KHANE: There was a couple from Baltimore and they had a daughter I think she was five or six. And she wanted a short haircut with a Batman symbol. And everyone refused to cut this little girl’s hair. And they traveled from Baltimore all the way to Brooklyn. I cut her hair, we put the Batman symbol on it … and the look on her face when she looked in the mirror was priceless. And it’s so funny when that happened, because I was feeling really down. I was like, "Man, you know, I’m in my 40s and I still don’t have my shop," and this and that and … when I saw that little girl’s face, I was like, "This is why I do what I do."
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy.
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: You know what I want to talk about?
KATHY: Tell me, Tobin.
TOBIN: I made up a term. It's called "peacocking."
KATHY: I feel like someone's used that already!
TOBIN: Shh. Okay.
[CLUB MUSIC COMES IN]
TOBIN: Peacocking, as defined by Tobin Low, means that period of time when you've, like, come out but you're going through the awkward phase of how to, like, visually reflect that on the outside in your aesthetic.
TOBIN: You're, like, going through the process of how the outside reflects the inside.
KATHY: Yes. Okay. Yes.
TOBIN: So, like, for me that meant when I had come out and was like, I want to, like, reflect that on the outside, I wore, like, a full-on suit and tie to, like, college courses every day. [BOTH LAUGH]
KATHY: And not in, like, an "I'm a professional" kind of way.
TOBIN: No, no, no. Like, in a dapper, like, "I am gonna wear a long tie with like a dress shirt and maybe like a smart sweater zipped up over it." I think I carried an umbrella at one point.
KATHY: Oh my god.
TOBIN: I know. It wasn't even raining! [BOTH LAUGH] I just -- I didn't know what I was doing.
TOBIN: You've done the same thing!
KATHY: Well ... I wouldn't say I peacocked, per se. I'd say that I did the opposite, which is that I tried very hard to not appear queer. So, like, I had my long hair, and I just thought maybe with that, I could just fly under the radar, and nobody would know that I was gay. And somehow that was supposed to attract all the queer people to me.
KATHY: And, let me tell you, Tobin: that did not work.
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] Well you think my thing did?
KATHY: Okay. So, what you're trying to say is sometimes maybe you've figured things out on the inside but the execution of that on the outside got lost somehow.
TOBIN: It's a process.
KATHY: It's definitely a process.
TOBIN: Yeah. Figuring it out can be hard.
KATHY: Yes, I agree.
TOBIN: You know what I would have loved though?
TOBIN: -- is, for, just to return to the metaphor, me as a peacock ... I would love Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother in Brandy's Cinderella to have appeared and have waved a wand and transformed me into who I was meant to be. You know what I mean?
KATHY: Umm ... yes. [TOBIN LAUGHS] So what you're saying is, you would have liked someone to help you.
TOBIN: If you want to over simplify what I just said, which was beautiful and nuanced, then yes, I guess so.
KATHY: Okay, I apologize ... Tobin. But I think that's what you're getting at ... is that we could all use a little bit of help.
TOBIN: Yes, absolutely. And that is the reason that I have brought us on this entire journey, because we sent our lovely intern, Cathy-with-a-C Wong --
TOBIN: [CHUCKLES] We sent her to a barbershop in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, called “Camera Ready Kutz.” It caters especially to queer clients who are trying to figure this all out and need some help, maybe.
KHANE: My name is Khane Kutzwell. I am a master barber.
KHANE: Alright, same thing?
DONNA: Yes, please.
KHANE: Guess what book I finished?
DONNA: Uhh ...
KHANE: The book I been reading for a year now?
DONNA: The book I gave you?
DONNA: Shonda Rhimes.
DONNA: You better say yes! To everything. To life.
KHANE: I was like, "Yes to reading this book!"
[POPPY MUSIC COMES IN]
KHANE: Cutting hair to me is very spiritual. A person’s head is very important. Without your head, your body is not able to function. So when someone is in your head, my energy has to be right. It doesn’t matter if their energy is not right, I have to maintain a certain type of energy because I’m working on their hair.
DONNA: Now everyone has their head shaved, but I feel like I was one of the first.
DONNA: My name is Donna Hope. I live here in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Actually I was in the store recently and I was checking out and the cashier was like, "Oh, how long you been shaving your locks?" And I said, "Oh, like, 10 years." She was like, "10 years! Aww, you’re an originator -- you’re an OG!" She said, "You’re a Beyonce in a field of Michelles!" That’s actually what she said and I started laughing so hard.
KHANE: "A Beyonce in a field of Michelles?" I don’t know how to feel about that. [BEAT] Oh, you know what? You know which Michelle it is … from Destiny’s Child.
DONNA: Well, that’s what I was thinking.
KHANE: Oh, okay. I was thinking about Meshell Ndegeocello but, you know, that’s…
DONNA: That comparison doesn’t even make any …
KHANE: That’s the queer in me. [BOTH LAUGH]
[DEEP MUSIC STARTS, AS IF IN AN ECHO-Y ROOM]
KHANE: I heard a lot of my friends over the years talking about their experiences at barber shops. Talking about lewd comments …
DONNA: Just blatant sexist homophobic talk.
KHANE: Being refused service …
DONNA: They assume that you’re there waiting for some guy who’s there …
KHANE: Not getting the cuts that they wanted …
DONNA: Like, I would say I want a fade, down to 1 -- this is how I want it. And they would literally just be like, "Ah, you’re saying words ... but I’m just gonna do what I wanna do, 'cause you don’t know what you’re talking about."
