Queers Built This is a project about queer inventiveness and DIY culture then, now, and tomorrow.
If a lesbian shaves her own head during quarantine and there’s no Pride parade to show it off, did it really happen? Hairstyles are a vital part of the way LGBTQ people express ourselves, and even if we aren’t going to social gatherings because of the pandemic, many of us don’t feel like ourselves without our coiffures. Nonetheless, it doesn’t appear that many queer or trans people are out protesting stay-at-home orders with “I Want a Haircut!” signs. We’re much more likely to handle things ourselves, with some help from our friends, partners, or even our kids. As the pandemic continues and Pride winds down, VICE spoke with 10 LGBTQ people about maintaining their preferred hairstyles without professional help.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some individuals’ last names have been omitted at their request to protect their privacy.
Flan, 28, Philadelphia, PA
I am an AMAB genderqueer non-binary person, somewhere toward the soft butch end of the gender presentation spectrum. My hair has always played a big role in my genderbending experimentation. I have been growing out my hair continuously for over four years to its present-day length, but that hasn’t stopped my urge to experiment. Right now I am rocking an Erin McKeown–inspired undercut, pompadour, ponytail hybrid. I feel confident, independent and euphoric with huge, long, punk hair.
Haircuts have gone from an event I barely tolerated to a consistent, routine ritual in my self-care toolkit. In its own way, a haircut is as significant and sacred to me as regular talk therapy. When lockdown began, I quickly friendsourced a set of clippers to maintain my own undercut, knowing it would go a long way toward feeling better just to have supplies available in my home. I didn’t know if I’d be brave enough to use them, but having the clippers alone was an anxiety balm.
My biggest fear about cutting my own hair was that I would botch up my line and have to buzz my whole head to feel presentable. Mandatory haircutting is a recurring stress image for me during peak anxiety, and early days of COVID had nothing if not maximal uncertainty.
After successfully trimming my own undercut, I felt relief at looking the way I wanted to on my own terms. My whole gender deal is highly reliant upon being able to care for and present myself consistently and competently, so knowing I wouldn’t go months with woolly grown-out sides made me feel powerful! It was incredible to acquire a new skill that enabled me to protect my own self-worth while also minimizing risk to others. Clipping my own shave-up soon joined masking and covering my beard zone out of doors as one of the newfound and deep gender euphorias of 2020.
Circe Moskowitz, 21 (and Sarah, her mom), Louisville, KY
When people look at me, they’re usually only going to categorize me as a Black woman; my bisexuality often goes erased or unseen. And growing up in a society that is so anti-Black, I hated my natural hair as a kid and used to straighten it all the time. I didn’t really have the confidence to experiment or embrace my curls fully until I was older. I broke free when I stopped taming my curls just so the rest of the world was more comfortable. It was a major affirmation to being both Black and bisexual, because for me, there is no one without the other. Sometimes I’m trying to rock some crazy frizz, and sometimes I’m trying to do some cool space buns. Either way, being the girl with wild hair is absolutely the look I go for. I own it. After cutting my own hair, I felt super accomplished. Also, I hadn’t had bangs since I was a teenager, so I was excited to rock them again. They’re so cute!
I also cut my mom [Sarah, who is also queer]’s hair during quarantine. I wasn’t so worried about cutting my own hair because if I messed up, it would just be on me. Plus, a perk of being stuck at the house was that there was zero chance of anyone outside of my immediate family seeing it. But the prospect of cutting my mom’s hair made me super nervous. Especially because she told me she wanted bangs. At that point, it became more than giving her a trim. Instead, I was faced with giving her a whole different hairstyle. I kept thinking, “What happens if I mess up?” because there’s no going to a salon to fix things in the middle of a pandemic. She’d just be stuck with it.
Under normal circumstances, I don’t think I would have found the courage to do it. But one day, after watching some tutorials on YouTube, I was like “You ready to do this?” and she was immediately down. A mutual “screw it” moment in the middle of a pandemic is definitely a bonding experience. Once I started cutting, I forgot all about fear because I was too focused on getting it right. It became fun and turned out even greater than I expected. She was really happy with it and I was glad to be able to do that for her.
I’m glad to have learned some new skills and I’ll definitely be putting them to use. Just need some new heads to practice on when I'm not cutting my own!
Karen Tongson, 46, Los Angeles, CA
I’ve always said I think my butch presentation is as aesthetic as it is anything else. I just look better with short hair. I like to say I’m butch by default. I’ve grown accustomed to the aesthetic benefits of my own masculinity. Being butch is how I’m publicly received, but also something I embrace.
I had some concerns about my hair growing out during quarantine, but I always figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to cut it all off with clippers if necessary. I was curious to see what would happen. About a month or so into the stay-at-home orders, I noticed my hair getting longer, and I started talking to some of my butch friends, saying, “what are we gonna do with our hair?” My friends were posting on Instagram about weird things their hair was starting to do, flaps or sideburns or covering the ears or things that aren’t usually part of our sensibility. So I started the Butch Hair Quarantine Instagram to share what was going on with our hair, but also pictures of masculine celebrities, inspiration for people who are masculine but wear their hair longer.
