These Queer Black Men Are Reclaiming the Barbershop

Courtesy of Tristan Jackson & Trevor Fetterman | Getty / DustyPixel
Courtesy of Tristan Jackson & Trevor Fetterman | Getty / DustyPixel

Tristan Jackson was sitting in a barber's chair in Harlem, NY, when a homophobic slur cut through his peace. He cringed as the other guys around him started throwing around negative stereotypes about the queer community.

"The ignorance in the conversation was out of control that day. I mean transphobia, homophobia, even [stuff] about mental health . . . I just got fed up," Jackson, 25, tells POPSUGAR. "After years and years of those experiences and having to do the deep sigh every time I walked in, I decided to take matters into my own hands and spent months cutting my own hair before I found myself a queer-friendly barber online."

For queer Black folks like Jackson, the traditional Black barbershop — a centerpiece of blockbuster movies, popular music videos, and even academic research — is a complicated entity. Within the Black community, barbershops have long been regarded as a sanctuary and safe space for men. They're an expression and an extension of masculinity; many Black fathers take their sons for their first haircut as a rite of passage, for example.

As Quincy Mills, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland and the author of "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America," explains: "Barbershops have, uniquely, come to serve as critical private areas in the public sphere to Black communities. It's on the barber to make you feel comfortable because they are like counselors and therapists."

But the institution has also had a rigid culture of masculinity, which has not always been welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community — making grooming traditions a necessary evil for some. A 2010 study out of Smith College found that Black queer patrons who viewed themselves as "clockable" or easily detectable as queer would change their physical appearance and visit shops during off-peak hours to avoid uncomfortable situations.

"If you walk into the barbershop, everyone automatically thinks you are a heterosexual man."

As queer culture becomes more mainstream, barbershops across the country are beginning to more fully represent the experiences of all Black people. Online, there's a growing community of Black queer folks forming a network of recommendations and advice for those looking to groom themselves. On TikTok, the hashtag #BlackQueerBarberShop has over 50 million views, and on Instagram, the tag #queerfriendlybarber has over 400 posts. Many Black queer patrons and queer-friendly barbers say there's still more work to make these spaces inclusive — but they're hopeful as they start effecting change themselves.

Matthew D. Johnson's uneasiness with barbershops first began at the age of 5, when his father took him for his first haircut in Santa Monica and uttered four words: "You're a man now." The words stung, because he knew he was not like other boys his age.

"My fear of the barbershop was something I carried from childhood into adulthood," Johnson says. "If you walk into the barbershop, everyone automatically thinks you are a heterosexual man, and I always feared what would happen to me if I was outed there, leading me to creep back into the closet every time I got a haircut."

Throughout history, Black people have used hairstyles and grooming practices as a form of resistance, resilience, and cultural pride, from the intricate braids of ancient civilizations to the Afros of the Black Power movement. And as Mills explains, "Black barbershop culture was forged through generations of ostracism and oppression." These spaces became a public forum where Black men could congregate freely and be heard, which "even after the civil rights movement was hard to find." Mills continues, "Although the community thrived, so did toxic masculinity and a hostility towards anyone not deemed 'a real man' by their archaic standards."

What's more, Black homophobia is a conversation that the Black community rarely likes to have with itself. Prevalent religious beliefs and conservative social norms have long contributed to homophobic attitudes, and being Black and queer has proven dangerous both within the community and outside of it, given that these individuals exist at the intersection of marginalized identities.

The fear associated with barbershops has been a common experience among Black queer clients for a long time, but barbers themselves are beginning to reflect the current generation by listening to what customers really want rather than subscribing to preexisting norms.

"To many queer individuals, the barbershop can be hell."

"To many queer individuals, the barbershop can be hell," acknowledges Khane Kutzwell, who owns a barbershop in Brooklyn called Camera Ready Kutz. Kutzwell, who identifies as queer, is one of several barbers catering to the LGBTQ+ community and using social media to connect with customers.

Kutzwell understands the difficulty for customers when it comes to seeking a place where they feel comfortable getting a haircut. "So many of my customers have told me they came to my barbershop because of the Pride flag on the back of my van," she says. "The flag is a staple of my business. It is there to let people know that they are always welcome as themselves."

Pittsburgh native Trevor Fetterman says he has been searching for a safe barber for his whole life. "It's been part of my strategy when looking for barbers to scope out the shop, because I wanted to feel some sense of security when I walked in," he says. His fears were realized about two years ago when he was "kicked out" of an establishment.

"The barbershop is traditionally a place for men to display masculinity. Once, a barber who wanted me out of the shop yelled things like 'sissy,' and it was so loud everyone in the shop turned to take notice," he remembers. The experience made him feel helpless, and he wishes now he had stood up for himself in the moment. "It was there and then that I decided that I would no longer be a willing participant in the homophobia that's outwardly displayed in barbershops," Fetterman says.

For many queer people like Fetterman, hair is an important asset in gender expression and in navigating their queer identity. To enable the security and comfort of Black queer, trans, and nonbinary folks, it is increasingly vital that hairdressers and barbers begin to make their businesses a more queer-friendly space.

Fetterman was able to find a queer-friendly barber through TikTok. Since then, he says, "I've never felt more confident in my sexuality. I realized that I don't have to hide away, and I'm slowly learning to rebuild my relationship with grooming."

Victoria Goldiee is a freelance journalist with a penchant for headlining underrepresented communities in media. Her work has been featured in The Cut, New York Mag, The New York Times, and more, exploring culture, identity, and lifestyle.