For Aiden Mitchell, 24, sitting in the barber’s chair at Craig’s Crown Cutz in Johnson City, Tenn., goes way beyond simply getting a haircut. That’s because Mitchell, a Black transgender man, has also found encouragement and support from the man who cuts his hair — the barbershop’s owner, Craig Charles.
The support that Charles offers isn’t just your typical barbershop banter. While “cutting up” is definitely part of the experience, what Charles also provides is connection on a deeper level, one supported by mental health training through The Confess Project, an organization “committed to building a culture of mental health for Black boys, men and their families.”
For transgender clients like Aiden, who started transitioning in 2017 and has watched his visual identity change over the past six years, getting the right cut has been especially important. And having the chance to talk about the struggles surrounding his new identity without fear of discrimination or raised eyebrows is next level.
“He took me right in. No judgment, no discrimination,” Mitchell tells In The Know by Yahoo about Charles. “A haircut is the first big thing that someone sees when they see you. So I when I go to him, and I sit in there and we talk, have a good time, I walk out and feel like a brand new man. I’ve got my chest out and my head high and definitely take pride in it.”
That hasn’t been the case for other barbershops that Mitchell has visited.
“Any other barbershop I’ve ever been into, I sit here and I’m real quiet and nervous. I really don’t want to speak. I don’t really want to talk to anyone,” Mitchell says. “When I’m in Craig’s barbershop, he cuts up with me, and we cut up with the other guys, and I feel like I’m another guy that’s just in the barbershop. I don’t have to sit here and shrug my shoulders to not let my chest be shown or sit here and not talk because I’m worried that my voice is going to sound different than anyone else’s, or I look different than anyone else, because he makes me feel like I’m just another guy in the barbershop.”
The Confess Project
The Confess Project is a barbershop movement that gives marginalized communities of color the tools to help “move past their pain.” Founded in 2016 by educator and entrepreneur Lorenzo Lewis, himself affected by depression and anxiety, the organization aims to empower those communities through mental health advocacy, offering expert training on ways to improve positive communication, active listening, validation and destigmatization.
With suicide being the third-leading cause of death among Black youth aged 15 to 19, Lewis wanted to take action and reach out in a meaningful way. And what better way to connect than where many of those young men already were — the barbershop?
“Our goal is to reach a million barbers in our community just to help out, just to give everyone the opportunity to be a voice and let people know it’s OK not to be OK, and discrimination on any level is wrong,” says Charles, who’s also a barber ambassador with the organization.
Helping the LGBTQ community to feel seen
For Tasha Johnson, another barber with The Confess Project who owns High & Tight Barbershop in Los Angeles, they wanted to make it a priority to welcome the LGBT community into their shop. Johnson, who identifies as nonbinary, tells In The Know that they wanted to fill in what was missing in typical barbershops.
“When I opened High & Tight, it was the goal to be that safe space in the community,” they say. “I come from a cis, hetero barbershop environment, so there were many issues that I wanted to not have in the new space. I wanted to welcome people to be comfortable.”
Johnson’s client Tyson Evans, 25, found comfort and support in that. As a transgender man, Evans, like Mitchell, didn’t always find encouragement in the barber’s chair.
“When I come see Tasha, she’ll check in with me, see how I’m doing with my transition. We can just be able to sit in that chair and talk about it in the space and not worry about if anyone in the shop is going to overhear and be upset or be hateful. It’s just an open, loving space,” Evans tells In The Know.
He admits that Tasha’s shop has felt like therapy for him, bringing him joy and allowing him to be open with his emotions.
“No matter what I have going on in my life, when I sit down in that chair and express myself, I know that someone is there to listen to me,” Evans adds.
While Johnson hasn’t necessarily shared the same experiences as some of her clients, including things like hormone therapy or surgeries, identifying as nonbinary gives her more relatability with them, they say.
“For instance, going into the women’s restroom, being that I don’t present feminine,” Johnson shares, “I have some of the similar experiences so I can identify with the stories that they’re telling me and be an open ear and offer support and just some guidance in ways to deal with some of the discrimination.”
That relatability is something Evans says he felt from the first moment he sat in Johnson’s barber chair. They told him that they liked his facial hair and that he looked good.
It was an “instant connection,” Evans says.
He adds that growing up in the Black community, his mother used to do his hair, which she likened to a spiritual experience, a feeling that Evans shares.
“For my mom personally, [there was] something spiritual, something really protective about our hair. Even if you cut your hair, there’s supposed to be a special way how to dispose of it,” he says. “I feel it’s also kind of a spiritual practice with my background, too.”
Johnson shares that seriousness about hair and says they are honored to be a welcoming place for the trans community to feel seen.
“I knew my space was for the [LGBTQ] community in its entirety, but more of the trans community has gravitated into the shop,” they say. “I love it. I feel honored that they feel safe to share in their experiences.”
They also want to offer confirmation and instill confidence in both how their clients look and feel.
“My major push for servicing the trans community is so I can give that gender confirmation that they are seeking in a safe way without asking invasive questions and just be that source of support,” Johnson says. “They really just want to see what they want brought to life and not be questioned as to why they want a certain type of haircut or facial hair.”
Therapy for the therapist, too
And for both Charles and Johnson, serving as mental health advocates to their clients has affected their own mental health as well.
“I’m not just a therapist to the clients,” Johnson says. “I look to them and their journeys for strength just as they do feel safe to share with me in the shop.”
Being an ambassador for The Confess Project, Charles started seeing habits that he hadn’t noticed before.
“I didn’t realize I was pushing myself to a limit and just kept exceeding that limit,” Charles tells In The Know. “I was hurting myself. I didn’t know how to stop, how to slow down, how to breathe, how to take time for myself.”
“But then being part of The Confess Project and teaching those principles, I realized I have to have some self-care for myself and take some days off and take some mental days off for me because if I’m not mentally ready, I can’t be ready for no one else,” Charles says.
After all, he adds, “Everyone needs a safe space. Everyone needs someone to shelter them. Everyone needs an umbrella. Because everyone has a story.”
Advice for people going through transition
Mitchell and Evans each have their own stories. They’ve both had ups and downs, and as a result have advice for those thinking about transitioning or who are going through the process now.
For Mitchell, that means simply being yourself.
“There’s no right or wrong way to transition. We’re all not the same,” he says. “Our journey is not going to be the same.”
Evans echoes his sentiment.
“Your transition is for you,” he shares. “So try not to compare too deeply about who has facial hair or who’s on hormones, or who looks like this or who looks like that, because at the end of the day you’re doing this for yourself and your own comfort. You’re looking at yourself in the mirror.”
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