Women of Wednesday: Dez Marshall on Creating Safe Spaces for LGBTQ Clients, One Haircut at a Time

WOMEN OF WEDNESDAY is a weekly micro-interview series featuring women of color in various industries and walks of life, focused on highlighting their pursuits and making it easy for readers to support their endeavors. If you would like to be featured, please submit your answers to the below five questions here.

Dez Marshall, 32, Barber (New York)

1. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important.

I am a barber in Brooklyn, NY. I was a community organizer, mostly working with queer youth of color and youth of color on different issues, for almost 10 years. I started to fall out of love with movement work and knew I needed a change. I used to cut my own hair, because finding a barber who respected my gender expression was difficult. Barbershops were intimidating for me to go to. Most of the barbers I met asked invasive questions; others didn’t listen to the cut I wanted. It wasn’t the most relaxing experience, so I bought my own clippers. I started providing free cuts to my members because I figured they had similar experiences. When I made the decision to no longer be an organizer, I knew I was going to be a barber. I also knew that the barbershop does not have a history of being welcoming to folks who aren’t men.

I focus on creating a safe space for queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming folks to get dope, affordable haircuts. When people think about safety, they tend to think about physical safety. That’s important, but isn’t the end of what safety means to me. The barbershop has always been a neighborhood gathering space. It’s a safe space to talk about relationships, sexual exploits, sports, current events, etc. That space was largely just for men, but men aren’t the only ones who get haircuts. It is important for folks to be their full selves, to stand in their full truth at all times. For many of us (LGBTQ+), we couldn’t do that in a barbershop. I work really hard to provide the space to do that. I give dope cuts to dope people who do not need to hide any aspect of their life. My clients can get a funky haircut while talking about the guy they hooked up with on Grindr; or be excited about the top surgery they’re getting in a week; or complain about their partner; or cry because their friend got beat up for being trans and living. In a traditional barbershop, they may not feel like they can share these stories because there isn’t anyone there who shares their lived experience. I provide a level of comfort. I see my clients as people. I am invested in their lives, not just their haircut. As a community organizer, my role was to meet people where they are at and help develop their leadership to meet their highest potential. I take those lessons with me as a barber: I help support people be the person they have always wanted to be, who they have always seen themselves as, by giving them the cut they want and treating them like a human.

Self-expression is important. As queer, trans and GNC folks, many of us hide who we are. We hide our sexual orientations, our gender identities and our gender expressions. When we finally step into our truth, a lot of that is tied to how we present ourselves and walk through the world. We face so much bullshit, so much oppression, discrimination and violence because of who we are. A haircut should not be a traumatic experience for anyone. But when your presence is met with disgust, when you’re being intentionally misgendered or interrogated about the cut you want, trauma is all you experience. My mantra is, Let’s create community, one haircut at a time. That guides my work every single day. And for my clients, having that space to be themselves is valuable, because those spaces don’t come easy for us. We have to create them for each other.

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing the work that’s important to you?

The barbershop is primarily a space for men to perform and engage in masculinity together. Sometimes that is a beautiful thing to witness; other times it can be very intimidating when you’re on the outside. I have seen folks make bets concerning the “real” gender of my clients. I’ve heard homophobic and transphobic comments on a regular basis. I have been told that street harassment isn’t real and since I’m gay it doesn’t concern me (despite having been catcalled numerous times). I have bonded with men of color around the anger and sadness we have because police are killing us without accountability, only to be ignored when I mention that women being killed by cops does not get as much attention in the media. And I have watched news coverage of trans sisters of color being executed by violent cisgender men — alone — because the men in the shop didn’t see this as an issue at all.

Carving out a safe space in a place that isn’t intended for my community has been a challenge, but it isn’t impossible and doesn’t stop me. I’m not trying to change people’s hearts and minds. I don’t need tolerance or acceptance. I am a queer woman of color every fucking day, whether or not other people are happy with it. My clients are who they are every fucking day. We deserve respect and dignity just like anyone else. It doesn’t always come easily. We fight for it every day just by living. At the same time, I cannot be a teacher everyday. At some point, others need to take responsibility for their own development and learning. Being an ally means finding your way, not expecting or demanding that oppressed folks hold your hand through it all. I cannot spend my day calling out every fucked up comment. That’s not my responsibility. I correct folks if the wrong pronouns are used. I do my best to explain orientation vs. identity vs. expression. I share my fears and joys as a queer woman of color. But some folks are just assholes, who prefer basking in the privilege of patriarchy and White Supremacy. Those aren’t structures that will topple anytime soon, but everyday we confront them.

3. What do you need in order to continue your work in the way you envision?

My goal is to own my own barbershop one day, employing barbers who are queer, trans and GNC. I want my shop to be THE shop for the community. That means saving money to lease a space, connecting with other barbers who have the same drive and vision I do, and continuing to build my clientele and community. I am still starting out and learning. I have been blessed to have incredible support from family, friends and my clients. My clients are so dope, and are always sharing ideas to increase visibility, recommending me to others, and being supportive when I transition to different shops. These first few years have had some bumps. I left one shop because it wasn’t the safe space my clients and I needed; I left another shop because the owner passed away. I am at my third shop now, and want this to be my last until I am prepared to have my own shop. As long as I have the support I have now, it will happen.

4. Where and how can we support you to make #3 happen?

The best way to support me is to get the word out. If you know of anyone who needs a barber, especially folks who have never been to a barbershop and may be a little apprehensive, give them my info. If you need a cut, contact me. If you have gotten a cut by me, post a picture on whatever social media platforms you are on. Folks should feel free to follow me onInstagram and Facebook (my contact info is located on my Facebook page). I love connecting with folks, getting to know them, and building with them. And I always strive to pay it forward. My clients are amazing people doing amazing things. Using my platform to promote their projects is the least I can do for their support. So make sure you connect with me so I can connect you to my #DopeClients.

5. What is your favorite quote?

“Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.”

I have no clue who said this, but I found it on the Internet one day. I don’t even remember what I was looking for. I do know I found it when I started at a barbershop for the first time. I was working about 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, and was lucky to get 2 customers per day. I was doubting my decision to transition from community organizing to barbering. And then I found this quote, or maybe this quote found me. My goal isn’t to be rich. But I won’t lie, doing something I love and being paid for it is wonderful. I love what I do. This quote reminds me that this is about hustling, and grinding, and doing a little extra so that I can experience life and not just survive. My mom raised 3 kids on her own. At one point she had a 3 jobs. She worked so hard and still lived paycheck to paycheck. My mom taught me how to survive, how to struggle and survive with very little. As an adult I want to live and experience things. This quote reminds me that it is possible, but it takes sacrifice. The immediate may not always be fun. But what comes after will be spectacular. I think everyone deserves the spectacular. I want the spectacular.