British Columbia·PRIDE AND PROGRESS

Trans-friendly barbershop cuts through complexity of gendered hair issues

A barbershop in East Vancouver serves as a safe space for the city's trans community and provides hairstyles that help people express their preferred gender.

Big Bro's in East Vancouver serves as a safe space for city's trans community

Jessie Anderson works on a fade for client Aaron Braun. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Aaron Braun takes a seat in Jessie Anderson's barber chair, and the two immediately get down to business.

"What are we doing?" Anderson asks as he covers Braun with a black cape, securing the collar around his neck.

"Sort of the same as last time," Braun says, whipping a phone out of his pocket to show a few pictures of men's hairstyles. "Not to the skin — or right to the skin. More of, like, a fade and a little longer on the top."

As Anderson picks up his scissors and a comb, the conversation quickly turns to the weather.

"It's supposed to get hot again this weekend. Like 28 [degrees] again," says Braun.

"I guess it's good for slutty Pride wear," says Anderson, and the pair launch into a conversation about Vancouver's Pride Parade, previous experiences and regrettable wardrobe choices.

According to Jessie Anderson, leaving the hair on top a little longer elongates the face, giving it a more masculine look. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

At first glance, Big Bro's is like any conventional barbershop you would find. But it's a distinctly trans-friendly safe space that bucks the traditions of more macho, gender-normative barbershops.

Big Bro's twisting barber's pole sports the colours from the transgender pride flag — sky blue and pink — and the flag itself hangs on the wall next to a version of the rainbow Pride flag with a black and brown stripe signalling racial inclusivity.

'I'm happy to provide them with the best version of themselves,' says Jessie Anderson of his approach to helping clients navigate a transition in gender. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"This space is really important to me personally," said Braun. "Most barbershops are run by cis men who have a really masculine vibe, and I would never feel comfortable going in one of those to get my hair cut because of my social anxiety."

'The best version of themselves'

For people transitioning from one gender to another, there are lots of questions about how to manage the physical shift, and Anderson is on hand to help people navigate the changes.

He sells things like chest binders at the shop and happily consults on the specifics of transitioning.

When it comes to hair, Anderson is keenly aware of the major part it plays in how someone expresses their gender, as styles traditionally fall into pretty stark male and female categories

The shop has all sorts of merchandise for sale, like T-shirts, hair products and pins that are gender affirming for Big Bro's clients. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"If someone is beginning their transition and they are concerned with passing as one gender or another, I can offer specific techniques to them and ways that I can cut their hair that can assist them in that," he said.

Anderson said if someone wants to be perceived as more masculine, cutting the sides short and leaving the top a little longer elongates a person's face. For a more feminine look, he often suggests leaving some hair to frame the face.

Big Bro's Barbershop is an 800-square feet space with several services beyond haircuts. There's even wall space at the back for artists to display their work. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"There are different techniques I can use that are very based on trans experience, but that is never something that I would assume that my client wants," he said, adding that he never makes assumptions about a client's gender.

"I'm happy to provide them with the best version of themselves."

'Really helped my self-esteem'

Hairstyle was a key part of Braun's transition. He said social expectation led him to grow his hair long for graduation photos.

"I realized it was making me miserable, so I decided to cut it off before I even realized I was trans, and I felt so much better," he said.

"When I started transitioning, being able to get my hair cut in a masculine way that represents how I feel made me feel 10 times better," said Braun.

Big Bro's client Aaron Braun found that cutting his hair short made him feel much better even before he realized he was transgender. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Having Jessie being the one to do it, and being able to have no judgment from him ... really helped my self-esteem and dysphoria and boosted up my confidence."

"If this place ever would close, I wouldn't know what to do," he said, after Anderson finished his twice-monthly trim. 

"I would be too anxious to go somewhere else, so I'd probably learn to cut my own hair, and that would go horribly."


Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

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Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker