When Blue Line Barbers moved locations, Talia Roxit immediately knew which barber chair she wanted to claim: the one closest to the window.
"It's not that I want the attention, but I want to draw in people," they said. "When people pass by, they can see that I'm queer and think, 'Oh cool, I want to go there, because I'm having trouble finding a barber or a safe space.'"
Most hair spaceswhether barbershops or salonscan often have hetero and cis-normative atmospheres, they said. But across Chicago, queer hair artists like Roxit are creating a new kind of shop. Chair by chair, they're honoring the significance hair can hold in their communities and transforming the experiences of their queer clients.
One of those clients is Michelle Liad, who sits in Roxit's chair every week to get lined up. She said that she never goes into queer spaces without a fresh cut.
"Especially for masculine-presenting women, having a clean haircut is part of the package," she said. "The hair is where it's at."
Roxit said that she's proud to see a flow of queer people coming into her shop, and wishes she would have had the same option when she was younger. When Roxit went to a salon to chop off their long hair for the first time, they felt extremely uncomfortable.
"They didn't know how to ask me the right questions," Roxit said. "They didn't know what I wantedI said short hair, and they gave me a soccer mom haircut. I was 18, and they gave me a 40-year-old straight woman's haircut that didn't fit my style."
So it's not just about welcoming queer clients, Roxit said. It's about understanding the connotations behind hair, and knowing that a pixie cut holds different implications than a bald fade.
Beyond expressing someone's sexuality or gender presentation, hair can also carry cultural meaning or serve as a creative outlet. To non-binary braider D'Nayzja Hopkins, doing people's hair feels like an act of loveand a spiritual practice.
As they braid, they weave healing and protection into people's hair, Hopkins said. It typically takes hours to finish the process, and within that period, Hopkins creates connections with their clients.
"I just want to make sure people feel safe and, like, they can talk to me," they said. "A lot of queer Black people are ostracized from our families, and it can feel really lonely. If I can be that person for someone, I want to be."
Hopkins prioritizes serving Black LGBTQ+ clients, and often gives discounted rates to people who can't afford their services. Not only does everyone have a right to feel beautiful, they said, but Black peopleparticularly Black womenexperience discrimination if their hair doesn't meet racist standards. With this pressure to keep their hair done, Hopkins wants to break down some of the barriers to accessing services.
They said they're proud to be open and affirming with Black, queer clients, but that it's not a one-way relationship. Their clients bring them wisdomand cool ideasall the time, they said.
Hopkins loves to do out-of-the-box styles that traditional braiders might not try, like braid mullets. It's all about creativity, they said.
"You can go from a blank slate to an art piece," they said. "It's like the hair is a canvas and the braids are the art."
Alfredo Cruz, of Rockstar Barbershop, resonates with that concept, tooso much so that he calls himself a "hair artist" rather than a stylist or barber. He said that he doesn't do men's or women's cuts. He just does hair.
Cruz works in a shop dominated primarily by cisgender men. He chose the seat in the back in order to make sure his clients felt comfortable, he said. That way, he can angle the chair away from the rest of the shop if they ever want some privacy.
But that's never been an issue, he said. If anything, he likes to spin the chair toward the other barbers and bring them into his world.
"It's cool that they get to see what's poppin'," he said. "They're used to their regular fades, and me braiding and doing other things, I get to mix my skills into one head and then that person looks dope."
Cruz said he likes the creative projects that his queer clients bring to him. He loves to experiment with different looksand that goes for his own hair, too.
"I like to switch it up sometimes, but never for other people. It's always for myself," he said. "They say that I don't look gay, but as soon as I start talking, they can tell. I just think that's funny, and I like to mess with their head a little bit before they know me."
There's power in choosing how he's perceived, he explained. A hairstyle can change a lot. Since hair can carry so much meaning, people need to be able to trust their hair artist, he added. When a client stands up and is ready to walk out without even seeing their hair in the mirror, Cruz knows he's done his job right.
But people can't trust a hair artist if they aren't safe or supported. Everyone deserves to feel good afterand duringa haircut or styling session, Hopkins said.
Outside their shops, there might be rules limiting people's self-expression or identities. But whether they're carving out space for queer people with a window chair or a seat in the back, Chicago queer hair artists are rejecting the status quo.
In their chairs, there are no rulesonly joy.
"You don't have to look a specific way, or behave a specific way," Roxit said. "We're queer, and we're not supposed to follow the rules. We're supposed to break them."