Stylist LuJuana Woods, who has specialized in giving Black hairstyles and cuts for two decades, has long felt compelled to help those in the queer and transgender community look and feel their best selves.
“It makes a difference in how people feel, how they look at themselves,” Woods, an ally, said. “We’re a huge community, so why not do something for somebody else?”
Like Woods, many hair stylists and salons across Southern California are leading the charge in centering LGBTQ+, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people, at a time when these communities’ rights and gender-affirming care are being challenged nationwide.
Gender-affirming care — which includes medical care, mental health, social and even cosmetic services — can include any care or approach people get to transition themselves, and their bodies, to fit with their gender identity.
In 2023, states like Florida, Texas, and at least 15 others have passed laws that either restrict or outright ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth, and severely limit the rights of LGBTQ+ people, according to a tracking map by the Human Rights Campaign. At least 35% of transgender youth live in states that have passed bans on care. Over 70 anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted this year; 15 of which banned gender-affirming care for trans youth.
Advocates hope people in these diverse communities know that there are resources available, especially if they are a person of color, queer or trans — groups that are historically underserved in health care and within the beauty industry, they say.
Woods, who owns her own salon in Loma Linda called BeUti 4 Ashes, took part in a recent event in the Inland Empire that provided free gender-affirming haircuts and styles for college students.
The second annual Queer Cuts, held at Cal State University San Bernardino on Oct. 18, brought in local stylists to provide gender-affirming haircare, in a safe environment, for free.
“I always say, ‘We always start with our crown’,” said Woods, who styled braids, locs — different from dreadlocks — and silk presses for natural hair, at the event. “So you start with your hair and if your hair looks good and feels good to you, everything else will fall in place.”
Lee Stovall, the coordinator of Cal State San Bernardino’s Queer and Transgender Resource Center, founded Queer Cuts on campus in 2022, where nearly 80 students received free haircuts, braids or locs. Stovall, who uses she and they pronouns, said the goal is to give students a “space where they can come and get essential services in a space that feels gender-affirming.”
Gender-affirming services, which are most often associated with transgender and nonbinary people, can include hormones or surgeries, such as top surgery, which aligns people’s bodies with their gender identity. Stovall said that someone getting a haircut and wardrobe that “feels more them” can help a lot with their sense of self, and is less permanent for those who want to “explore gender,” but don’t yet want surgeries.
Gender-affirming services are also not exclusive to the LGBTQ+ community, Stovall said. For example, a cisgender woman waxing her facial hair can be seen as gender-affirming.
At this year’s Queer Cuts, 32 students — of which 23 identified as trans, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming — were given haircare services, according to Stovall. Many who attended said they felt both valued and seen.
Ariz Martinez, a fourth-year liberal studies major, said she had been stressed with balancing school, her job and social activities, and hadn’t had time to get her hair done or practice self-care in a year. She said it was “meant to be” that the Queer Cuts event happened when it did.
“I feel like life has gotten to me lately,” Martinez said. “I feel so much better, I feel happy I brought myself today… The stylist was really nice, which made me feel better because I was really nervous about coming.”
Stovall said that getting services can be “really tough,” especially for queer and transgender people, because “just doing things that align with your gender identity can be really scary for folks.”
But removing any financial, psychological and emotional barriers is important to ensure overall comfort and safety, especially for youth, Stovall said. Having inclusive amd accessible events — like on a college campus — that advocate for these communities, while celebrating and affirming them, is essential.
“It’s a scary time to be queer and trans right now,” Stovall said.
Like Stovall, many LGBTQ+ people and allies worry about safety, especially with the recent influx of laws they say explicitly discriminate against them.
Over the summer, the Supreme Court ruled that a religious web designer in Colorado can’t be forced to create wedding websites for same-sex couples under the First Amendment. The ruling outraged many LGBTQ+ communities and allies, worrying that it could set a new legal precedent.
In response to growing anti-LGBTQ legislation reported around the U.S., California Gov. Gavin Newsom endorsed several laws that protect LGBTQ+ students and their privacy. They include AB 233, the Transgender Youth Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of minors applying to legally change their gender or sex identification by sealing those court records. Newsom also signed SB 345, which protects insurance providers against the enforcement of other states’ laws that criminalize or limit reproductive health care services or gender-affirming health care.
This past summer, L.A. County officials created a new LGBTQ+ Commission to expand gender-affirming care and programming.
In California, 44% percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, including 54% of transgender and nonbinary youth, according to The Trevor Project’s most recent survey on LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health. Gender-affirming care is associated with positive mental health and overall well-being, and reduces overall suicide risk, researchers said. Major medical associations – including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics – concur that gender-affirming care is clinically appropriate for children and adults.
“Gender-affirming care is healthcare,” said Madia Lopez, executive director of ProjectQ, an L.A.-based nonprofit that specializes in providing free gender-affirming haircare and community resources.
