Re­claim­ing iden­tity

LGBTQ youth, many home­less or strug­gling, find a safe space, sup­port and free hair­cuts at a gen­derqueer stylist’s mo­bile sa­lon

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Hai­ley Branson-Potts

The young, black trans­gen­der woman in hair­styl­ist Madin Lopez’s chair used to hate get­ting her hair cut. Bar­bers al­ways ques­tioned her gen­der iden­tity. They al­ways cut her hair short. She’d al­ways be dis­ap­pointed.

But on a re­cent, swel­ter­ing af­ter­noon, Lopez put a small plait across 23-year-old Kaityanna Phillips’ fore­head. Phillips had been grow­ing her hair out, and this was the first time it had ever been braided. She couldn’t stop run­ning her hand over it.

“Com­ing here, the light comes back into me again,” Phillips said, sigh­ing hap­pily.

‘Here’ is Lopez’s beige 1977 Airstream trailer-turned-bar­ber­shop, parked on a bustling Hol­ly­wood street near the Los An­ge­les LGBT Cen­ter’s Youth Cen­ter.

Twice a month, Lopez — who is gen­derqueer, iden­ti­fy­ing nei­ther as male nor fe­male — gives free hair­cuts

to dozens of young LGBTQ peo­ple, of­fer­ing them a space where their iden­tity is not only re­spected but also dis­cussed openly.

Lopez asks each new per­son: What are your pre­ferred gen­der pro­nouns? The words “they” and “them” — the stylist’s pre­ferred pro­nouns — are tat­tooed across Lopez’s fingers.

Lopez, 30, runs a free hair­cut­ting op­er­a­tion through a small non­profit called Project Q, the ‘Q’ stand­ing for queer. Many of the young peo­ple who come for hair­cuts are home­less or strug­gling. Many are just kids try­ing to fig­ure out who they are.

“Hav­ing a bad-ass hair­cut is so em­pow­er­ing, to feel like you own ev­ery­thing in your space, to feel like you can take up space,” said Lopez, who also works in an Echo Park sa­lon.

“When you don’t feel good about your­self, you cower. You hold your­self down. … I wanted to give con­fi­dence to peo­ple that needed the ego boost.”

Work­ing from ex­pe­ri­ence

The hair­styl­ist knows what it’s like to be young, black, queer and un­ac­cepted.

Grow­ing up in Los An­ge­les, Lopez was about 12 when they started un­der­stand­ing they were dif­fer­ent. Brit­ney Spears came on TV, and Lopez, who then iden­ti­fied as fe­male, thought, “Oh, I see why peo­ple say she’s at­trac­tive.”

Lopez asked fam­ily mem­bers what they’d do if Lopez were gay.

“They said they’d pretty much beat it out of me, and they did,” Lopez said. “It’s in­ter­est­ing when you start re­al­iz­ing some­thing about your­self and your very black, very Chris­tian fam­ily is like — no.”

Lopez was phys­i­cally abused, then kicked out, cy­cling through fos­ter homes, liv­ing first with a a white fos­ter fam­ily, then an Asian fam­ily. Nei­ther knew how to care for Lopez’s hair.

“My hair was break­ing off, get­ting shorter and shorter be­cause no one knew what to do. … Lit­er­ally inches of my hair were fall­ing off,” Lopez said.

Lopez even­tu­ally moved in with a black fos­ter mom who had a hair sa­lon in the base­ment. The woman pressed and straight­ened Lopez’s hair and helped Lopez take care of it.

“I felt alive again,” Lopez said.

Lopez started do­ing hair at the age of 16, know­ing hairstyling was a pro­fes­sion that would al­ways be needed whether or not Lopez had a fam­ily. Lopez be­came self­suf­fi­cient — and then wanted to give back.

Nei­ther male nor fe­male

“Ask me about my pro­nouns!” Lopez wrote on a re­cent In­sta­gram post, sport­ing a T-shirt with the words: “Her/She. Him/He. Them/ They.”

Lopez’s iden­tity falls out­side the gen­der bi­nary — the tra­di­tional clas­si­fi­ca­tion of two dis­tinct gen­ders, male and fe­male, with noth­ing in be­tween.

For years, Lopez said, there were few words to ar­tic­u­late the gen­derqueer iden­tity. They grav­i­tated to­ward the gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns ‘xe,’ ‘xim’ and ‘xir.’

But as Amer­i­cans’ un­der­stand­ing of gen­der iden­tity and sex­u­al­ity have rapidly changed in re­cent years, dic­tio­nar­ies and main­stream news or­ga­ni­za­tions in­creas­ingly have adopted ex­pan­sive gen­der lan­guage and the use of ‘they’ as a sin­gu­lar pro­noun.

Mer­riam-Web­ster added sev­eral gen­der-re­lated words — like “gen­derqueer” and “cis­gen­der” (a per­son whose gen­der iden­tity cor­re­sponds with the sex iden­ti­fied at their birth) — to its unabridged dic­tio­nary last year.

