by Mark o Estes
The other day, I caught wind of a new documentary by filmmaker Derrick L. Middleton that would showcase the dread and fears of black gay men in the hyper-masculine barbershops of the black community. The film, which is called Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop, will chronicle the lives of a few gay black men as they disclose their fears and stories that range from being subjected to hearing the words “faggot” and “sissy” being slung about like a card during a spades game to being thrown out of the barbershops just for being who they are. Watching the trailer for Shape Up brought back my own memories as to why I haven’t stepped foot in a barbershop for years and have never returned.
Before coming out the closet and deciding to go bald, going to the barbershop felt like the chore I wanted to put off but couldn’t. I had always loathed going to the local barber, no matter the location or the stylists in charge, mainly because the usual banter of cars, sports, and church didn’t contain the ingredients to stir my interest. This became even more unbearable when I graduated to adulthood, because I was no longer under the safety of my father’s shadow, which shielded me from partaking in the weekly to bi-weekly debates on Jordan or Kobe being the best player ever was. However being ignorant to basketball stats and the various makes and models of certain cars weren’t the only detractors that fed into my barbershop anxiety. I’m pretty sure you can guess what the other main reason would be given the topic and nature of this piece.
Realizing I was gay added about five more layers of dread whenever I approached my barbershop, especially after witnessing some scalding homophobic conversations in my past. I usually kept to myself and let my dad do all the talking, but again, once you enter manhood, you can’t have your dad talking for you, or even accompanying you to the shop for that matter. I had beefed up a resistance of sorts by bringing books to read during my wait for a turn at the chair to avoid as much conversation as possible. It worked. The minimal conversation between me and whoever cut my hair was ten words max.
So as long as I had a shield in the form of a book, magazine, or even music, I refrained from partaking in the barbershop games. But it was my last visit (which took place about four or five years ago) when a young kid’s comments forced me to truly analyze my future with barbershops in general.
While waiting for a turn with my particular barber on that day, another barber was working on this young kid’s head. He was no more than twelve or thirteen and looked pretty harmless. I can’t recall the conversation at the time (because my face was buried in a book), but it dealt with sports and if I can recall correctly, I believe it was when Jason Collins came out as a gay athlete. As many of you would know, it was all over the news, particularly ESPN, which was a main fixture in the local shop. While the commentators discussed Collins announcement, the kid suddenly said:
“I can’t stand gay people. I hate faggots.”
This statement wasn’t yelled across the entire barbershop, but it was searing enough to cut through the steady buzz of clippers at work. As well as my stream of consciousness. The barber working on this kid’s head gave a slight pause before responding that it wasn’t nice to hate anyone. The kid replied that gay people should die and that if any of them ever came toward him that he would kill them. At hearing this, my mind could only register one thing.
Again, I had been prone to hearing all the normal homophobic bullshit when it came to the LGBT community before within a barbershop. I had heard the scathing jokes, the misinformation about HIV/AIDS in the gay community, the “DL” suspicions of locals, the “fag” and “gay ass sissy” verbal bombs, etc. But this one bold declaration from a child who hadn’t even experienced the world yet shook my soul to the point where nothing in the latest novel I was reading at that moment could retain my attention afterwards. I didn’t get up and leave at that moment, because doing so – in my mind – would draw attention to myself, and since I was still closeted the last thing I needed was a target on my back; especially in the small town where I live. When my turn at the chair became available, I let my barber, who’s truly a really stand-up guy, cut my hair for what turned out to be the very last time.
I didn’t know who the kid was, but obviously he felt strongly about his views. Whenever the incident resurfaced in my mind, I would mull whether the kid was putting on a show of bravado that day, just trying to be one of the guys in a testosterone fueled atmosphere. Or that he picked up on those particular sentiments somewhere and just took it to one-hundred. But in the end, I would always come to the conclusion that no matter what path I took in this particular Choose Your Own Bigotry adventure, that child’s feelings towards LGBT people came from someone the child respected greatly, where it was common and expected to feel that strongly against gay people in general. And, I believe, it was the fact that this anger was coming from this child that disturbed me. However…
The barbers, who are great men and upstanding pillars of our community, didn’t stop to ask the kid where did he garner such hatred for a group of people who might not even knew he existed. Why did he feel so strongly about what someone else did in their bedroom to the point that wished their extinction even by his own hands if need be? The entire “You shouldn’t hate anyone” exchange between the barber and the kid was like a sudden skip on a favorite record player or CD. Nothing to see here, folks. Everything back to normal.
I feel that’s the reason why I decided to not even bother to come back for another turn on the chair. It might come across as brash or even as an excuse to some since I’ve declared going bald as being one of the best decisions I’ve made concerning my personality and image. However, the action of not looking back at barbershops was in fact a part of the trajectory to my journey of coming out. It was, in retrospect, a release or sorts; the first crack in the restricting dam known as my life.
So, it will be interesting to see what Shape Up will entail, and how barbers in general will respond to its content. I commend Middleton for bringing this issue to the forefront to showcase how visceral barbershops can be to gay black men, or any other person of color. Hopefully the film will be available for mass consumption soon. Until then, check out the trailer for Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop here: