With the exception of the two years I lived abroad, I’ve been getting my hair cut at the same place for over 20 years. However, that’s not a testament to my loyalty to a small business owner. Rather, it’s proof of my struggles with barbershop homophobia.
My barber is an older man of East Indian heritage. His shop is a breezy 10-minute walk from my house, and it’s a popular choice for people in my community, especially Indian men over the age of 40 years.
Yet, although I appreciate his professionalism and the familiarity we share, I’ve been ready to move on for some time. He runs the shop on his own, and because of his obligations as an Imam, he closes for long lunch periods and ends his day early. So, when he’s available, the shop is usually crowded and the wait times are long.
Moreover, the range of styles he can do with black hair is limited. He can do the standard short cut with a fade but my hairline never looks the way I want it. In fact, I do my lineups at home while only relying on him for a general trim.
My barber is a great guy but I’ve simply outgrown him. The only reason I go to his shop is because of the ubiquitous homophobia that exists elsewhere. Namely, in black-run barbershops.
I’ve tried different black barbers throughout the years, both in Trinidad and New York City, and each experience added to my anxiety. For instance, there is a shop near my house. After weeks of indecision, one of my friends finally encouraged me to try it.
It was a disaster.
The shop was clean and had a nice waiting area equipped with couches and televisions. However, the men were loud and abrasive. Also, as if they could hear me counting down to the inevitable in my mind, they began spewing the expected “faggot” and “bullerman” on cue. Thankfully, they were referencing someone who was not present.
I spoke about my experiences with barbershop homophobia in New York City during the first episode of the Trini Trent Radio podcast, “The Barbershop.” That event happened over two years ago but I clearly remember the fear I felt while sitting between two barbers, boasting of their intent to attack anyone who even “looked gay.”
The barbershop is regarded as a safe space for black men to talk freely about issues affecting their communities. As I’ve witnessed both locally and abroad, the institution is both an outlet and a support for patrons.
Conversely, that support rarely extends to gay or feminine-presenting men. Instead, persons who exhibit cues that make them targets for homophobia – higher voices, a lack of interest in “masculine” activities, flamboyant clothes – are cast out.
This is the parable of the carrot, egg and coffee bean. It tells the story of three ways we respond to the pressures of our societies. Also, it reflects how some of us adapt to barbershop homophobia.
A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.
Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon, the pots came to boil. In the first, she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last, she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil, without saying a word.
In about twenty minutes, she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then, she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl.
Turning to her daughter, she asked, “Tell me what you see.”
“Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” she replied.
Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted that they were soft. The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg.
Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled, as she tasted its rich aroma the daughter then asked, “What does it mean, mother?”
Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: Boiling water. Yet, each reacted differently.
The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak.
The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior but after sitting through the boiling water, its insides became hard.
The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.
“Which are you?” she asked her daughter. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?”
The Carrot: Performance
When I enter a barbershop or any space with a group of strange black men, I instinctively deepen my voice. Furthermore, I avoid all eye contact and give only terse responses so people won’t detect the act I’m putting on.
Honestly, this behaviour has become so routine that I need to consciously work to prevent code switching. It is, however, a natural aspect of the masculine performance often referred to as the mask of masculinity; how many of us survive.
Madison Moore tells the story of being kicked out of a barbershop, despite ensuring that his clothes and demeanor masked all traces of his queerness. His tale even includes a scenario eerily similar to what I faced when the two New York City barbers threatened to beat gay and transgendered people in Manhattan.
The carrot went soft in boiling water. It was shaped and bent by a high pressured environment similar to men who tuck their true selves away and bow to their society’s standards of masculinity. Really, you may not be gay but what matters more is that you don’t act like it.
The Egg: Avoidance
In 2014, I grew an afro. It wasn’t a fashion statement or an attempt to fit a trend. Rather, it was my secret way of avoiding barbershop homophobia, and it gave me six months without the anxiety of a trip to the chair.
Simply, I decided I would not support any barber who refused to welcome me as he would another patron. Hence, my fear progressed into anger and I saved my money to buy the products to nurture my luscious fro.
That mindset also partly supports my refusal to leave my Indian barber. He doesn’t get my hairline right but I rather give him my 40 TT dollars than suffer through homophobic tension with a group of black men.
Still, that doesn’t solve truly solve my problem because I’m simply shutting out the world. Meanwhile, I’m faced with the looming moment of my barber retiring, leaving me without other options, and Trinidad is far too hot for an afro.
The Coffee Bean: Self-acceptance
Transforming the environment like the coffee bean requires freely expressing ourselves and changing others’ worldview. Yet, as Darnell L. Moore stated in a conversation with Wade Davis II, that’s not easy for those who challenge people’s masculine ideals.
Being gay isn’t the real issue. What matters is how men present themselves in the company of other men. In fact, as I witnessed on numerous occasions, a gay man will only be tolerated if his sexuality isn’t accompanied by expressions of femininity.
The coffee bean approach involves forming a working relationship with a barber at a new place. Interestingly, I did exactly that at a Dominican barbershop during my last months in New York City.
The man who cut my hair was recommended by a friend. To build a relationship with him, I got his number and followed him whenever he switch shops. Furthermore, I tipped him after each cut and showed loyalty by always waiting for him even when the other chairs were free. As a result, we had an understanding and trust for each other that made me so much more comfortable at the barbershop.
I’m working toward being the coffee bean in Trinidad. As I make the transformation, I share this quote with you!
“You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” – Pema Chödrön