As an independent business owner and mother of five, Armene Piper has a long list of to-dos constantly ticking like a time bomb in her mind. What day of the week is it? Which child has what obligation? When is my next appointment? Often, it is a feat to simply stay afloat. But, even with all of her stress, Piper finds the time to give back.
Piper is in a unique industry—one of erasure.
She is an electrologist: a trained professional skilled in the science of hair removal. The owner of Left Hand Laser Studio in Longmont, she not only made connections with those who want to remove unwanted bikini lines, she just as successfully found a home within the LGBTQ community.
“When I started my business two years ago, the LGBTQ community was not even on my radar,” Piper admitted. “Not on purpose, I was just trying to get my bearings and figure out what I was doing.”
Standing in her Longmont office, inside a building filled with insurance agencies and dental practitioners, the single room feels as clean and organized as it does warm and inviting. Industrial decor skirts the edge of steampunk, and shelves are lined with certifications and certificates of recognition from organizations such as Out Boulder, with whom she does a lot of community work. Her casual, calm demeanor is disarming, and it is clear that her connection to her craft is integrally centered around her ability to connect with people.
“I feel like you meet the right people at the right time,” Piper said. “There is a purpose for everything we go through.”
Indeed, this holds true for Piper. On a day like any other a few years back, she was busy and rushed, wandering the aisles of Target as her gaze swept across a woman whom she vaguely recognized. Piper began to secretly follow this woman throughout the store, unable to recall how she knew her.
Eventually, the two spoke, and the familiar woman introduced herself as Penny, saying that she knew Piper from years before. In a moment everything clicked. This was a former friend, a person who Piper had a falling out with almost a decade ago. Yet this was definitely not the same person she had known.
Penny was mid-transition.
The two sat and talked over coffee, getting caught up over the previous 10 years, and Penny shared her story. Unfortunately, it is one all too familiar within the transgender community: a story of lost relationships with friends and family members. Penny had been forced into a minimum wage job with no benefits and wasn’t sure how she would be able to get ahead again.
The process of transitioning can leave so many feeling like their lives have become an unending cycle of loss and pain, like a wheel spinning out of control. While the exact number of people within the transgender community is difficult to know because of lack of census data, a 2016 report released by the Williams Institute estimated 0.6 percent of U.S. adults and 0.53 percent of Colorado adults identify as transgender.
As the government continues to lag behind in this regard, transgender people continually face disproportionately institutionalized prejudice and discrimination within the healthcare system. If a person is fortunate enough to obtain and retain health insurance coverage during the process of transition, the majority of plans consider things like electrolysis to be an elective and cosmetic procedure. Therefore, covering these costs become the burden of the patient.
“I can tell you from my experience, every male to female trans person that is actively transitioning does some hair removal, unless they can’t afford it,” said Julia Condolora, vice president of the Board of Directors for the Gender Identity Center in Denver.
Treatments for electrolysis on average can cost $100 per session, and depending on the individual, one person can need upwards of 25 procedures to remove all unwanted hair in a specific area. When combining that cost with the overall expense of MTF transition with hormone therapy, the bill can range between $7,000 and $20,000. Often, this can be dangerous for transgender women as well as prevent them from being fully self-actualized.
“For those of us that are hairy, it’s a nightmare,” Condolora said. “It’s one of the things that can out you no matter how well you’ve done everything else. It’s your face; it’s something everyone looks at.”
Penny admitted that day to Piper, that one of the hardest parts of her transition was experiencing issues of gender dysphoria, the distress a person experiences when the gender they were assigned at birth does not match the person’s gender identity. Those feelings continued because of a beard and chest hair that she had to shave every day. In that instant, things became clear for Piper when she realized she could contribute to the LGBTQ community in a big way.
After some consideration, she decided to offer her transgender clients a major discount on their hair removal services, 50 percent off, in fact. The day that Left Hand Laser Studio opened its doors was the day the discount started.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Piper has given $27,000 in discounts to her transgender clients in 2018 alone.
Emma Vale is one of the dozens of transgender clients that Piper has serviced since her first day in business in 2016. She is currently going through the hair removal process on her face and has had five procedures done.
“I live in North Denver, and I drive all the way to Longmont,” Vale said. “It’s worth the drive; she’s amazing.”
Vale found Piper on a Colorado trans Facebook discussion board, one of several places that lists Left Hand Laser Studio as the place to go for people in the transgender community. For many trans women like Vale, permanent hair removal offers relief from the dysphoria they feel within their bodies
“We’re lucky in the front range to have someone like that; I wish more trans women knew about her. Not only is there a discount, but this is someone that cares about us and is not going to be weird,” Vale said.
Denver Health, the Colorado hospital known for recently introducing vaginoplasty, offers the most comprehensive transgender health care procedures in the state. They have performed one gender confirmation surgery per week since May. A spokesperson for Denver Health confirmed in a statement that hair removal is a mandatory requirement prior to any male-to-female transition surgery.
“I have a lot of anxiety about that, getting a brazilian” admitted Vale. “It’s not everyone’s favorite thing, but being a trans person with a really different kind of body… I haven’t started that yet, but I know when I do, I’m going to go to Armene.”
Not only does Vale say that Piper treats her with kindness and respect, but through the time they spend together during her procedures, she has come to consider her a friend, and Piper agrees. Sharing story after story of client relationship turned into friendship, those connections bring her more than she could have imagined.
“I thought I was going to be the one changing all these lives, when truly the life that was changed was my own,” Piper admitted. “I’ve met some of the most incredible people.”
While opening and operating a new business is stressful with massive overhead costs and tight budgets, Piper has no reservations in continuing her discount long-term and is committed to providing compassionate care to the LGBTQ community.
“I truly believe that whatever you give comes back to you tenfold. If your heart is in the right place, then everything will work out as it should.”
Photos by Veronica Holyfield