“Hair is a huge part of identity and is really important,” Laurel Javors said shortly after wrapping up a monthly snip session at Bee Sweet salon on Walnut Street in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood. Javors would know, as they are a trans, non-binary person who has used their hair as a way to conform and deviate from the spectrum of gender for years.
After finding Bee Sweet two years ago, Javors cannot imagine going anywhere else, as they sit nestled inside the quaint and picturesque shop of trendy-meets-homey. While the room may be compact, the mission is not. The non-gendered hair salon is not simply a queer-favorited place but rather a safe space for identity exploration and non-binary gender expression.
“I was going to a barbershop, and it was fine, but the space was not great for queer people,” Javors said. “I walk out of Bee Sweet feeling more connected to the queer community; I feel seen in my day-to-day. My hair helps me connect more with my queerness in a way that I didn’t realize was important to me once I began passing as a cis man.”
Not unique to Javors, many queer people describe their experience in hair salons and barbershops to be lacking, at best. They frequently encounter profiling and stereotyping based on binary standards of beauty and lack of queer representation.
Dani Bee, owner and operator of Bee Sweet, first began cutting hair in 2012 in her home state of Iowa in a salon that specified services and pricing based on gender. Being queer herself, she pushed back the antiquated idea of men’s versus women’s haircuts and began charging non-binary clients prices based on hair length rather than assumed gender.
“I’ve learned a lot through dismissing gender and also paying solid attention to it,” Bee said, “and where hair fits into that or has no place at all. It’s incredible to me how gender has no place in hair unless you choose for it to. Everything is on a spectrum, from bangs to gender.”
After challenging the shop owner around the absurdity of basing cost solely on gender profiling, the conversation turned accusatory and argumentative.
“She said to me, ‘You only want this because you f*ck a trans person,’” Bee said.
She gave her two-weeks notice the next day and embarked on journey to Denver and into a queer community unlike anything she’d ever known.
“Up until then, I think I had a pretty easy time in my queerness,” she said. “I dated cis men primarily, and so I felt really unseen, like I always had a hall pass, so when these things came up, that’s what started my process in realizing that queer folks need safety in their hair spaces.”
After working at a brewery in LoDo for a few months and getting settled in a new city, someone came into her work sporting a cut so fresh that she couldn’t resist asking where they got it. That place, she was told, was Ashe Atelier (currently operating under the name Above Ground, located in Five Points). Dani discovered this hair space offered services of the non-gendered variety under the leadership of veteran stylist Ashe Bowen, a prolific, non-binary figure in the local hair scene, and Dani quickly made an appointment.
“She came in to get a haircut by me,” Bowen recalled during a phone conversation about Dani Bee and Bee Sweet. “She was asking me about the style of being a non-gendered salon in a non-conforming space, and she finally told me that I was cutting her hair so she could go interview at another shop. She had never told me that she was a hairdresser!”
“I had fear about my queerness,” Bee said, regarding the reason she hadn’t disclosed her shear skills prior to that conversation. “I never felt queer enough, and when I didn’t feel queer enough, it was usually around queers. I’m femme, and so people see me more often as straight than they do as queer.”
However, Bowen went on to explain that the culture at Above Ground was unlike anything else in Denver at the time: an ethos of open-minded individuals providing hair services to individuals who inhabit a spectrum of identities. Bowen wrapped up the haircut with Dani that day by offering her a job, and instead of going to that interview, Dani was set up at a Ashe Atelier with a booth of her own.
“Your personal expression is your most vulnerable side,” Bowen said. “So it’s really important that you’re in a safe space where the people around you reflect what you feel like inside. I feel like if you have the ability to express yourself through your hair, that can be reflective as well.”
Setting a precedence at Ashe Atelier of service costs based on time required rather than gender-specific pricing was one simple, yet significant, act to provide an inclusive experience for all customers. For Bowen, creating a safe space that is queer-affirming as much as it is non-conforming feels less like a business model to capitalize on and more of a necessity in generating an environment where people can comfortably and fully express their queerness.
“I’ve tried to fit in to so many different scenarios and spaces, and at the end of the day, I needed to create a place where I felt comfortable. People that are like me are drawn to it. Hair is your greatest accessory, and in a snap judgment, people decide what they think of you.”
