Electric razor in hand, Stephanie Rodriguez is hard at work. For me it’s just like any other Tuesday at Major League Barbers, which by most standards is a very average-looking barber shop (fluorescent lighting, black barber chairs, Generically Masculine Decor, rotating barber pole, Pandora Top 40 Radio playing overhead). But for Steph’s client, this Tuesday is momentous; he ships out the next day for the military. Steph’s at the end of the cut, using her shorter clippers for the details. Her edges are sharp, her blends, delicately faded. But the intensity of her work doesn’t mean she can’t chat. Steph peppers him with questions about his impending enlistment. He’s been talking about joining for the past couple of years, at least as long as Steph has been cutting his hair. She takes a step back for a moment to admire her handiwork. “It’s kind of a Look,” she says. He nods approvingly. Given the constraints of military cuts, it is in fact, a Look. She gives him a hug as he leaves. After the second or third haircut, she tells me, it’s not just service, it’s friendship.
Though the year she was born (1997) is quite literally tattooed on her hand, Steph’s devotion and expertise lead many of her clients at Major League Barbers in East Haven to believe she’s at least in her late-20s. Her youth is certainly an asset. Steph is the embodiment of the word “Boyish.” She’s the impulsiveness of pop punk with the bounce of reggaeton. She moves like someone at home in her body. Her lanky frame is clad entirely in black down to her sneakers. Steph’s Look includes: tattoos (including but not limited to skulls on her knuckles; a pair of scissors behind her left ear; a red and blue barber pole on her right wrist), black glasses frames, nose jewelry (one stud, one ring) and earrings (a couple of studs and hoops stacked on each ear). On another person, the combination might seem overwhelming, but on Steph, not a single flourish is out of place. Her hair, unsurprisingly, embodies her characteristic restlessness; the first time I met her, her hair was its natural dark brown — on her business cards it’s a shocking pink — and by my second visit to Major League Barbers, it’s a steel gray with a swoop of navy blue along the part. She’d look perfectly at home in line for a Fall Out Boy concert, if it weren’t for her barber’s apron.
Though Major League employs four women barbers, Steph’s appearance sets her apart from the others, who sport longer ’dos. Though Steph used to have hair down to her thighs, she cut it short six years ago, and she tells me she can’t picture herself with long hair anymore. Between cuts, she pops over to the plastic jack-o’-lantern on the counter for a piece of candy. Sarah, a fellow barber who bought the candy, gives her a wary look.
“It says open for everyone. It doesn’t say not open for Steph,” Steph says.
Sarah acquiesces, but not without a dig: “It’s for the kids, you count because you’re the size of one.”
Steph got an early start at Major League Barbers. She’d been interested in hair since she was a kid, and even when she had longer hair, she was drawn to the tools of the barber’s trade, the clippers, shavers and trimmers with their soft mechanical buzz. Even though people who style longer hair make more money — according to the Professional Beauty Association, women’s haircuts average $43, while Steph charges $15 to $20 per cut — Steph knew that barbering was the path for her. Being a woman, she says, made it harder to learn about being a barber; according to Data USA, roughly three-quarters of all barbers are male. But after she cut her hair, she started hanging around barber shops. She started at Marinello School of Beauty just a week out of high school. The for-profit cosmetology school closed during her last week of classes, shutting down all 56 of its U.S. campuses after the U.S. Department of Education said the school was improperly allocating federal student aid money. She was given two options: quit with no degree, or wrangle the necessary paperwork (transcripts, proof of training, financial aid documents, tuition reimbursements) and find another school to give her a certification. Steph wasn’t the kind to give up easily; she completed the extra months of training at Academy Di Capelli in Wallingford and soon after began working at Major League Barbers. She arrived shortly after the shop opened, tucked next to a vape shop in a generic-looking East Haven strip mall. In the three years since, Steph has grown alongside the shop.
