For the first time in 10 years, Kameron Hendrix sat in the salon chair for a haircut. His hairstylist made him question – what products did he use? Did he co-wash? how often? Does he keep his hair?
He had earlier refused hairstylists to give him a short haircut. And the barbershop geared toward male haircuts makes him uncomfortable. But on Thursday afternoon, Hendrix was ready to try again at Salon Benders in Long Beach, which is known for its gender-neutral and inclusive approach.
The 25-year-old college student is half black, half Mexican and was assigned female at birth. Although women in his family were expected to have long hair, he said, he never became associated with a “feminine symbol”. He had everything besides finding a stylist he could rely on to make him look like the person he wanted to be, not what he was told.
“Hair is vulnerability, hair is the way you are perceived,” Hendrix said.
For the queer community, hair – with its gendered undertones – can be difficult to navigate. When salons are for women and barbershops are for men, where do you go to get a haircut? Queuing customers travel far and wide to get a facelift in a safe place at Salon Benders.
Owner Jesse Santiago opened the salon in 2017 with his partner, Cal Bigari. Instead of setting prices based on gender, the salon charges by the hour. Hairstylists are trained not only in haircut techniques, but also in communication and a trauma-informed approach to working with LGBTQ clients.
As Hendrix took his cut, an employee’s service dog, a toy named Frida, strutted across the door to greet Australian customers. At the entrance a suncatcher scattered a rainbow on the ground. Felt like home
Hendricks came out as transgender to her immediate family on her birthday in 2021 and began transitioning this year.
“I was so excited and nervous to get the haircut because it would be the first change everyone else would notice,” Hendricks said.
“And so we’re taking it slow,” said her hairstylist, Liz Meador. With a pair of electric clippers, Meador gave her an undercut; Quiet saloons and sounds reverberating through tall ringlets blanket the floor below. Switching to scissors, she trimmed and shaped her Afro, checking in periodically to make sure Hendricks was okay with the length.
When he was young, Hendrix wanted to cut his hair short, but his parents did not agree. Later when he tried to cut it himself, he was refused by two salons. The stylists asked her to go home and think about it.
“I was very upset about the fact that they didn’t listen to me,” Hendrix said. ,[Like] They knew better than me what to do with my hair.”
After that he stopped going to the salon.
But when it came out to his family, they were relaxed and supportive — and he finally understood why he wanted to cut his hair short for so long.
“And that’s why I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going crazy for a haircut,'” Hendrix said.
Meador finished off the cut by massaging hair tonic into her scalp and working the curling cream through the strands, painstakingly shaping each curl with her fingers.
“I didn’t expect to be emotionally invested so much,” Meador said of working at Salon Benders.
Before he left, Hendrix made his next appointment.
In the other corner of the salon, Casa Nissner sat in a leopard-print salon gown as the hairstylist worked the bleach through her strands.
Niesner got off a plane at LAX and headed straight to Long Beach to get her hair appointment. They wanted to dye their short, dark hair with a mix of bright teal and indigo-mermaid colors.
The 38-year-old medical resident has homes in Tennessee, Arizona and Nevada, traveling frequently but always returning to salon benders to get a haircut.
It’s a place “where you feel safe around others,” Nissner said.
Nissner was born intersex and at an early age as a surgically designated male. Although she spent most of her youth posing as male, she always identified as female and made the transition in 2016. As time went on, Nissner realized that they were non-binary.
They’ve tried both the salon and the barbershop, but were often mishandled and given a pixie cut or under-shave they didn’t want. Stylists made her uncomfortable and didn’t ask for consent before touching her hair – too much emphasis was placed on salon benders because of the trauma many queer people face.
Nissner also enjoys the no-joke “quiet service” option that usually accompanies salon appointments.
“I don’t get my hair done anywhere else,” he said. “This place is so special to me.”
For the owners of Salon Benders, cultivating this special place was a “healing journey” for them as well.
Santiago has had haircuts since the age of 17, but he almost gave up being a hairstylist.
“It’s a very toxic industry as a whole,” Santiago said. “It’s especially toxic and not super friendly to queer people and people of color, which I am both of those things.”
Before meeting Santiago, Bigari had never had a haircut that made him feel like himself. He hadn’t learned what products to use with his short hair or what to do with his beard. Like Hendrix, when he came out and began his transition, he was not comfortable in the “ultramasculine environment” of the barbershop.
But Santiago helped them define their look in an environment where they felt safe, an experience the couple hopes to offer to clients.
Salon Benders is about “being enthusiastic in people’s bodies,” Santiago said.
Santiago also places an emphasis on creating a healthy work environment for her stylists, following her own experiences with burnout.
The five stylists they hire are paid hourly and commission, they get paid time and money for continuing education. This is unusual in the hair industry, and it is not a permanent model, admits Santiago. He and Bigari both have other jobs and do not profit from the salon.
The Bigari LGBTQ Center serves as a school liaison for Long Beach, providing youth and family services and advocating for students. Salons often have booths at local outreach programs, offering free scalp massages and raising money to offer discounted haircuts for clients who need it.
After Hendrix felt like himself, a few customers remained on Thursday afternoon. One of them was Adri Silva, who came to her fourth appointment at the Salon Benders, wanting a major change.
She was eyeing a dusty purple hue, perhaps some pastel pink hair dye – a contrast to her usual head of dark hair.
At the mixing station, Andrea Ariola-Pinto swirls light magenta, indigo and dark purple in four different dishes, as if an artist is mixing colors.
Silva, 39, is queer and experienced. The Orange County resident previously got a mullet — partly by accident — but has stuck with the look the way the salon Benders’ stylists fixed it for her. Although this was his first color appointment.
“I’d rather have it shaved and not really think about it,” Silva said. ,[But] If I want to have hair, I like to experiment with it.”
She gave Arriola-Pinto some pictures for inspiration, but otherwise let her take the reins, even though she’s usually tight-lipped.
After five hours of bleaching and dyeing, Silva’s mullet “literally looks like purple quartz,” said hairstylist Meador as she left.
“Or an iridescent crystal,” said Arriola-Pinto. She gave Silva a granola bar, a much-needed snack after a long hair appointment.
“There is no other salon that is quite like this,” Silva said.
Additional reporting by Dania Maxwell.