When a Haircut Is More Than Just a Haircut


Derrick Middleton was walking the streets of Harlem in search of a haircut when he was invited into a shop by a barber. He sat in a chair, and the barber covered him in a white protective cape.

Mr. Middleton began to describe in precise detail what kind of cut he wanted, but was interrupted.

“Yo, yo, yo!” Mr. Middleton said that the barber shouted, so loudly it silenced the rest of the shop. “This ain’t no beauty salon. We don’t do that sissy stuff here,” the barber, using an expletive, said, Mr. Middleton recalled.

Mr. Middleton, 32, said the barber snatched the cape off and ordered him out. “No one came to my defense, not even the owner of the shop,” he said.

Over generations, barbershops have become so culturally integral to black communities that they have been the setting of a blockbuster movie franchise, the focus of rigorous academic study, the stage for popular music videos and comedy skits and, most recently, the backdrop for an HBO talk show from the N.B.A. superstar LeBron James.

“Barbershops have, uniquely, come to serve as critical private spaces in the public sphere to black communities,” said 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.”

But not everyone experiences the barbershop in the same way.

“To many queer individuals,” said Khane Kutzwell, who owns a barbershop in Brooklyn called Camera Ready Kutz, “the barbershop can be hell.”

Ms. Kutzwell, who identifies as queer, is one of several barbers catering to the L.G.B.T. community who use social media to connect with customers. She is the barber for the current cast of the Broadway show “West Side Story” and counts among her clients the actors Sara Ramirez from the TV shows “Madam Secretary” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Zeeko Zaki from “FBI” and the comedian Jaboukie Young-White.

Mr. Young-White, 25, whose father is a barber in Harvey, Ill., has strong feelings about the spaces where men are groomed. “I really feel like the barbershop was where I fully got a consummate understanding of American black masculinity,” he said.

But the barbershop is also where he learned about ostracism.

When he was 8 years old, a barber in a shop where his father worked saw Mr. Young-White watching the “Crazy In Love” music video and mimicking Beyoncé’s dance moves.

“You can’t do that,” Mr. Young-White recalled the barber saying to him. “That’s gay.”

The barber called Mr. Young-White a homophobic slur in front of everyone in the shop, including his father, he said.

When he moved to New York a few years ago to begin his comedy career, he said, he was getting a haircut in Harlem when a barber, noticed a trans woman walking by the shop and darted outside to yell slurs at her.

The moment was so jarring that Mr. Young-White began to avoid barbershops altogether, he said. But eventually, he found his way to Ms. Kutzwell.

“Khane is so aware that people have been in that environment where they can’t advocate for their rights as a person, let alone advocate for a good haircut,” he said. “She is really aware of that and she levels with you. It’s a very emotionally intelligent experience.”

Last October, when GQ Magazine approached Mr. Young-White to be part of its “masculinity issue,” he asked that the photo shoot take place at Ms. Kutzwell’s shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Ms. Kutzwell doesn’t consider herself just a barber. “I was asked in a business class once what it is that I sell,” Ms. Kutzwell said. “I sell self-esteem.”

And when it comes to connecting with those who need what she’s selling, “social media is why I am where I am,” she said.

Fresh out of barber college in 2008, Ms. Kutzwell found clients using Friendster, an early online social media networking site, before migrating to other more rapidly growing platforms.

Desiree Marshall, a barber in Brooklyn who identifies as queer, also found success on social media, she said. “Using Facebook allowed me to directly communicate with the community I wanted to provide services for,” said Ms. Marshall, 36, who goes by Dez. She serves dozens of clients weekly from her chair in the Classic Men barbershop in Flatbush.

One of her clients, Cairo Amani, said that in the past, she and her nonbinary partner had experienced uncomfortable incidents, from fending off male customers’ sexual advances to overhearing crude remarks about women. After seeing one of Ms. Marshall’s Facebook posts, Ms. Amani checked out Ms. Marshall’s Instagram page, @dezisdope, to survey other work.

“I haven’t left her since,” she said with a laugh. “I get emotional every time I talk about Dez. You just don’t know how comforting it is walking into a place where you know you’re safe. ”

Instagram has also been highly effective for Ms. Kutzwell. On her shop’s page, visitors can see offerings, from haircuts and waxes to facials and merchandise; read shout-outs from celebrities and view footage of barbers at work and out in the surrounding neighborhood.

Each week, Ms. Kutzwell sends her barbers emails discussing social strategy. She has mandated that Camera Ready Kutz barbers tag their Instagram posts with hashtags that potential customers are likely to use when looking for shops: #QueerBarbers (which has more than 5,000 results on Instagram), #BlackBrooklynBarber and #LGBTSafeSpace.

After having employees test posting at different times, Ms. Kutzwell discovered that 3 p.m. seems to be the sweet spot that leads to more customers in chairs.

She estimates that nearly a thousand customers file through Camera Ready Kutz’s doors each week.

Before becoming a barber — as both a L.G.B.T. party promoter and manager at Starbucks — Ms. Kutzwell “kept hearing stories from my friends about how badly they were being treated,” she said.

There were the couples made up of women who described other patrons asking “who the man” was in their relationship, she said. Other women, she said, described male barbers who refused to execute haircuts they deemed “too manly.”

Gay men, she said, spoke of being forced to sit, stone-faced and anxious, as homophobic slurs were used in the shop.

Mr. Middleton’s experience in that environment prompted him to make it the subject of a documentary, “Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop.”

The half-hour film, which premiered at the White House in 2016 and won a Film Award of Excellence from the LOGO TV Heritage Awards, told the stories of several black men experiencing homophobia in black barbershops.

Now, Mr. Middleton is developing Shape Up, a social media and booking app aimed at helping other black L.G.B.T. New Yorkers avoid the experience he had.

With Shape Up, customers will be able to find and book appointments with L.G.B.T.-friendly barbers and stylists dedicated to maintaining an inclusive environment.

But Ms. Kutzwell isn’t comfortable labeling her shop.

“I don’t like the term ‘queer-friendly,’” Ms. Kutzwell said. “It’s like saying ‘colored people welcome.’ You should be welcoming everyone.” She added: “If anything, I should say, ‘straight people welcome.’”

For her customers, the importance of a welcome cannot be overstated.

“People walk in here with their heads down,” she said. “They walk out with their heads up.”


Source link