As a child in the seventies, I didn’t want my hair cut or combed. Rather I adopted a laissez-faire approach–-one that resulted in an unruly afro and a first grade photo that my mother still digs up from time-to-time. That barbershop on Rose Hill Drive in Charlottesville, Virginia terrified me–-I felt different, small, and under siege. The sights and sounds all screamed that I didn’t belong.
The truth, of course, is that those of us who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender often feel this way at the barbershop, well past our childhood years. So I was intrigued when I learned of Bushwick barber Khane Kutzwell, who’s trying to change all that.
“I used to cut hair out of a beauty salon on Nostrand [Avenue],” Kutzwell tells me one afternoon while cleaning and prepping a pair of clippers before cutting a client’s hair in her Bushwick apartment. “My clients would walk in and the conversation would just stop.”
Those Nostrand Avenue customers represented the gamut of gender expressions-–female-to-male, male-to-female, effeminate gay males, and masculine-identified lesbians. Sometimes, Kutzwell says, the conversation would continue, with LGBT patrons subjected to derogatory words and phrases peppered throughout other people’s conversations. And then, of course, there was the music at the shop-–rap and reggae that often contained homophobic lyrics.
“A lot of the clients were trans,” Kutzwell says. “The other guys in the shop–they’d ask questions when a client left, like they were curious to learn, but it was uncomfortable.”
Kutzwell takes a hair pick and starts working through a first-time client’s short Afro before a shape-up. The client, Syncere, was referred to Kutzwell by her girlfriend. Though she was a contestant in Mr. Transman 2010 (a female-to-male transgender pageant held in the spring) Kutzwell identifies as “trans-entity,” a term she made up. She coined the term because, she says, she embraces both the masculine and the feminine parts of herself.
“I used to identify as trans, but felt that it wasn’t fair to the word,” she says, explaining that she wasn’t actually in transition, as the word implies. “I feel both sides pretty equally.”
Sarah Chinn, executive director of the Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies at the City University of New York, thinks that Kutzwell’s effort to create a safe space is a great idea. “I think for lesbians or non-gender conforming women, going to a barbershop can feel uncomfortable,” Chinn says. “To walk in as a woman and say, ‘I want a masculine haircut’ can be hard and it can be a hostile environment.”
Brooklyn-based performance artist Glenn
Maria Marla, a friend and client of Kutzwell’s, agrees. “I really appreciated that she stopped cutting hair in that shop,” Maria Marla says, referring to the salon on Nostrand Avenue. “It can be hard to go to the doctor, but then the idea of something like a haircut–that’s something that should be luxurious.”
Kutzwell, who got her barber’s license almost three years ago at Manhattan’s American Barber Institute, specializes in artful design that she cuts into clients’ hair and beards. These include lightening bolts, curlicues, stars, sports team logos–anything the client comes up with. Kutzwell first started experimenting with the designs while in barbering school, sometimes using fearless people drawn in by the lure of a $5 student haircut.
The long-term goal is to open her own shop, and move away from cutting in her apartment. The space is bright and welcoming, but small. Ideally, she’d like five or more shops, in different cities around the country. “I’m thinking Bed-Stuy–maybe a little bit downtown Brooklyn,” she says of her ideal location. Before opening her own spot, though, Kutzwell has to pass her master barber’s exam. Barbershop owners are required to pass the advanced exam, administered by the New York State Division of Licensing Services, which she to take at the end of November.
In addition to cutting hair, Kutzwell is also a party promoter. One local she throws is called Sweat, and “is about openness and togetherness,” she says. “Sweat is purely dance. I bring my drums–my congas.” The other party, Groove, is what Kutzwell calls a performance party. “It’s a little more formal,” she says. “I encourage people to get dressed up.”
But the main focus remains the barbering, with eye on finding the right spot for her first shop when she can afford to make this next step of her dream a reality. It will mean a safe haven for many people, and a place, just like any other barbershop, for lively talk and a little pampering.
“To know that you’re going to be respected,” says Maria Marla, the performance artist, “is huge in any situation.”