I had no idea it would be so deeply resonant. It hadn’t really occurred to me yet how long our hair might get or what traumas might be stirred up without access to hair care. My own consciousness hadn’t caught up to the intensity of people’s expression around their hair.
The peak of the pandemic hair situation was probably about six weeks in... I was receiving so many images every day it was hard to keep up with them. In the beginning, it was fewer, but about a month in seems to be the peak moment where people started to experience various forms of dysphoria or take matters into their own hands.
I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to continue paying my stylist [Madin Lopez], and I wanted to not only support them and their organization Project Q but encourage people to support their own hairdressers. We did a live Instagram haircutting tutorial with Madin where we asked for donations for Project Q, and they talked my wife through cutting my hair. It was like getting telehealth advice. My wife was a little annoyed at me that I signed her up to cut my hair in front of hundreds of people, but Madin took their time and really taught her how to shape my hair.
We cut it at home a second time since then because I was having severe gender discomfort. It was starting to fluff out in the back, and my name is Karen, but it was really making me look like a Karen. Not only that, but it made me feel old. I didn’t look masculine and I looked old, so those things together were like, Let’s get the clippers.
Maya, 20, Chicago, IL/New York, NY
Ever since I decided to ask my friends and family to use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to me, I’ve felt more and more urgent about changing my physical appearance to more accurately reflect my gender identity. That was way back in October of last year, and only two weeks ago did I really feel like I looked like myself.
A few months after coming out, I asked my friend Bex to give me an undercut, just a little gender-affirming reminder that I could reach for on the back of my head whenever I wanted. But in the stages of growing it out during quarantine, it became unwieldy, and, after a week or two of going back and forth about what to do, I asked Bex to just cut it all off. She’s running an informal queer barbershop out of her off-campus college apartment, with five undercuts under her belt and continually buzzing the hair of the person she’s dating. “I only cut queer, is what I’m saying,” is the, let’s say, informal slogan of her informal barbershop.
I’ve worn my hair fairly long in recent memory and—I think—got misgendered a lot as a result; I anticipated that having much shorter hair would get people to pause and even think to ask what my pronouns are instead of assuming right off the bat. I’ve struggled a lot with my gender presentation in the past year and a half and wanted an opportunity to change what I saw in the mirror.
If I had to grow my hair out again, I’d feel itchy and anxious and like I’d lost part of my identity. I liked my long hair enough, but I felt like I’d outgrown it. The day after I got my haircut, I sent a photo to my best friend and she told me that I really look like me, like it made sense for me to have the hair that I do now. That made me so happy and feel really affirmed; I also felt like I’d been poured into a mold shaped like myself.
I felt amazing. I was glad I’d trusted Bex with such a big task, and that she’d had exactly the right vision. I felt like I could look in the mirror and see what I wanted to see rather than having to wrangle my long hair into some arrangement that provided me only a sliver of relief from gender dysphoria.
Theo Motzenbacker, 33, Los Angeles, CA
I identify as transmasculine. I only came out publicly within the last year, and I'm still figuring some stuff out. Ask me again next year and you might get a different answer.
Getting my hair cut short and masculine was a big deal for me with regard to giving myself permission to express my more masculine side. I'd had the same asymmetrical bob for like a decade, partly because I liked it and mostly because I was self-conscious about my bad skin, so I tried to hide it behind my hair. I both really wanted a short, masc cut and was also terrified that I'd look in the mirror every day and hate my face. Then when I finally did the thing, I loved how it made me look so much that I mostly stopped thinking about my skin at all. And not only that, but I got vain! I took endless selfies. I gave the camera smoldering looks, which—I'm a weird nerd, so I didn't think I was physically capable of doing that.
When I was maybe 14, I had a big crush on this girl who had a stated preference for guys with my physical features: skinny, brown hair, big nose, bushy eyebrows. I fantasized all the time about being a boy version of myself, ostensibly just so that she'd want to date me. I remembered that when I got my masc haircut last year. I felt triumphant, like, Oh hey, I can totally be that handsome guy. I'm already that handsome guy.
After a couple extra weeks of growth during quarantine, I started wearing hats a lot and saying ominously to my partner, "There's a fine line between a boy haircut and a lesbian haircut." I'm sure 89 percent of people read me as a queer woman anyway, but it felt very important that I make every effort to look like one and not the other.
I've been mostly cutting my hair myself, with my partner helping me with the back. He even let me use his fabric scissors, the only sharp scissors in the house, which is pretty much the definition of love. I was sure I'd mess it up. My only experience cutting hair had been drunkenly ruining my best friend's hair in high school, which, if I'm honest, I still feel guilty for. I also had to make peace with the fact that I'd be buzzing off my beautiful fade (shout-out to Pony at Folklore Salon & Barber in L.A.!), since I did NOT trust myself to recreate it.
Overall, I'm pleased! And relieved! It's always a little uneven, but I still smile when I look in the mirror.
