I've been going to my barber for four years straight. But, last year when he went on vacation, I visited a new shop. When the man cutting my hair made a gay joke at my expense, then challenged me to either accept it or leave, I got up and walked out. It was the only time in my life I've ever been kicked out of a business. It was painful enough that one year later, I still cross the street when I walk by.
Since then, I've been thinking a lot about barbershops and how queer folks -- in particular, gender non-conforming folks -- navigate them. Barbershops are incubators for masculinity. As a visibly queer person, regardless of gender, entering a space like that can be intimidating and even scary. But under the right circumstances, going to the barber can also be a positive and affirming experience. With that in mind, I took my ten years of visiting barbershops from New York City to rural Michigan, and wrote this cheat sheet for getting an excellent haircut and feeling good about it, too.
1. Do your homework.
The first step to an excellent haircut is finding an excellent barber. Ask your friends, queer and straight, where they get their hair cut. Unfortunately, it's hard to find a barbershop that's completely free of any trace of misogyny and homophobia. But ask how bad it is -- is it a cringe-inducing comment here and there, or is it like spending an hour inside Eminem's first album?
Finally, Yelp is your friend. Spend some time reading reviews. Do people consistently complain about long waits and barbers who treat customers badly? Don't go there. On the other hand, are there lots of positive reviews from repeat customers and satisfied first-timers? Add those places to your short list.
2. Ask how long the wait is.
The barbershop waiting area can be a confusing scene. On any given day, there might be people who are waiting for a particular barber, people who are waiting for the next available barber and people who are just hanging out. And no one is necessarily going to hold your spot in line -- especially if you're an unfamiliar face. Add yourself to the queue by asking, "How long for a cut?" when you walk in the door. The barbers will either take you right away, or give you an estimate and add you to their mental list of who's next.
3. Bring a picture.
Find some photos of what you want your hair to look like, and show them to the barber. Don't be embarrassed; this isn't weird. It's actually very helpful for the barber, and is much more likely to lead to a cut that you like than the hopelessly vague, rarely effective: "Uh, just a little off the top, not too short."
In general, here's the lingo for haircut length: haircuts done with clippers are described by the number of the guard used. The length of the haircut increases with the number: "1" is a very short buzz cut, while a "4" is roughly a half-inch. If you don't want them to use clippers on your hair, specify scissors only. Otherwise... they definitely will.
4. Tip like you mean it.
If you're happy with the cut, or at least your barber's effort, tip well. Twenty percent is the minimum -- I usually tip $5 on a $15 haircut. It's not cheap, but: A) It's a tough job. Can you imagine craning your neck over 30 heads a day, often for 12 hours straight? And, B) You want to build a relationship with this person. If you treat them with respect and tip them right, they will appreciate it, and be much more likely to return the favor in the future.
In the case of my current barber, I have his personal phone number. I can text him for appointments. He cares about my cut and takes his time with it. Most importantly, I know he has my back -- if someone ever said something disrespectful about or near me, he would shut them down in a second.
5. Keep coming back.
Once you find a barber you like, stick with them. Come to them every time you get your hair cut, if you can. This is good for two reasons: one, it builds your relationship (see #4), and two, the barber gets to know your hair. They get familiar with how it grows and how you like it cut. If you want to experiment with something different, they'll know what to do, knowing your style and your hair. Ultimately, your haircuts will get better and better -- not to mention your comfort and sense of safety in the shop. You might even start to look forward to visiting the barber.
If someone says something offensive while you're at the shop, how you deal with it is obviously up to you. There are way too many variables -- from personality to privilege -- to prescribe a default response in those moments. But if anyone ever disrespects you in a barbershop, know that you don't have to accept it as part of the experience. Haircuts are ultimately a ritual of self-care. Don't settle for anything less.