “Early in my transition, they would refuse to cut my hair, saying they only cut men's hair and stuff like that.”
Icarus, a non-binary trans man, remembers how the “hyper-masculine environment” and “toxic behaviour” at barbershops used to make his “skin crawl”.
“Plus, half the time they just cut your hair however they see fit,” they add. “They don’t listen, and you end up with one of those David Beckham chops that are not the goal.”
Encountering a cisgender heterosexual (cis het) barber who refuses to cut your hair because he doesn’t deem you “man enough” is a common experience shared by trans men and non-binary people.
The rejection can be humiliating and painful, and sometimes ends up in court – in 2018, a judge ordered a Dublin barbershop to pay €5,000 to a trans man whose hair they had refused to cut, saying “we don’t cut ladies hair”.
Being misread and misgendered hurts. By chance, after his “awful experiences” at barbershops, Icarus’s hair was cut by a trans barber, Rooibos: a one-person “salon-barbers” run by non-binary barber Sam Rubinstein.
“I went round to my mate's to watch TV on a Friday night,” Icarus remembers, “and Sam was there, having a vegan Burger King with their little pup running around the flat.” Icarus mentioned he was desperate for a haircut, and Sam gave him “the best skin fade I’d ever had”. Bumping into Sam in his friend’s living room “felt like the most ordinary thing, way more natural than going to the high-street barber,” and Icarus has stuck with Rooibos – more usually based out of a salon in Shoreditch, London – ever since.
“Getting your haircut by someone who's trans as well is just sound,” Icarus says. “You know they aren't going to misgender you or say anything dodgy, and that kind of common ground is sacred.”
Sam set up Rooibos to create a safe space for trans and queer haircuts. They’d had their own dysphoric experiences in hair salons, and seen the “extremely gendered” world of cis het barbering during a six-month barbering course.
“I made a promise to myself that when I started to get my own clients I’d scrap the science behind hair cutting and focus on the person wearing the hair,” Sam explains. “It doesn’t have to just be: you have X face shape so you can only have X hairstyle. The way my client presents their gender is an important part of my consultation process."
They continue: "During a haircut, you can spend quite some time intimately with another person. It can be intimidating, and at a traditional barbershop the cis het men working there often don’t understand queer and trans culture.
“If you’re a trans man and you want to present in a certain way, I want to earn your trust, so we can go on that journey together.”
Getting the right haircut can be affirming and euphoric for a trans person. But the flipside is an uncomfortable experience at the barbers or a haircut that just doesn’t fit, which can trigger gender dysphoria.
In response to this, LGBT+ specific barbers have begun to spring up. As well as Rooibos, London has Open Barbers, one of the oldest barbershops of its kind, at-home hair stylist Queer Cuts London and gender-neutral barbershop Barberette.
Louis, a 25-year-old trans man living in London, had his first post-lockdown haircut at Barberette. “It was nice!” he remembers. “It was a proper consultation, and it really wasn’t as expensive as I thought it was going to be, because it was essentially a restyling – I’ve never had it properly styled.”
Before the pandemic, he used to go to a high-street barbers. While he was happy with the haircuts, he “definitely felt a sense of intimidation” being in traditional barbershops.
“One guy got confused that I have tattoos, and when I asked why he said he’d thought that I was 13 years old,” Louis says. “I think it was because I was quite early on in my transition, so I maybe sounded a bit younger. It was just comments like that, they made me feel like, ugh, you didn’t need to say that.”
He continues: “I did have one barber though who I think could tell that I was trans. But he was very sweet about it – the cis man’s version of being sweet about it, in that he told a story about another trans man who came in and said, ‘I think it’s so cool that people do that.’ It was the best way of a straight cis man saying he was an ally, without asking me directly.
“So it’s been a bit mixed, but I definitely feel the most comfortable at a specifically queer hairdressers.”
Louis, who has a long, curly mullet, explains what going to a cis het barber feels like if you want a haircut that doesn’t fit with the barber's preconception about your gender. “It does fill you with a lot of anxiety,” he says.
“Am I going to be met with confusion? Will I be told I can’t have that haircut? Going somewhere that’s specifically queer or trans means you know you won’t have those problems, because you know they understand the power of a haircut and will meet you with openness and a conversation, rather than being told, ‘Oh, we don’t do that.’”
He adds that he’d never go to a high-street barber now, unless they were explicitly trans-inclusive. “Trans and queer barbers are vital,” Louis says. “People feel a lot safer going into them, and know they won’t be judged for what they ask for.”
Like Louis, Icarus is now firmly attached to getting haircuts with a trans barber.
“I recently went in with a picture of Timothee Chalamet in The King and walked out with exactly the chop I wanted,” they say. “I will probably never get a haircut anywhere else ever again. This sounds like an advert for Rooibos, but it’s very genuine.
"A haircut can make or break me.”
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