NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Ayanna, getting a haircut at her local barbershop in New York City meant having to fend off unwanted advances from the barber.
“He knew that I was gay but every time I went in he would constantly hit on me and try to take me out,” said Ayanna, a 22-year-old student at a New York City college who declined to give her full name to protect her privacy.
A petite girl sporting short, androgynous hair, Ayanna said she started looking online for barbers friendly to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community to avoid similar uncomfortable situations.
This is how she found Camera Ready Kutz, a barber service run by entrepreneur Khane Kutzwell that caters to the grooming needs of LGBT people in New York City and beyond.
Kutzwell, 43, started cutting hair in 2007, after many of her friends in the LGBT community complained about how difficult, and at times unpleasant, it was to get a haircut at their local barbershop if one didn’t conform to gender norms.
“I have complaints that are posted on my Facebook page. I just recently got one from a trans male who keeps getting called ‘she’ instead of ‘he’,” Kutzwell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation while cutting hair in her Brooklyn apartment.
Neighborhood barbershops have a reputation as strongholds of machismo, and can be daunting for gay women, Kutzwell said. Women complain about not getting the haircut they want or of being refused service when they ask for a short, “boy-like” do.
As her business grows, she is looking to expand beyond the walls of her apartment and open her own shop.
“What I want is to have a space where you can find all the main queer hair professionals, in one spot.”
For now, she cuts hair in the back room of her apartment, equipped with a bright red barber’s chair, brushes laid on a wooden table, and a variety of clippers hanging on the wall.
Barbershops are usually cheaper than hair salons and use different styling techniques and tools, Kutzwell said.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Kutzwell emigrated to the United States as a young child and settled with her family in New York City’s seaside Far Rockaway neighborhood.
She said she grew up feeling like she belonged to both genders but her family always accepted and respected her chosen identity.
“There’s a term that I made up called trans-entity (which) just means that I’m a person on this earth who continuously transitions,” said Kutzwell.
In the United States and beyond, a growing movement views gender as a complex, mainly psychological phenomenon in which a person’s external anatomy is no longer the defining factor.
Many of Kutzwell’s customers identify as genderqueer, defined as someone who doesn’t conform to gender norms. But Kutzwell said her clientele includes people from all backgrounds, sexual orientations, races and creeds, including members of Brooklyn’s large Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.
“You’re providing a service...My personal opinion is it doesn’t matter - unless you ask me - what kind of haircut I think you should get.”
Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Ros Russell