In April, The Times up­dated its style guide­lines for cov­er­ing the LGBTQ com­mu­nity, per­mit­ting the use of “they” and “their” as sin­gu­lar pro­nouns for in­di­vid­u­als who do not iden­tify as male or fe­male, or for when gen­der is un­known. The Associated Press adopted sim­i­lar guide­lines.

Cal­i­for­nia state law­mak­ers are con­sid­er­ing leg­is­la­tion that would al­low a third, non­bi­nary gen­der op­tion for of­fi­cial state doc­u­ments. The bill, SB 179, was passed by the state Se­nate in May.

Ore­gon last month be­came the first state to al­low res­i­dents to choose “X” for non­bi­nary in­stead of “M” or “F” on drivers’ li­censes and iden­ti­fy­ing doc­u­ments.

‘This is a safe space’

Lopez, who runs Project Q with wife Sabine, drives the mo­bile sa­lon to trans­gen­der pride events all across Cal­i­for­nia.

Lopez’s vol­un­teer ef­forts were fea­tured in an MTV doc­u­men­tary about trans­gen­der youth last year, and the work picked up so much that Lopez added a sec­ond hair­styl­ist, 34-year-old Coral Lobera, in Novem­ber. Lobera grinned when asked about pre­ferred gen­der pro­nouns and said, “Queer. Butch. Dyke. All of the things. All the pro­nouns. All the la­bels.”

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, the trailer was parked along High­land Av­enue in Hol­ly­wood. A wel­come mat read: “This is a Safe Space.”

Be­fore they could get their hair cut, each per­son had to an­swer a ques­tion posed by Lopez on a marker board out­side: How do you choose to be vis­i­ble?

There’s a new ques­tion each time. Lopez calls it the cur­rency sys­tem — some­one an­swers the ques­tion thought­fully, and they get a free hair­cut. Lopez formed the sys­tem af­ter work­ing with home­less youths. Some, want­ing to re­pay Lopez, would try to give the stylist snacks, or their own clothes.

The cur­rency ques­tions are al­ways per­sonal:

“My hair tells the world ____.”

“Black trans lives mat­ter! Why does your life mat­ter?”

On this day, a 19-year-old trans­gen­der man an­swered the query about vis­i­bil­ity: “Be­ing me ’cuz I’m unique.”

The man, who gave only his first name, An­dre, took three trains and a bus from his home in Watts to get his hair cut by Lopez. He showed off a new tat­too: the Bat­man bat sym­bol, filled in with the blue, pink and white of the trans­gen­der pride flag.

“The rea­son I come back to Madin so of­ten is they cre­ate a safe space for queer peo­ple,” An­dre said. “In the Watts area, if I de­cided to get a hair­cut I’d have to con­form to my sur­round­ings and en­vi­ron­ment. … Your bar­ber is like your ther­a­pist. As a trans per­son, I need some­one to talk to.”

Lopez ran an elec­tric ra­zor through An­dre’s thick black hair, shav­ing a pulse­like jagged line.

“The side of your head looks real ban­gin’ right now,” Lopez said.

Hunter Pixel Jimenez, an 18-year-old trans­gen­der man with braces and a shy smile who lives in Kore­atown, said he can’t imag­ine get­ting his hair cut any­where else af­ter meet­ing Lopez. At other places he would tell the stylist he was a man, but would be charged higher fees for a woman’s hair­cut, he said.

As Lobera trimmed his hair, Jimenez ex­cit­edly ex­plained that his dad helped him pick his first name af­ter he came out as trans­gen­der and that he had re­cently picked his own mid­dle name, ‘Pixel,’ be­cause he loves video games.

Lopez said a be­wil­dered woman re­cently asked, “You only do hair for queer youth?”

Lopez said yes — queer young peo­ple and young peo­ple of color. The woman asked, “What if the op­po­site of that comes in?”

“I said they can wait,” Lopez said. “If there are four black, home­less queer youth wait­ing, that … white, cis[gen­der], straight per­son can wait. Y’all have ev­ery­thing else, ev­ery other space. And this is our space.”

Photos by Claire Han­nah Collins Los An­ge­les Times

MADIN LOPEZ cuts hair in a mo­bile sa­lon out­side the Los An­ge­les LGBT Cen­ter. To get a free hair­cut, young peo­ple an­swer a ques­tion such as “How do you choose to be vis­i­ble?” or “Why does your life mat­ter?”

OUT­SIDE their 1977 Airstream trailer-turned-bar­ber­shop, gen­derqueer hair­styl­ist Marin Lopez speaks with a client July 17.

Claire Han­nah Collins Los An­ge­les Times

MADIN LOPEZ asks each new per­son who comes to their sa­lon about pre­ferred gen­der pro­nouns. The words “they” and “them” — the stylist’s pre­ferred pro­nouns — are tat­tooed across Lopez’s fingers. Lopez is gen­derqueer, mean­ing they iden­tify as nei­ther male nor fe­male.

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