Writer Kuchenga explains the complicated journey of embarking on a natural hair journey and investigates the salons and hairstylists making safe spaces for queer, nonbinary and/or trans folks
In my early teenage years, I had a nightmare that made me wet the bed. I dreamt that in a black barbershop by Wood Green station in North London, I was halfway through a standard haircut when two boys from my secondary school came and sat in the waiting chairs. Whispers of “Is dat dat battyboy?” mutated into evil jokes accompanied by hyena cackles. I couldn’t take it. I ran out of the barbers without even taking the cloak off, with scratchy hair sprinkles on my face, half bald, half afro, a tragic and sobbing androgynous wreck with nowhere to run to. Then I woke up…
Years before this nightmare I had dared to tell my father I wanted braids like one of the men on Gladiators. He told me “men don’t wear braids” and that ended the lively conversation. Washing my hair in front of him one day he also told me “men don’t use conditioner”. I learnt that adults lie when they are uncomfortable and that his enduring problem with dandruff was self-inflicted. I didn’t know what to say; I had no vocabulary for being transgender. I just pined for a life like those who dared to make the binary lines of gender fuzzier.
After the nightmare, I began to grow out my afro. In my multi-ethnic suburban secondary school in the late 90s, this was a radical decision, another sign that I was dying to be ridiculed. “You look like a microphone!” “BIFRO!” “Mic check, one, two”. The boys that groped me daily began pulling my hair in the corridors and getting annoyed at the slippery leave-in conditioner I used so liberally. I was silly enough to follow the hair washing suggestions intended for white women readers in Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazines. It was an evolution from my younger sister and I running around with towels on our heads pretending to be like the lustrous-haired, unburdened and upper-class white ladies in the soap operas like Sunset Beach and The Young and The Restless, as our childminder watched assiduously.
“I worried that my femininity would slip out in a giggle and the barber would fuck up my hairline on purpose” – Kuchenga
I was allowed to grow my afro out until it got to a few inches and I enjoyed the intimacy of black women combing my hair, however roughly. Once it got to a certain length I would be compelled to cut it for an uncle’s wedding at the behest of an aunt’s passive-AGGRESSIVE badgering: “WHAT YOU GONNA DO WITH THAT HAAAAAIR!?!” My mother marvelled at our similar hair texture, its softness and how quickly it grew even though people always claimed black hair didn’t grow. We never discussed afro hair shrinkage back then. We just opined its inherent deficiency.
Coming out as queer at the age of 17 made me homeless but also gifted me the freedom to finally enshrine my femininity. I sauntered through Camden with head wraps like Nina Simone. I started smoking and fell in love with the image of a jet-black burnished Grace Jones with an audaciously angular white cigarette challenging the viewer not to get drunk on the beauty of the contrast. She helped me love being bold, dark-skinned and androgynous.
Yet still I had to go to a black barbershop far from where I lived. Going too close to home where I might be noticed by people from school was too awful and dangerous to think about. I had to wipe the nail polish off before going. I had to change into jogging bottoms and a jumper. I had to bring a book to pretend I was moody and bourgeois. I couldn’t speak much because my voice was too feminine. I also couldn't look in the mirror and be confronted with the misery on my face. The sexist jokes in the barbers jangled with flashbacks of the queer sex I had been having hours before. I worried that my femininity would slip out in a giggle and the barber would fuck up my hairline on purpose. So, I would bite down on my jaw until my teeth ground together. Any expression from me would be so fay that it was safest not to express anything at all. I was a wall. I could only be functionally interacted with. My inability to feign masculinity meant that I had to become no one, express nothing and hold everything in until I left.
Eventually, the way my dysphoria was set up meant that I had to stop going because the process of eradicating my femininity in order to be served was killing me.