Safe spaces aren’t always about literal, physical safety from violence; they are necessary in settings where emotional safety and the mental well-being of marginalized groups is not often prioritized. Creating safe spaces in hair salons and barbershops can be life-affirming for queer folks as they experience a refuge and a place to relax from a society that is harsh, critical, and judgmental of their outward appearance.
For Jordan Weinstein, co-owner and barber at Proper Barbershop, having a safe space wasn’t only important; it was imperative to his road to coming out.
“When I went to barber school 20 years ago,” he said, “I went to school with the owner of one of the places that is credited to bringing barbering into the 21st century, the owner of Hawleywood’s Barber Shop & Shaving Parlor in Long Beach, CA. This same fella was also sued and lost for not allowing a trans person in his barbershop because they had a ‘no woman’ policy. It’s not as prevalent now as it was even four or five years ago, but there’s a lot of alt-right types in barbershops and a ton of toxic masculinity.”
Weinstein explained that when he opened Proper Barbershop in 2011, which now has two locations in Denver, he wasn’t yet out as bisexual. However, a year after the shop had been opened, he felt it was only right for him to be authentic and provide queer visibility in a typically cisgender, heterosexual, bro culture environment.
“It’s taken a lot of evolution for me to get where I am now, and I still feel like I, and my business, have a long way to go,” he said. Weinstein says one of the most satisfying parts of his job is helping people confidently articulate their authentic identities aesthetically. With a significant portion of his clients at the shop being female-to-male and nonbinary trans folks, he has seen many go through their transitions and has even helped them learn to shave once hormone replacement therapy sets in.
“Ultimately, if we [at Proper] can help someone find their gender expression or support somebody’s gender expression through a haircut, we are thrilled to do that,” he said.
For Bee, there were times where she had clients who lacked exposure to queer culture and were not on board with the philosophy and nature of the inclusive practice she upholds. Those people, she knows, can compromise the integrity and safety of her salon and therefore are not worth the extra bucks in her pocket.
“Those people can get their haircut anywhere. That’s why people come back, because they don’t have to deal with that here,” Bee said. “Instead of being racist, transphobic, homophobic, or whatever other terrible thing you want to be, just come in, be quiet, and learn something.”
There is a kinship, a relationship between a person and their hairstylist, that is unlike most others. However, in LGBTQ and other marginalized communities, the bond that is forged is everstrong. There is a level of trust and consent that goes into every haircut by Bee, and she doesn’t take that role lightly. With a history in social work prior to hair styling, she often hears the same kinds of stories from behind the chair, and she cherishes the fact that she can provide a service that holds people through those difficult times in their lives.
“There is no haircut without therapy,” she said, “and even if someone doesn’t talk, there are some people that sit there and close their eyes, and what it means to be touched by me, to that person, is therapy.”
That therapeutic experience carried over and created a community that is rapidly growing. Bowen, a queer pioneer here in Denver, is not only relieved but excited that more places like Above Ground are springing up.
“I’m so happy that it’s not just me doing this,” they said. “I’ve been waiting for a time when there are more queer spaces available. I never wanted it to be my thing; I wanted to be able to go everywhere and feel this way.
“If any young, budding entrepreneurs want any advice, I am readily available to help them create and cultivate their own space,” Bowen added. “Then I have somewhere to go that’s not work.”
Bee, along with Bowen and Weinstein, are ultimately striving for LGBTQ empowerment that can take shape in all spaces, proving that it’s possible even within an industry that is notorious for external judgment and criticism. All three are steadfast in giving back to the community by donating time and services to youth organizations like Rainbow Alley and Girls Rock Denver, in addition to offering free and discounted services to trans kids.
“Name a better job than what I do,” Bee challenged. “I’m so charmed that I get to work within a community that shares the same beliefs.”
It all comes down to working together, and rather than seeing each business as competition, it’s in a unity of shared experiences and a desire to see queer safe spaces continue to expand across the city.
“We’re all out here trying to do the same thing for the same community,” Weinstein said, “and it’s all love.”
Photos by Veronica Holyfield