Turning Barbershops Into Safe Spaces for Gay Black Men

The documentary ‘Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop’ shows how getting a haircut isn’t always a positive experience for guys who aren’t straight.
(Photo: Sunny Miller/Getty Images; insets: Vimeo)
Jul 31, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jillian Frankel is an editorial intern for TakePart. She is the features and student life editor at the UCLA campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin.

Derrick Middleton remembers the wave of discomfort that washed over him as a child whenever he entered a local barbershop with his father.

“I had to perform masculinity in these spaces,” Middleton told TakePart. “Black barbershops are some of the most hypermasculine spaces in the world; at times they can remind you of a locker room. This was terrifying for me as a young boy who already felt that I was different from other boys.”

RELATED: For LGBT High Schoolers, Gay-Straight Alliances Spell Safety

Some gay black men “are out and proud in every aspect of their lives, but they go back into the closet whenever they enter a barbershop,” said Middleton.

How influential barbershops are in black neighborhoods, as well as the difficulties gay men have with feeling accepted in them, is the subject of the documentary Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop. The film, directed by Middleton, won the grand prize at the March on Washington Film Festival in Washington, D.C., in July.

“Barbershops are pillars in the black community that have historically been safe spaces for black men to gather and share ideas and information,” Middleton said. “I want to work toward ensuring that these sacred spaces are also safe for and inclusive of the LGBTQ community.”

RELATED: Haircuts and Harry Potter: Project Sparks Black Boys’ Love of Reading

The documentary follows black gay men, both clients and barbers, into barbershops in Harlem, New York, as they try to find a place there without sacrificing their identity. The film “also addresses misogyny, which I discovered is very closely linked to homophobia in the ways in which it is expressed within these spaces,” Middleton said. “There are a great number of women who are just as uncomfortable in barbershops as some gay men are.”

RELATED: What the Perception of ‘Professional’ Hair Means for Black Job Seekers

Middleton grew up in New York City and began visiting barbershops with his dad when he was about five. As he got older, his fear of being excluded for being gay became a reality.

“I have a series of personal experiences that have occurred throughout the years that have motivated me to direct Shape Up. One of the most impactful was when I was kicked out of a barbershop by a homophobic barber who referred to my asking for a specific haircut as ‘sissy shit,’ ” Middleton said.

Scenes filmed in barbershops give the documentary authenticity, but they also presented production hurdles.

“The most challenging aspect of filming was trying to get more candid barbershop footage of what I’d call men behaving badly. No business wants to be portrayed as a homophobic or misogynist space on film, even if that is the reality,” Middleton said.

So far, Middleton said people who have seen the film, both gay and straight men, have been receptive to it, and he hopes viewers will start talking about how to create inclusive spaces.

“I truly believe that in order for us to effect change in these spaces, we must make ourselves visible as part of the LGBTQ community,” Middleton said. “I learned that a vast majority of men in barbershops naturally assume that every guy in the shop is heterosexual unless the person is extremely flamboyant. So what that tells us is that there are a lot of times when gay men are offended unintentionally by men who don’t even realize that there may be LGBTQ people in the room that they are offending.”