To her 2,566 Instagram followers, she’s @barber.steph (for the inquiring reader: you can book an appointment directly through her page). And when you come to Barber Steph, you get all of Steph — next to the barber pole emoji in her profile are the emojis of, in order, the LGBT+ Pride flag, the Puerto Rican flag and the one of the two girls holding hands. Steph has always been committed to being the realest version of herself. When I ask her if she considered herself a tomboy growing up, she simply says “I always considered myself me.” She says she really doesn’t have a coming-out story either, and she credits her mother’s support in making her coming out a non-event.
Largely through word of mouth, gay men, queer women, nonbinary people — anyone who needs a barber’s service but doesn’t feel comfortable elsewhere — are flocking to her chair.
“I’m just a barber, but I have a little community of people. I’m making them feeling good. And that’s the hardest thing. To feel good.”
And for those queer clients the impact is weighty. Some barbers out-and-out refuse to give queer people the haircut that affirms their gender identity. A friend of mine who is nonbinary told me that the first time they went to get their hair cut after coming out, the barber refused to go through with it, afraid they wouldn’t like the result. It’s an attitude many barbers share; short haircuts are supposed to be for men.
Steph put it this way: “For them, for people like us, it’s always personal.”
When I heard those words, the back of my head burned with anxiety. Like us? How did she know that I’m queer? In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising to me that people can tell that I’m Not Straight. To the discerning queer eye, I’m not a difficult spot. I try to make my queerness as clear as possible for the right people. I have four pairs of overalls that cycle through my wardrobe. I’m rarely spotted without my Doc Martens, which have been gamely holding on with a couple of rounds of duct tape since the beginning of the semester.
Let me be clear: Being seen as you are is a deeply fraught encounter. Being Black, as my mother reminds me, already marks me as vulnerable. Being a Black queer woman is even worse. For trans people, the difference between life or death can be a hairstyle that smooths along society’s perception of their gender. For people who are nonbinary (which, although the recent roll-out of emojis might tell you otherwise, isn’t a Third Gender but an alignment that transcends binary notions of gender), a seemingly androgynous presentation is a way to avoid being misgendered as male or female. As small as these details can seem to some people, I assure you that their effects are all too outsized.
My long curly hair has kept me firmly in the heterosexual passing camp for years. Even when I began to affirm my sexuality to myself, I never really questioned any aspect of my presentation. Though I’d sported plenty of soccer jerseys and baggy boys basketball shorts in my younger days, I didn’t actively dislike wearing form-fitting dresses or rocking a pair of black stilettos. In fact, I relished it. So I continued on business as usual.
But when I returned to Yale this past fall, I knew that something was different. I was emerging from a summer living on my own in Paris. I’d felt like a Real Person, coming back to my apartment in the 18th arrondissement to cook the couscous recipe I’d found on the New York Times cooking website and read Eileen Myles’ “Cool for You” and lean over my balcony as the sun set. More importantly, perhaps, I fell in love with another queer person for the first time. Someone who wanted to know all the people who led up to the person I am now: The die-hard women’s soccer fan; the middle school track star (an experience we shared); my 10-year-old self, long brown cornrows tucked up into a fishing hat, ever-immortalized by the memory of a stranger referring to me as a “little boy.” It’s not that those selves ceased to exist when I stopped giving them a seat at the table of my gender presentation, just that no one had ever thought to ask. But after a summer of long transatlantic WhatsApp calls, poem recommendations, a not-inconsequential number of I Love Yous and an ocean’s worth of wishful thinking, they told me they were invested in our being friends. Just friends. So when I came back to Yale, emerging from the ruins of rejection but finally secure enough to find the person I wanted to be, I knew something had to give.
Steph’s hands take center stage when she’s cutting hair. Before she begins, she deposits her rings on hooks on the counter, but gold chains still grace her wrists. Her signature combination of impulsivity and intention is evident in the nimbleness of her fingers. She is careful with the designs she shaves into her clients’ fades — October saw a lot of spider webs, but she’s done broken hearts and a variety of geometric figures. Blending, she tells me, is like bringing out shadows in painting. Just like drawing or sculpture, cutting hair is an art form.