“I dared not complain because my life had led me to bravely sit in a position that had been sat in by all the black girls I adored” – Kuchenga
Growing out my afro with no intention of cutting it and getting braids done was the beginning of my social transition. My TWA (teeny weeny afro) was the first thing to soften my face before hormones. When it finally got to the length that I could begin to put braids in it, I felt a sense of achievement. I met my first stylist on Gumtree and cycled to her place in Whitechapel. She softly pulled taut a clump of hair and said affirmatively, “Yeah, I can definitely braid this!” I kept it cool, but I was definitely dancing inside. We spent hours watching films as my neck creaked with the tension, my scalp pulsated and my bum became dull with the ache of hours of sitting. It was a rite of passage. I dared not complain because my life had led me to bravely sit in a position that had been sat in by all the black girls I adored.
When hormones and facial feminization surgery conferred upon me the privilege of passing as cisgender at least temporarily, I still had to do my best to detect the potential for transphobia from a phone call to a salon without actually disclosing that I was trans. I felt confident enough to utilise the friendly services of West London locations like Lightheaded Hair & Beauty and Natural Gloe Salon. Of course, I recommend these places to my conformist trans girlfriends, who like me were and are bound by our internalised transphobia to do everything we possibly can to not be ‘clocky’, as we hand out verbal awards of ‘fishy’ to one another as commendations for doing our best to pass.
These salons felt safe, at least temporarily, but it wasn't until the arrival of places like Open Barbers and Barberette that I found I had places to recommend to queer, nonbinary and/or trans folks, places where I did not have to worry about their passability or their safety at all.
When I asked Greg from Open Barbers what is done to make client’s feel safe at his salon, he responded: “Clients can let us know their pronoun when they book, we allow plenty of time for haircuts if required and we avoid imposing gendered language on people. Our look book is handmade and gender neutral. Our hairdressers all have a great deal of empathy with our ethos, and we all aim to provide clients with as much control over their experience as possible by checking in throughout the haircut, not just at the end, and letting clients know they don’t have to be chatty or face the mirror.”
Klara Vanova, the founder of Barberette pointed out that: “Many trans* and non-binary people have difficulty in finding a barber who is able to understand the personal context of their gender identity/expression, and what their hair means to them as a very visible and obvious signifier of their identity.”
In terms of what needs to change at barbers and hair salons in the future, she says that quite simply “the main thing to recognise is that each person has the right to determine their own self-expression. Much of this relates to improving general awareness in the industry of trans* and non-binary identities, in a neutral and non-judgemental way”.
“A lot of these things boil down to money. A lot of trans people are poor. We need to consider their safety in coming to the salon and once they get to the salon too” – Tobi Adebajo, hairstylist
Not living in London has meant that I have returned to my word of mouth recommendations from the queer, trans and intersex people of colour community I stay connected to through social media. That’s how I met the magic fingered Tobi Adebajo. Non-binary and Nigerian, I got in touch with them after seeing the coloured box braids they gave Travis Alabanza last summer. They often come to my home, we watch episodes of Insecure, eat pizza and drag for filth those who deserve to be dragged. They understand.
“A lot of trans people are poor. We need to consider their safety in coming to the salon and once they get to the salon too. Many of my clients don’t feel safe without their hair being done. That’s completely legit y’know. This world is mad transphobic. Getting their hair done properly helps them face that world," says Tobi, who also works at Open Barbers and feels people should use queer salons as consultants to how they can improve their services. "ACCESS TO INFORMATION NEEDS TO CHANGE INNIT! From a union level. People that are cis need to offer up their bodies as safety mechanisms for trans people."
I had my hair put into braids by someone new yesterday. Susuana is a Ghanaian multi-talented person I met at a dinner in Brighton last week. The sun poured into the living room while we were together and my scalp was not tender at the end. I poured my heart out and talked about my career, sex, culture and trashy YouTubers. I was so content. I brought my whole self into their home and I left feeling beautiful. I belonged. The traumatised inner child who got screamed at for wetting the bed and beaten for being too girly, she is the one that smiled as the winds from the Sussex downs dashed my braids into the air before they came back down to kiss my shoulders with grace.