The Black Barbershop, many refer to it as the black man’s country club. A place where men can walk in looking rugged and walk out looking like they own the block. This space is filled with men having deep conversation, and the ability to speak freely about the world. It’s an establishment where black men typical go every other week to escape the world for a few hours to meet with men who look like them and share similar interests.
But what about the individuals who lack the interest in speaking on polarizing topics consisting of vulgarity, misogyny, and the latest sports highlight or the new hip-hop/rap artist? Or the men who can’t relate specifically to these shared views. So, would you consider the barbershop inclusive?
For me, I started going to the barbershop at the age of 16 when I got a job and was able to pay for my own haircut. See, I was a product of the kitchen cut crew. Where my father or uncle would cut my hair right after a Sunday dinner. So, going to the barbershop was new to me! But up until a couple of years ago, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin when stepping through the glass doors of the shop.
The barbershop was always a place I wanted to go because I loved how I looked when I left but was always nervous once I was in there. Due to my nerves of not feeling like I fit in, I normally would get the person who just learned how to cut hair because he would ask me if I needed a cut. I also missed my turn in line because I was too afraid to speak up and say I got next. While walking through the barbershop I would exaggerate my walk to add a slight limp to seem “cool”. I would deepen my voice and give no criticism when I knew my shape up was crooked or it wasn’t what I wanted. I just never felt comfortable in the barbershop due to the toxic-masculinity exhibited inside.
Filmmaker Derrick L. Middleton has a similar type of fear. He never felt like he could be himself while sitting in the barber’s chair or the barbershop for that matter. He looked different. He spoke differently. He was not interested in who would win the Super Bowl or talking about the things he would do to the woman with the big butt that would drop off their son to get their haircut. He was gay and comfortable with his sexuality but inside the barbershop, the environment didn’t make him feel comfortable in his skin. Middleton wanted to explore this dynamic of the gay man in the black barbershop and in his documentary Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop he did just that. We had the opportunity to learn more about this documentary and his experience!
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a Harlem born filmmaker, performance artist and writer that uses my experience as a black gay man as inspiration for my work. I started out primarily as an actor and knew that If I ever wanted to see stories that reflected people like myself on film, I would have to create them myself.
Speak to us about the Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop. Who is highlighted in it, and what’s the purpose?
“Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop” is a film I made about my experience as a black gay man existing within the hetero-dominant and often homophobic space that is the black barbershop. I chose to make this film a documentary because I wanted to include the voices of others and was blessed to have the participation of some very wise men like Darnell Moore, Wade Davis, Rashad Robinson, and Clay Cane to name a few. “Shape Up” is a film that not only addresses the toxic masculinity in these spaces but also honors the black barbershop as a pillar in our communities.
Out of all public spaces, why do you find Barbershops to be such a homophobic environment?
Barbershops have historically been safe spaces where heterosexual men can feel safe to talk about things they may not be able to speak freely about in the outside world. Topics like politics, sports, sex, women, and family are just some of the things men engage in open dialogue about in barbershops. I think a big reason barbershops have been such homophobic environments is because unless a man is outwardly gay and flamboyant there is a general assumption that every man in these spaces is straight. There are a lot of gay patrons and even barbers that hide their queer identities in barbershops out of fear. Ironically, this lack of visibility makes it quite easy for queer people to become invisible targets of hate in these spaces.
How do gay or straight men combat and destroy homophobia in barbershops in particular?
It’s much easier said than done, but the more visible gay men and our straight allies make ourselves in hetero-dominant spaces like barbershops the less comfortable homophobes will feel making themselves visible. They will still exist in these spaces but they will be more reluctant to spew their hate knowing that they may receive opposition. It’s like dealing with bullies, they are more likely to pick on people they think won’t fight back.
What is the response that you are looking for from the public release?
I’m hoping to raise awareness and make people more conscious of the fact that there are people they share space with that may be having a different experience in these spaces from their own. Be mindful of the words you use and things you say because you never know who you may be hurting and offending around you.
You have made the documentary, now what’s next?
I have always had plans to expand on this particular film project to further its global reach and I’m currently working on expanding the film into a docu-series where I will explore barbershop culture and the experience of black and brown queer folks in barbershops around the globe, in places like Jamaica and parts of Africa where it is still illegal and very dangerous to be outwardly gay. I can only imagine the intense level of fear that must be present for them and I feel it’s my duty as an artist to fight not only for my own freedom but for theirs as well.
Watch Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop for free on Vimeo here:
Photo Credit: Brian Brigannti
Fashion: Oscar Chen