Lauren Perlstein

Hair That Comes Out For You

Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.
Aug 09, 2018 @ 9:00 am

“Hi, my name is Jameson and I’m non-binary. If you don’t know what that means, it means I have great hair.”

This is how I introduce myself at professional conferences and networking events. Honestly, it works wonders as an icebreaker. Hiding behind my joke gives me that extra bit of courage that I need to come out to strangers, using my hair as a conversation-starter that I blessedly always have with me. Normally, people chuckle, and the tension is immediately broken. And, when someone actually doesn't know what non-binary means, my comment acts as a great lead-in to that conversation about my gender identity — how I don’t identify as either a man or a woman and feel more comfortable existing outside of that two-gender system.

There’s truth behind my introductory quip, too. My small cabal of non-binary friends all have excellent hair, myself included. For better or worse, I’ve built my persona around my hair. It’s my biggest defining characteristic: Jamey with the revolving door of hair colors, who’s liable to look completely different every time you see them. Bright colors, short spiky updos and shaved undercuts are some of the style elements I cling to — currently, my hair is short and light blue on top with a small swoop in the front, and softly buzzed to dark brown on the sides.

At first, I didn’t feel the need to analyze my preoccupation with my hair too much. Everyone has aspects of their own appearance that are particularly important to them. But the more queer folks I met who had similar strong feelings about their hair, the more I started to think about why that might be.

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

The most obvious answer deals with issues of confidence. Many queer people make highly stylized aesthetic choices that act as the first line of defense against being put down for who we are and how we look. Being fashionable and confident in the context of queerness feels rebellious — subversive even. More than that, it feels great. Being visibly queer isn’t always easy, so damn if we’re not going to look good while doing it.

But it goes deeper than that. Part of being transgender, at least for me, means desperately wanting to be able to exert control over how I look — and doing whatever I can to take matters of my appearance and presentation into my own hands. Sometimes that means being put on long waiting lists for invasive surgeries. Sometimes it means frustrated hours in front of the mirror as I’m unable to figure out how to morph my body into the shape that I want. But my hair is a source of power. It’s the one thing I can always change, whenever the mood strikes me, easily and without any oversight, input or restrictions from anyone else. When my hair doesn’t look how I want it to, I feel helpless. When I change it to look how I want, I feel empowered.

Perhaps the most profound thing about my hair, though, is the way it makes me feel connected to the rest of my community. If there’s one thing I trust in this world, it’s that queer folks will always find each other. In that sense, my hair is doing a lot of work for me. It’s not just helping me look and feel good. It’s a beacon, shining out into the darkness, helping my people find me and feel safe striking up a conversation with me, or even just shooting me a knowing look and a friendly nod from across the bar. I think that innate desire to find, and be found by, each other is the reason we end up with stereotypical “queer hairstyles” — folks lovingly copying the looks of people like Janelle Monae and Brendon Urie in a desperate attempt to be recognized, to feel seen.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s one right way to do any of this, or a single one-size-fits-all hairstyle you have to have in order for your identity to be valid. Below, 10 people in the LGBTQ community discuss their own relationships to their hair. From elegance to wildness, femininity, masculinity, androgyny, and change; visibility, power, and at least one shaved head, their stories show the depth of meaning that hair can hold. So, like I’ve said so many times before:

“Hi, we're queer. If you don’t know what that means, it means we have great hair.”

Tamren Estévez López, 27

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“My hair is one of the most affirming physical aspects of my gender expression. Growing up in a Latinx household, I remember never being comfortable with how long [my hair] was. Hair presentation is important in our culture, and it involved a lot of gel and hair spray to keep those baby hairs tamed. Before I became comfortable with identifying as gender non-binary, I identified for years as a lesbian. I spent a long time in an awkward stage where I rocked a mullet for bit because I just didn't know what to do with it anymore. I still remember how I felt when I cut it all off and got my first fade. I felt handsome and masculine, and it kick-started my transition into a more masculine-presenting person.”

Tarayn Sanders, 25

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“My hair has become one of the most important aspects of identifying myself in my daily life, circling around both my blackness and queerness. Last year I found out I was half-black, and immediately made the decision to cut my hair. After 24 years of chemically treated straight hair, I wanted to be free of it and embrace my natural hair.

"After cutting my hair, I felt liberated and also very seen. My queerness seemed to only be lightly questioned when I had longer hair, whereas now, people find my sexuality obvious. Whether the inferences are accurate or not is hard to say, but I do feel there is a powerful, unspoken message at play whenever someone with a similar haircut walks into a room.”

C Mandler, 23

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“To me, my hair is a physical manifestation of my identity, which is constantly in flux. I try hard not to confine myself to strict labels, so I identify as queer and non-binary trans, because they feel like the most ambiguous terms out there right now. My hair tends to change drastically on the regular, with new shaved parts, colors, and lengths depending on my mood, how my gender presentation is at that moment in time, and whether or not I'm going through a change in my life.