Michelle and Leisha, 41 and 35, Minneapolis, MN
I identify as queer and use she/her pronouns. This is the longest my hair has been since I was 14 and shaved my head. I don't like having my hair this long, but because all of my jobs are shut down, there's no place to go. (I do social media for a small company and tend bar for three concert venues.) Mostly, I hate having the hair hang in my eyes. I wear glasses, and my hair smudges my glasses.
If I were even five or 10 years younger, the length of my hair would have caused me a lot more anxiety. Not sure what it was about turning 40 that made me just accept myself more. (TBH, I've also had to act as a caregiver to my aging parents, so I just have less time to worry about myself.) I assumed if my spouse really messed up my hair, I would just shave my whole head and move on. They didn't want to touch the longer parts, except from trimming the bangs, and I was fine with that. It turned out… OK.
I identify as a queer nonbinary Black human, using they/them pronouns. My hair has been quite a journey through life! As a kid, I spent long hours having my mom wash, dry, and hot comb my hair. Then one day, when I was around the age of 12, my mom finally let me chemically straighten my hair! I did this for most of my young adult life until I was done with undergrad and was really tired of treating my hair. So I got an acrylic weave for a few months to grow my roots and had a lovely community auntie start locs for me. I've had my locs for 12 years! Around three years ago I shaved one side of my head just to have a change… then a few months after that I shaved the other side! So I have locs down the center and usually short down to bald sides.
I made the choice to cut and shave my locs in part because I just wanted a different look and also because I felt it gave me a more gender neutral look. The queer community definitely has its style signifiers and I wanted to try it out! It can be hard to play with hair styles sometimes with locs, so I just went for it.
I've been working as a therapist to LGBTQ+ youth through the pandemic and protests in Minneapolis, and I love being present for my youth. But I also have to look at my long sides and frequently feel unkempt and self-conscious. Often children of color get the "talk" about presentability from their parents. "Don’t look shabby," "always show your best side"—those kinds of things. Despite working with these issues with my clients, I also struggle with the same things sometimes! I was very concerned about how I would care for and keep my hair neat during quarantine. I knew I would look good for longer than some of my short-haired friends and coworkers, but now I'm looking shaggy!
My partner cut my hair and I was very anxious that she might cut my locs by mistake! She did a great job, though, and was very mindful of where the root of my locs began and the short side ended. At the end of the day, I love and trust her so much and knew she would do her best. And everything was intact! Having your hair cut or done/styled can be a very intimate thing. We spend more time than we realize with our hair stylists and they touch and care for a vulnerable part of our body, our head! It was actually such a caring act to have my Black hair cared for so intentionally by my white wife. With everything that has happened since the initial cut, it’s been even more meaningful.
Gabe M., 38, Queens, NY
I'm a trans man. My gender expression is a bit nontraditional but I definitely feel better about myself when my hair is cut the way I like it. When it gets overgrown, I just feel kind of sloppy and like it looks like I don't care. I also can be a little dysmorphic due to some trauma early in my life and I struggle mentally when I don't like the way I look. I was definitely concerned about not being able to go to the barber because even though I rarely get misgendered, I feel self-conscious about my appearance when I don't keep up with my haircuts (and my hair grows really fast!).
My wife cut my hair, which didn’t worry me at all. She’s been cutting her own since long before quarantine, and has also cut a few friends'. I also knew that if I didn't like it at first I would be able to deal with it until it grew out, because we're spending most of our time inside. As it turned out, she gave me one of the best cuts I've had! She's done it twice now and it was even better the second time. I might never go back to getting it cut by a barber. I also felt like there was something kind of intimate about her cutting it for me, because she told me how she followed the pattern of my hair and paid attention to how it framed my face and this all felt like it meant more being done by someone who knows me really well. If anything, I feel closer to her now.
Lindsay King-Miller, 32, Denver, CO
I shaved my own head and quite a few of my friends’ heads in college, but more recently I’ve gotten into being the kind of Mature Adult who frequents my local queer-owned barber shop. For the past year or so I’ve been working with my stylist to gracefully grow out my fauxhawk into a long undercut. Quarantine didn’t interfere with the growing out, of course, but it played hell with the “gracefully.” The back grows faster than the front, so by April I was creeping into mullet territory. (Some queer people can pull off mullets! Not me, though.)
It wasn’t until I started interviewing people for this article that I remembered there was another way to live. My husband, a trans man, has been cutting his own hair regularly throughout the pandemic, and has managed to maintain a very respectable fade. I didn’t do that. I just got fed up enough one night to buzz one side of my head down to the skin, then hack off the shaggy hair in the back as neatly as I could while using my phone’s front-facing camera to stand in for a hand mirror. So much for being a mature adult.
I can’t wait to do it again. There’s nothing in the world as invigorating as the feeling of a fresh buzz cut. As for the long side of my hair, I can’t see myself from behind, so as far as I’m concerned, it turned out amazing.
Lindsay King-Miller is the author of Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls Who Dig Girls. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.