But the experience starts before her clients even sit in the chair. Steph’s hair cutting station speaks to the personal touch she brings to each of her clients. The traditional assortment of clippers, combs, brushes, razor blades, aftershaves, tray of clipper guards (attached to clippers to determine the length of the cut), shears in electric blue antiseptic barbicide, are framed by the snapshots she keeps tucked into the mirror.
Steph notices that Nico walks into the store before I do. What I notice is her reaction to his valiant kindergarten attempt to scare her, one which she humors with her characteristic sincerity. “You scared me!” she gasps, clutching her chest, after which she quickly goes to hug him and gives dap to his older brother Gianni, an old friend of hers. She heads to the cupboard to get Nico his Big Boy Chair and Special Cape, emblazoned with images of The Avengers. He hops up into his booster seat.
“You gotta tell Stephanie picture day is tomorrow, you’re wearing a tie,” Gianni says. He shows her a picture.
“Sarah!” she calls over to another barber. “Do you want to see a gentleman? Look at his outfit.”
Nico is all smiles and long lashes, clearly proud to be getting a big boy ’do for picture day. Steph will have to cut faster than she does with her adult clients; kids are fidgety that way. She quickly gets to work, starting with the longer guards, as hair starts to fall. He quickly stops her, politely requesting that she blow dry some of the shorn hair off his neck. She laughs and complies. Nico didn’t always have a fun time with haircuts. Gianni tells me that he used to have to sit in the chair with Nico and hold him down. Now, though, Nico’s a pro. When Steph wants him to go still so she can start detail work, she calls “statue check.” I can see the focus in his eyes as he goes stock still. In her hands, he will be picture-perfect. “Lemme get a wallet-sized photo,” she quips. “Gimme all the selfies.” She applies gel to her palms and finishes up the coif with a swoop and a flourish.
This sense of ease is Steph’s trademark. She calibrates her rapport to each client and each person who walks through the doors.
She makes it look easy, but I know it can’t all be, especially in a space as male-dominated as the barber shop. It’s one of the few places where male vanity is indulged, praised even. Egos are on full display for both barber and client. For those who see Steph’s double otherness as woman and lesbian as an issue, her easygoing personality helps take the edge off. She knows that for many who encounter her, she provides a different vision of what being gay looks like. Sure, there are days when people ask her if she’s a boy or a girl (whether with malice or sincerity, she doesn’t say). Her response varies with her mood. Sometimes, as a joke, she makes them guess.
“I always had to fight for myself, fight for my own respect,” she says. “I have to bite back and bark back anyways.”
So when a 17-year-old client points up at Ellen DeGeneres, whose eponymous talk show is playing on one of the screens overhead, and says, “Look it’s your mom,” she just laughs.
Though I’m no fan of Ellen’s, ahem, centrist politics, I must extend credit where credit is due. Ellen is, by all indicators, America’s Most Famous Lesbian. The Guardian described her as the “darling of both middle America and the coasts,” no small feat in our polarized present. She came out to nationwide audiences in a 1997 Time magazine cover with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay.” Though Ellen wore her hair long into the early ’90s, by the Time shoot she’d been consistently keeping it short for a few years. I can only describe the look as very, very turn of the millennium and very, very gay. Her hair is parted down the middle. The top is feathered and falls gently onto her face. For many across America, this was their first glimpse of what a lesbian looked like. And it looked pretty good.
But in our era of prestige broadcast TV, innumerable streaming services and cable channels aplenty, there is more queer representation in the media than ever before. In a report by GLAAD, 8.8 percent of series regulars on broadcast television in the 2018-19 season were LGBT+, a record high since the study began 14years ago. For the family saga crowd, there’s 15-year-old Elena Alvarez on Netflix’s new spin on Norman Lear’s “One Day at a Time.” For the fans of high drama and intrigue, there’s Annalise Keating, who is revealed to be pansexual on Season Two of “How to Get Away With Murder.” And any list of lesbian representation would be incomplete without Bette Porter (and the rest of the cast of Showtime’s “The L Word,” now back for a rebooted “Generation Q” last December). These characters and figures show us that there is no one way to look like a queer woman.
