When I left Boston for Tennessee, one of my biggest concerns was where I’d get my hair cut. I’m a female who prefers men’s clipper cuts, and I’d never lived in a Southern state before, so I worried. I was so nervous, in fact, that I ended up going nearly five months without a hair cut, becoming dangerously fluffy in the process. When I finally got up the nerve, however, the first hairdresser I found cut my hair without the slightest hesitation. She even chatted to me about progressive politics. I relaxed, chiding myself for having made unwarranted assumptions.
These days, I try not to be so paranoid. Not every Southerner I meet is as welcoming as that first hairdresser, but most of them aren’t raging anti-gay crusaders, either. Feeling comfortable, or at least acting that way, can make all the difference when I’m faced with someone who may never have met anyone like me before. Back home, people were used to seeing gay couples, having gay friends, and acknowledging that gay people exist. In the South, however, the closet is alive and well. Compounding this, Southern politeness dictates that even if you know and accept your gay neighbors for who they are, that doesn’t mean you or they speak openly about the nature of the gay neighbors’ relationship.
I know native gay Southerners, some of whom grew up believing that there was something so warped about them that it must be hidden at any cost. It leaves its mark, growing up in that environment. In order to try to change that silencing, denial-ridden culture, I try to be as open about my sexuality as possible—and to remain friendly, good-humored, and nonjudgmental in the face of Southerners who may not know quite what to make of me. I see myself as an ambassador of sorts, and my task is to put a relatable human face on the “gay issue.”
Some days I succeed, others not so much. Last week, when I went in for a haircut, was one of the less successful occasions.
My usual hairdresser wasn’t in, but an older gentleman barber was, with a customer already in the chair. I’d walked about 10 minutes from my apartment, in the rain, and I figured I’d just wait until he finished. The barber took one look at me and told me to come back later, when the female hairdresser was back.
“Can’t you, um, cut my hair?” I asked, my voice wavering a bit, in spite of myself.
“I have appointments all morning,” he told me, “She should be in at 11. Here’s her card. Call her for an appointment.”
I left, but I was, to put it mildly, livid. All I wanted was the same haircut he’d give a man, and I’d been turned away for no reason other than my gender—this was America, and I didn’t have to stand for it! Visions of marching back and making a scene ran through my head. I composed soliloquys on the subject of equal treatment under the law and in public accommodations. When I got home, I took out the card he'd given me, and it appeared that, in his consternation, he'd given me his own card, not that of his female counterpart. And so, still angry, I called for an appointment.
He answered after the second ring, and I asked for an appointment for a haircut, a note of self-righteous anger ringing in my voice. Taken aback, he asked who exactly I wanted it with.
“Well,” I said, "If you'll cut my hair, I guess I want it with you."
"Are you a female?" he asked.
"I am, but I want the same haircut you'd give a male."
"Well, I don't cut female's hair," he said.
"I want a high and tight."
"Oh," he said. "I can do a high and tight. What time did you want to come in?"
Sometimes, lack of familiarity can manifest as prejudice. That’s something I ought to know better than anyone, because it has informed my whole philosophy of living openly as a queer person in Tennessee. Still, I slip sometimes. I let fear take over and act on my assumption that people in Tennessee can’t possibly be tolerant, can’t possibly accept me. This isn’t groundless fear—anti-gay bigotry exists in the South. When I read a news story or have a negative experience, it’s hard not to carry that forward. I struggle to continue to give people the benefit of the doubt, even when, in the back of my mind, I know that some of them hate me and others are indifferent to me personally while supporting policies that would deny me a family.
This particular Southern man gave me a top-notch haircut. Our conversation was a little stilted. I may have winced a little when he mentioned having gone to church the day before. He may have winced a little when I said I was in Tennessee while my wife was attending grad school. We muddled through, though. I wish I could say I did as much to improve his opinion of Northern lesbians as he did to improve mine of older Christian Southerners, but I think he had the advantage. This time.