“When it comes to trans folks, we have we have a bit more of a struggle because we’re not only having to fight against the external view of who we are and how we show up in the world,” Lopez said, “but we also have to struggle with the internal.”
Breaking the binary
Hair stylists around Southern California said they felt proud to be a part of a community that helps people feel safe — while helping them step into and become more themselves on the outside.
Tustin resident and stylist Brenna McCarthy, who works at Studio Cru in Orange, has always made it a goal to provide a safe, open space for queer, trans and gender-nonconforming clientele. McCarthy said that can be challenging when options are “limited.”
Stylist Brenna McCarthy braids the hair of CSUSB student Stephanie Aguirre after styling it during the second annual Queer Cuts at Santos Manuel Student Union Conference Center on the Cal State San Bernardino campus in San Bernardino on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
“People are looking for specific queer stylists within Orange County, and there’s not a lot of spaces for that,” McCarthy, 30, said. “The biggest thing I love about my job is being able to help people match their outside appearance with the way that they feel on the inside.”
McCarthy said she’s often one of the first — and sometimes only — stylists to ask clients their pronouns, an effort to normalize using gender-neutral language and avoid assumptions.
With inclusive salons or programs like Queer Cuts or ProjectQ, “people come to you because this is the safest spot that they can be in,” she added. “They’re being so vulnerable with you and trusting you with their appearance.”
Stylist Bec Farrell, who works at Gray Area in Riverside and uses they and them pronouns, said that an important part of providing a safe environment is working at a shop that is accepting of gender-nonconforming people. Some barber shop environments, they said, “can be very intimidating and toxic for queer people.”
But Farrell believes that getting a haircut, where one usually connects with their stylist, can be equivalent to a therapy session.
“Hair holds trauma, in my opinion,” Farrell said. “Anytime I felt like I needed to start anew, I’ve shaved my head and that helps me embrace a new chapter in life. I wanted to really break the binary in hair, because hair doesn’t have a gender.”
“Whether you decide to have a gender or not, your hair has nothing to do with it. It’s just an extension of you expressing yourself and how you want to present yourself to the world,” Farrell said.
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Providing gender-affirming services not only creates safe, inclusive spaces, they can also drive the economy and are overall beneficial for LGBTQ+ communities.
Some stylists, who have shared their experiences with hate, are finding ways to empower their communities — one hairstyle at a time — at a time when people need it most.
Longtime stylist Jessie Santiago has experienced incidents of homophobia, racism and transphobia at her business, Salon Benders near downtown Long Beach. The salon has been targeted repeatedly with hate mail and vandalism, Santiago said.
“For the past five years, we have been infiltrated by a ton of hate. I’ve had restraining orders put out against people. I’ve had to basically keep my doors locked during business hours at all times,” Santiago, 40, said. “It’s just gotten to the point that I just don’t feel safe anymore.”
With Salon Benders, Santiago wanted to provide a safe and “revolutionary” space for queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people. She identifies as queer and has a trans partner.
In October, Santiago closed Salon Benders for security reasons. She plans to open a new private salon, the Benders Collective Art Studio, in Long Beach before 2024. She also hopes to start a podcast where participating clients can share their experiences and stories while getting their hair done.
One of the things that Santiago felt made her business stand out was the salon’s consultation style and “trauma-informed” approach, created with the help of a trained and licensed trauma therapist. Providing gender-affirming haircuts was something she focused on in her salon and required training from all her stylists.
Jessie Santiago, former owner of the now-closed Salon Benders in Long Beach, owned the salon for five years. Santiago is transitioning to a private salon space, to be called Benders Collective Art Studio. (Courtesy of Jessie Santiago.)
“It involves understanding the person holistically, not just their hair,” she said. “It has to do with understanding what their gender identity is, and how we could help support that through their hair and wellness. It’s not just asking clients for a photo of what they want.”
Gender-affirming haircuts was something Santiago prioritized in her business.
“Providing affirmation as a person is so incredibly important, especially to younger folks, because they need to see themselves reflected in this world,” Santiago said. “For us, it was just really important to create more representation, more reflection of our community out in the world.”
Here are salons and resources in Southern California that provide gender-affirming haircare and services. They include:
Gray Area: 3750 Main St, Riverside, 951-370-4145
Bishops Cuts/Color: Various locations including Pasadena, Lake Forest and Irvine, bishops.co
Studio Cru: 665 N Tustin St Suite A-114, Orange, 714-453-7741
Benders Collective Art Studio: Private salon in Long Beach, opening in 2024
BeUti 4 Ashes: 25051 Redlands Blvd., Loma Linda, 909-674-3046
Strandsfortrans.org is a global network of hair, beauty and wellness organizations that seek to create safe, gender-affirming experiences
ProjectQ: 4709 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles, 323-407-6676
Bang Bang L.A.: 4511 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, 310-893-9856
Staff writers Beau Yarbrough and Allyson Vergara contributed to this report.