And though nowadays, more and more straight women are defying the male gaze with bobs, pixie cuts and other short hairstyles (and all power to them), the Big Gay Chop, as many affectionately call it, is still an important stepping stone for many queer people. A recent article in The Sophian, the newspaper for all-women’s Smith College, shed light on the “Smith Chop.” They write: “It’s hard to pin down the start of the specific ‘Smith chop’ term, but alumni from the ’70s and before remember dramatic haircuts being popular — although at the time, they weren’t usually influenced by Smith-specific hair culture. … In the ’90s and 2000s, students could head down to ‘Celebrations’ in the Quad for a quick haircut. The annual event began in 1992 after incidents of homophobic chalkings on campus, and it has since served as a night of vigil, dance and activities celebrating LGBTQ+ students — including several years of head shaving booths.” The combination that college provides of communal identity exploration, especially at places like Smith that are somewhat removed from the patriarchal gaze, is a potent one.
Long hair or short, Bette Porter long waves or Ellen DeGeneres pixie cut, one thing is certain: No matter what queer people look like, the ability to choose how you want the world to see you, to affirm through your appearance exactly who you know yourself to be and embody a turning point in your life, is a thrilling one.
A few weeks ago, Steph started taking Wednesdays off. She’d been working six days a week, Monday through Saturday, since she got in the business at 18, but from overworking, she feels like she’s 30. Though she’s grown up with her career, now she wants time to build herself too. She’s made it this far on instinct. And for once, in my anxiety-ridden life — a world built on worrying about my GPA, on over-preparing for exams, on obsessing over every word in every essay — I’d like to do the same.
The undercut is the perfect haircut for this phase in my life, drastic enough to feel like a change, nontraditional enough to let queer folks know what’s up, but subtle enough that I can easily cover the shaved part of my temple when I’m home for the holidays. Still, I slept only intermittently the night before I went to get it done. I’d never gotten a Real Hair Cut before, only a couple of inches trimmed now and again. I tried going back to bed and briefly had a dream that Steph texted me to cancel my appointment.
The day of my haircut is my first time at MLB on a Saturday, and the shop is full of life. Each chair is occupied, barbers and clients chat in English, Spanish and Spanglish, accompanied by the soft buzz of clippers. Though I’d floated the idea of getting an undercut to Steph on my very first visit, I hadn’t brought it up in the weeks since.
I finally see the barber who cuts hair in the seat I use on my Tuesday visits; his name is Jose, and his hair is even longer than mine. Steph reassures Jose that I’m not cutting off all my hair — he hates it when she shaves women’s heads.
My hair is in a twist-out when I arrive. Steph diligently parts it, taking down two twists so that the section that is getting shorn will be even, and I put the rest in a bun on top of my head so it’ll be out of the way as she cuts. She offers to count down to the moment of truth. But the morning’s nerves are gone now that I’m in Steph’s chair.
“No counting,” I say. “Let’s just do it.”
The razor whirrs. It’s cold against the back of my head and smoother than I anticipated. My dark brown curls fall to the ground. It’s over before I even think to count how many passes it takes to shave it off.
Steph asks me about the particulars, how short I want to make it, if I had any designs in mind. I’d spent the past few weeks looking at photos online, but nothing really caught my eye.
“I’m just gonna hook it up,” she says, and moves to grab the next clipper.
Though I’ve spent a month watching Steph, this time, this most monumental time, she won’t let me. Gratefully, I’ve watched her enough to know what’s happening behind the scenes. This time, I can feel the difference in the guards, tell which are the detail clippers by their sharper feel on my skin. She angles the clippers against my head, so I can tell she’s designing something, though I can’t see what. The razor blade, which she uses to shore up my edges, is rough against the nape of my neck.
And then it’s over. A far cry from the four hours I’d spent getting my hair twisted the Saturday prior. She lifts the mirror so I can see. From my ears down, my hair is gone. Into the left side, she’s carved a spiral. It’s bolder than I would have chosen, and I’m glad I let her choose for me.
“You’re a new woman,” she says.
And as I emerge into the crisp Connecticut morning, the biting air blowing against my head where there is no longer any hair to keep it warm, I know I am.