"It sucks because I know when my hair is longer in any style, people are way more likely to gender me as a woman, and I'm not. But then I felt like I was conforming to standards of masculinity because I just didn't want to be read as a girl. I wanted to feel trans enough, and I know now that there's no right or wrong way to be trans. No matter what length or color my hair is, I'm still me.”

Laura Kanaplue, 32

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“I shaved my head for the first time back in October 2017 and liked it, but got bored quickly. It was a huge step for me. I was living in London and felt it was time to do this. I had wanted to for so long, but feared what my family would say. With them being so far away, I thought it was a good time to try it out.

"Whether my hair is dapper, 'masculine,' or even buzzed, I’m trying to convey to the world that all cis women don’t have to be feminine, regardless of [their] sexual orientation.”

Stray, 28

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“My hair represents growth, patience, and confidence. I've come a long way in the relationship with my hair. Over the years I've tried many hairstyles, but this has been the only one that has felt 100 percent me. It represents growth because I used to believe that straightening my hair was what I was supposed to do. It was never a true reflection of who I was on the inside and I've grown to see how beautiful hair can be straight, natural, or in locs — as long as it makes you happy.

"It represents confidence because I'm finally at a place in my life where I feel more confident as a person, and I know that my hair contributes to that quality. I struggled with loving myself for a very long time. My hair now fits my aesthetic, and I feel like it authentically represents me.”

Taylor Ursula, 31

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“My current hair is the culmination of a 30-year identity search, a reflection of the evolution of my relationship to the cultural expectations and projections of others while navigating the world as a racially and sexually ambiguous tom/femme. For me, my hair encompasses a long-pursued victory: coming to an understanding of the strengths of my multiracial makeup, combined with my growing appreciation and embodiment of traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities I had long tried to downplay, and allowing them to become balanced with my more 'feminine' traits. It's a style that showcases both structure and softness, seriousness and sass, strength and sensitivity.

"My hope is that its juxtaposition of elegance and wildness defies the idea that unruliness can't be contained — that I can be free to display any and all of my qualities without feeling confined to any race or gender protocols.”

Florida Ivanne Elago, 25

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“I personally identify as androgynous, non-binary, gender-fluid, and queer. I wear my hair short. Because of how I present myself publicly, people often confuse what labels and pronouns to file me under. The first impulse people get when they meet me is to try to identify me as a woman or a man. I don’t identify with either of those, and those assumptions are inaccurate, so I try to educate my close friends and coworkers on what it means to be non-binary.

"I tend to change my hairstyle a lot, and I always try to show parts of my feminine and masculine sides. I love floating in the middle of the spectrum and living in that gray area. It’s a demonstration of how I feel about gender fluidity. My hair represents me owning my freedom of expression and how I’d like to be perceived in the world. It embodies the pride that I have expressing my queerness without constraint.”

Briana, 28

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“My hair represents visibility, power, and beauty. My hair makes me feel so much like myself; it marks me as queer, which holds power for me, and makes me feel beautiful on days I feel anything but. People recognize me in places I rarely frequent, which is weird in New York City. 

"My hair is also about reclaiming past pain and trauma. One of the first things my mom said about my hair was that it reminded her of my grandfather and the holocaust. As terrible as it felt to trigger my mom like that, for me, my hair is about reclaiming that pain and turning it into something beautiful and powerful.”

Kathy Tu, 32

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“When I cut my hair short, I think I just wanted to tell myself that I’m okay with looking masculine or looking 'butch.' And then I discovered that short hair actually makes me feel better about myself. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of short hairstyle works best for me, but cutting my hair has always been more about me being okay with myself than what I’m trying to express to the rest of the world.

"I get misgendered pretty regularly, especially if people aren’t looking directly at me when they speak to me. Then they hear my voice, and they get really uncomfortable. So yeah, people definitely infer certain things about me. In this case, it’s not accurate. But if they infer that I’m queer, then they’re 100 percent right.”

Kathy Tu is one of the hosts of Nancy, a WNYC podcast about the queer experience. Kathy explores her relationship to her hair on the episode "Fear of Being Butch." 

Elizabeth, 26

Credit: Lauren Perlstein

“Before I transitioned, I actually had really long hair, but I didn’t dye it or even take very good care of it. I felt like I was growing it out, not because I wanted to grow it out but because I couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.

"So when I started to come out, I got my first haircut where I asked for something femme. I’ve had pixie cuts, and I think they look really cute, but when I have a short haircut like that, I get misgendered, basically constantly. It’s a situation where I kind of can’t express myself the way I want to because I’m not willing to put up with the misgendering. Coloring it is a form of self-expression that I can kind of sub in for having really short hair and it doesn’t seem to cause much risk to how people perceive my gender. There is definitely an aspect of flagging, too: I want people to see me as a woman, but I definitely don’t want them to see me as a straight woman.”

Art direction and production, Senior Multimedia Editor Emily Shornick; Concept and casting, Senior Editor Amanda Richards; Hair and makeup, Mia Santiago