Every few weeks, I climb into a chair in the dusty back room of a barber shop. I'm invariably nervous; decades of bad haircuts have left me wary, but Crys, my barber, is soothingly consistent.
"The usual?" she asks.
"Yup." I'll shake it up sometimes: a fade, or the back cut in a "v." Recently, a shaved line along the part. But usually, it's the usual.
When I first went to Crys, she asked what I wanted my hair to look like. I hadn't brought photos; googling combinations of "lesbian" and "asymmetric" hadn't quite yielded what I had wanted, so I described it to her instead. She listened carefully, said she knew exactly what I was talking about, and pulled up "the usual" on her iPad: "Classic men's cut," she typed into the search bar, no big deal that the shape of my body indicated I wasn't a man. She casually asked me what pronouns I use, and had no further questions from there.
Crys cuts in silence, the buzz of her clippers filling the room. When she's done with the sides, she chops a little off the top—just enough to keep down my dense Pakistani hair. She rubs alcohol along the edges, brushes me off, and then I'm done. I climb out of the chair, put on my hijab, and walk the few blocks home.
My hair is just one of the ways I wear my identities—gender nonconforming, queer, immigrant, South Asian, Muslim, woman(ish)—on my body. Only some are immediately visible: the unmistakable brown of my skin, the rectangular hijab I wind twice around my head. Others are legible only to those who know how to read them: shirts from the boy's section, man-cut jeans. The small, subtle rainbow necklace tucked under my collar, which I rub when on the periphery of gender-segregated social situations. These identities are constantly in flux, shielding and re-centering, playing with one another in a delicate dance to protect me. At a storytelling event at the LGBT center, where I'm terrified of running into someone who I don't feel safe enough to be out to, my hijab means that I'm read as "the ally". Later, at a party with mostly upwardly mobile Muslim yuppies where people make homophobic jokes—assuming that everyone in the room is straight—my Muslimness means that I can rage and shut down the jokes without being read as queer.
But between the Muslim ban and the retraction of bathroom policies for trans folks, between rumors of anti-LGBTQ legislation and the rise of a more sinister strand of hate and discrimination, something feels different. It feels like there's nowhere to hide in Trump's America. No toning down, no playing up, no sloughing off of any of my identities will save me; I will always, always be read as different.
One evening walking home from work in Midtown Manhattan, I hear "terrorist" hissed at me by a passerby—a tall, seemingly innocuous white man in a sharp suit, probably walking home, too, taking the time out of his day to whisper "terrorist" to me on the street. One morning last summer in the Lower East Side, I'm waiting for a friend to pick me up to go to the beach, and I hear "dyke" ring out from across the street. The promise of sand and heat had made me trade my usual hijab for a snapback worn backward to cover most of my hair, and in my T-shirt, sports bra, and low-hanging athletic pants, my queerness and gender non-conformity are most visible. In Midtown, I had to pick up the pace, round a corner, stop, and breathe until I could stop shaking. On the Lower East Side, I was still shaking when my friend picked me up. But then I climbed into her car, and it was full of my queer Muslim siblings, my friend family, and we're on our way to such escapist joy that I decided not to tell anyone about the fleeting interaction.
Not that I could, if I wanted to, be less different. They're a means of survival, my identities. I cut my hair and wear men's clothes to be comfortable, to not hate myself. I wear hijab and pray so that I can get out of bed in the morning, so that this world with its injustices and inequalities is a little more bearable. I wear my identities to live.
And yet. Even here in New York, these identities feel far from equally marginalized. In a beanie or a hat covering my hair, I am suddenly non-threatening to security at stadiums, I'm talked to politely by cops at protests, and I find myself jarred by the pleasantness of these interactions. And at the nominally progressive mosque that I frequently duck into for prayer, I panic when I realize that I've forgotten my scarf, that in my snapback I'm visibly genderqueer in the women's section. No one says anything, but I can feel—maybe because I'm especially self-conscious—the quizzical stares.
And yet. Something about resistance to Trump and response to the measures that have been rolled out feels uplifting and collaborative and hopeful. The disparate communities I belong to are starting to interact and talk to one another. Mainstream Muslim organizations co-sponsored an LGBTQ solidarity rally at Stonewall a few weeks ago. Gay friends who a few years ago would fight me, claiming that racism is abating in this country, show up to an anti-Islamophobia rally in droves. There's this heady sense that our liberations are interlinked and a different world where we build together feels possible.
It's the night before Eid, and I'm having a rare day of really feeling myself. I'm in the East Village, walking to my friend's rooftop for a chaand raat barbeque feeling uncharacteristically dapper. In a crisp button-down shirt with rolled up sleeves, in a new pair of dark jeans and a gray hijab. Dyke boots with the tops of my red socks peeping through, and the accessory that brings it all together: a skinny black tie. I'm really feeling myself, even take a rare selfie before I leave my apartment. There's a bounce in my step, and I'm excited for this barbeque, to celebrate with my beloved queer Muslim family the end of a difficult Ramadan.
It's not until I'm on the street that the panic starts to hit. It's the summer of Trump's nomination, and I'm coming out the fog of how did this happen and into the stomach churning realization of the consequences. I've always felt protected by the anonymity of the city, by the constant crowds of people, but suddenly I'm self-conscious of the ways in which my identities are unmistakably on display. Are people staring at me? Am I suddenly transparent to the street vendor I buy my fruits from? To the neighborhood uncles keeping watch out of the corner deli? To the hipster ice cream place that I find myself making a pit stop in after difficult days at work?
No one says anything, probably no one is even looking at me askance, wrapped up as they all are in their busy lives. But I find myself breathing harder regardless, unable to put one foot in front of the other. I pause under the awning of a closed shop to take a moment to reassess, to figure out how to go on, when the answer comes to me. I pull the hood of my jacket up over my hijab and take off my tie. And walk quickly the rest of the way to the barbeque, to my people, to safety.
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