There’s something strangely intimate about the barbershop.
It’s traditionally viewed as a sphere of masculinity, but somehow, the barbershop feels more like a tender microcosm of humanity. Because when you sit in a salon chair, you’re surrendering a tiny part of yourself to another person. You’re vulnerable, evolving and you’re prepared to accept the worst, whatever that might be. For some women, the worst that could happen in a barbershop is a bad haircut — a bowl, a mushroom or bangs. But if you’re a queer woman like Dez Marshall, getting a haircut can feel like a threat to your very personhood.
“As queer/trans GNC folks, we make ourselves smaller for safety and survival,” said Dez. “We get othered. We get mistreated. Simple things like a haircut can become traumatic or event violent episodes. Folks are misgendered or ignored all together.”
As a queer woman of color, Dez found herself facing endless hostility and bigotry in the salon chair. In some of New York’s best barbershops, she was harassed with invasive questions about her sexuality, looked down upon and treated as less of a person, simply because of who she was. Getting a haircut became a game of impossible choices: should she endure the comments as the price for her cut or was it safer to escape dehumanization by avoiding the barbershop?
Faced with two choices, Dez made a third choice of her own. She started cutting hair for herself.
As a community organizer for at-risk LGBTQ+ youth of color, Dez knew that something as simple as a haircut could transform a person’s life. For many queer folk, hair is a key mode of artistic self-expression, allowing them to claim their identities through their appearances. Dez started providing free haircuts to at-risk youth in exchange for their participation in the program. This allowed her to build her skills and her confidence. She discovered that by cutting hair, she could uplift communities who were marginalized, both in the barbershop and in society at large. She started the Queer With Shears brand to create a safe space for her customers to get haircuts.
“My chair is safe space. Clients know [that] when they get a cut with me, they will not be judged for their gender identity or expression,” said Dez. “They will be seen, fully. They will get the cut they ask for. My challenge to everyone else in the shop is to treat my clients with the respect they deserve.”
Currently based in Brooklyn, Dez enjoys serving a wide variety of customers, most of whom identify as LGBTQ+. Her work has made waves online and Dez strives to make her chair a positive environment for all. But being a female barber isn’t always easy. In the shops she works at, Dez faces everyday acts of misogyny. Male customers often assume that because Dez is a woman, she’s not a credible barber and her clients are sometimes treated with disrespect. Her presence in a space dominated by straight men is usually a challenge, but more often, it’s a revolution.
“The beauty of the Black barbershop is that it’s always been a neighborhood hub, primarily a space for straight cis men to gather and build,” said Dez. “Queer and trans folks have always been a part of this community. It’s not like we just came into existence. I’m just not hiding us anymore.”
And her revolution is powerful in simple ways. Because every day, Dez Marshall challenges a world that seeks to beat her down. And her clients do the same, simply by sitting in her chair and wearing their hair with pride. During their hair sessions with Dez, clients open up about all sorts of topics — current events, identity, parenthood, sports and more. They aren’t quiet when they speak and they shouldn’t have to be. Because while the world can feel inhospitable to women of color, especially queer women, Dez’s chair is a place where revolutions are built from tiny acts of kindness. Because even the most pervasive oppression can be conquered with scissors, snip by tiny snip.