The Doc Project

'I just want to look like myself': For LGBTQ youth, a haircut is more than just a haircut

At the Gender Free Haircut Club, you can get the hair you've always wanted, minus the judgment.

When the look you want doesn't fit traditional gender roles, a wash and cut isn't so cut and dry

Iva Jankovic (seated) kept her hair long for most of her life for fear of judgement from family and friends — but not anymore. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

When Ed was growing up, all she wanted was to fit in.

So she kept her hair long like all the other girls, and she wore oversized shirts so she could disappear into them.

But after Ed — whose given name is Amelia Pitt-Brooke — came out when she was 18, she was determined to look on the outside the way she felt on the inside.

So, she went to a barbershop to get a men's-style haircut. But once she sat down, the barber stopped in his tracks.

When Ed was growing up, she kept her hair long like the other girls her age, because all she wanted was to fit in. (Submitted by Amelia "Ed" Pitt-Brooke)

"And he says, 'Oh, we don't do women's haircuts,'" Ed said. "And I said, 'That's OK, I don't want one.' And he's like, 'No, I can't give you a haircut.' And he made me leave."

We want to help people feel like their true selves.- Missy Clarkson, salon owner

More than just a haircut

That incident has stuck with Ed, now 34 years old. Her wife Missy Clarkson, a salon owner, says a lot of queer people have similar experiences of feeling unwelcome or unsafe in salons and barbershops because the way they look — or the way they want to look — doesn't conform to the usual definitions of gender.

For youth who are struggling to articulate their gender identity, asking for the hair they really want can be all the more stressful.

Salon owner Missy Clarkson (left) hosted a Gender Free Haircut Club event, partly inspired by her wife, Ed (right). (Vivian Luk/CBC)

That fact — plus knowing about her wife Ed's experience — has led Clarkson to host Vancouver's first Gender Free Haircut Club, an event that offers free haircuts to marginalized queer youth.

Clarkson was inspired by a Toronto hairstylist named Kristin Rankin, who started the Gender Free Haircut Club. The initiative is part of an alliance of LGBTQ-positive hair salons that Rankin found, called the Dress Code Project.

"There can be a crisis of identity that's involved in coming out as queer or gender variant," said Clarkson, who owns Studio 209 in Vancouver and is an ambassador for the Dress Code Project. "It's a lot of shifting around in yourself and so to feel heard and to feel understood and feel listened-to is so intensely valuable." 

"Some people feel like they've never gotten the right haircut, like they've never been their true selves. That's all we want today. We want to help people feel like their true selves."

The Gender Free Haircut Club was started in Toronto by salon owner Kristin Rankin, pictured here styling a patron's hair. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

'This is exactly what I've wanted for a long time'

Iva Jankovic, an 18-year-old university graduate, is one of 15 youth getting free haircuts at Clarkson's Gender Free Haircut Club.

Jankovic always had long hair. Until now.

Before Gender Free Haircut Club, Iva Jankovic was too scared to cut her long hair short. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

"I think this is exactly what I've wanted for a long time, and every other time I kind of chickened out because I felt that I would be judged by mostly my parents and other people with more traditional mindsets," she said.

"I think when you change hair, it's a real expression of who you are. I've always felt like I don't look like who I am on the inside, kind of? Like this is what I look like in my dreams… I just want to look like myself."

Jackson Tse, 27, says he grew up in a conservative, Christian family. Even though he describes himself now as being "pretty fabulously queer," he didn't always feel safe to express who he really was.

Jackson Tse, pictured here getting his hair done, says hairstyle is key in feeling like one's authentic self.

"A lot of the time, [salons are] like, a men's cut is this price and a woman's cut is this price. And then if you don't fall in either of those extremes then you don't really know what to do or where to go. And so I think it's important that we have a space like this for people to go to, where they can feel safe and welcomed and accepted and celebrated," he said.

(Vivian Luk/CBC)

Breaking barriers

Clarkson says that navigating the world as an LGBTQ person requires courage. She also says it can be exhausting because queer people often feel like they have to explain themselves, and they never know how people will react.

Ed says an initiative like the Gender Free Haircut Club goes a long way in removing those barriers for young people.

"To have the experience of getting a haircut be something easy, that makes you feel like a normal person, and then having the haircut itself — the haircut that you wanted without having to fight for it — that again makes you feel confident," she said.

The Gender Free Haircut Club takes place once every two months, each time at a different salon.

Listen to Vivian's documentary by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.

About the Producer

Vivian Luk ​is a radio producer with On the Coast on CBC Radio. Born in Hong Kong but raised in Vancouver, Vivian started off her career as a print reporter, thinking that was all she ever wanted to be. But one day, she landed at the CBC — almost out of desperation for a journalism job — and fell in love with radio. You can find Vivian on Twitter: @vivluk.

This documentary was co-produced by Jennifer Warren.