KHANE: So my entrepreneurial mind started -- the wheels started turning. And I was like, "Alright, well, hmm. I guess ... let me look into barber school."
DONNA: You wanna be like comfortable. You wanna, like, relax it’s … you know, someone’s touching your head, it’s very intimate, you don’t want to be stressed out and feel weird. Someone has, like, a razor to your scalp. You know, like, you wanna feel comfortable and know that you’re gonna leave there looking fresh and fly! It’s nice to go somewhere where you can be yourself and be queer and be comfortable and be a woman or gender non-conforming ... Um, and I always appreciated the attention that Khane --
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
VISITOR: Can I please use your bathroom for one minute, one pee?
KHANE: Okay, um … really? We have a sign out there that says "For Clients." But I’ll let you use it, just, you know ...
VISITOR: Where do you go?
KHANE: Right there.
VISITOR: Thanks. Thanks very much.
KHANE: No problem.
DONNA: What was I saying? Oh, I think I was just praising you. For your --
KHANE: [LAUGH] Keep going!
DONNA: For your attention to detail.
KHANE: Especially, like, with my transitioning clients, it might be their first time incrementally cutting their hair lower and lower. So they’ll go from maybe one type of style, to like a more girly looking style, to like, "Okay, like, give me an androgynous looking style, cause I’m going to be visiting my relatives this weekend," until they feel confident enough to where they’re like, "Okay, boom! Let’s just cut it right off." So it’s very important to me to lay that track in the right way. You know, I sell self-esteem.
VISITOR: I’m gonna make you a deal. Saturday I’ll come and let you do my hair.
KHANE: Um, I’m a barber, though. I’m not a beautician.
VISITOR: Aw, shucks.
KHANE: But we have a beautician here, and she does excellent work.
VISITOR: Okay, Saturday morning.
KHANE: Saturday morning. So let me give you her card. You give her a call, tell her Khane -- if you remember "candy cane" or "walking cane," "sugar cane."
VISITOR: Mhm. Yes, I remember cane, 'cause we used to grow that where I come from.
KHANE: Boom, there you go.
KHANE: Alright, take care.
VISITOR: I appreciate this.
KHANE: No problem!
[BOUNCY MUSIC STARTS]
KHANE: See you never know where you gonna get a client from you know? Now she can use the bathroom all the time.
DONNA: Clever. Clever, clever, clever.
KHANE: Today’s gonna be one of those days.
DONNA: It looks like it, huh?
KHANE: You see it already, right?
[BOUNCY MUSIC OUT, MIDROLL MUSIC IN]
TOBIN: I am going to ask you: when you get your hair cut, what directions do you give your barber?
PERSON ON THE STREET 1: So, I've been going to the same guy for a few years now ...
PERSON ON THE STREET 2: I've been going to the same hairstylist, as you can see from the ... hair ... for the last 25 years.
PERSON ON THE STREET 1: I just say "half" on the sides, and sometimes, y'know, just a measurement of how much I want him to cut on the top. It's pretty basic, and he knows what to do.
PERSON ON THE STREET 2: Blunt cut. Make sure I can put it up if I need to. We don't do anything freaky, foolish. My hair is not my best asset, so, y'know, we just keep it very simple.
PERSON ON THE STREET 3: This is Nancy!
PERSON ON THE STREET 4: We'll be back after these messages.
[TANGO MUSIC IN]
KATHY: Today, I am going on a journey.
TOBIN: Ooh, a journey.
KATHY: Yeah, but unfortunately where I’m going, you can’t really come.
TOBIN: But -- we do everything together!
KATHY: I know, I know. We try to do everything together, but it’s not gonna work because ... there’s something about myself that I don’t like. And I need help, and I need advice, which you’re usually -- you’re my go-to person.
TOBIN: I’m so good at it.
KATHY: But, and I say this with all the love in the world, you’re a DUDE.
TOBIN: Oh, yeah. I mean, there’s nothing I can really ...
KATHY: There’s nothing you can do about that.
TOBIN: There’s nothing to be done about that, it’s true. But, maybe you’re in luck, because I think I might have somebody who can help you out.
[WIND CHIMES AND MAGIC SOUNDS]
RACHEL: Hey, Kathy.
TOBIN: This is radio producer Rachel Matlow.
KATHY: Why’re you doing that voice?
TOBIN: Shut up. She’ll know more about this than I ever can.
RACHEL: Yep, I make radio. And I’m also genderqueer.
TOBIN: For those not in-the-know, "genderqueer" refers to people who don’t identify with conventional gender norms, so Rachel has thought a lot about what you're going to talking about today.
TOBIN: See, Kathy, you’re never alone. I’m gonna go now.
KATHY: [LAUGHS] Take your voice with you.
RACHEL: Okay, Kathy...when you think of the word butch now, like what do you think of?
[MONTAGE OF FOLKS DISCUSSING WHAT "BUTCH" MEANS, ALTERNATING WITH EACH SENTENCE]
GAGGLE OF GUESTS: Butch. Butch. Butch. Butch. A masculine identifying woman. Genderqueer, nonconforming. Who sleeps with primarily women. Their hair may be short, or not. To me, butch is a comfort, it’s a way of presenting myself. Tennis shoes instead of high heels... tux at the formal event instead of a dress. I walk with a halo of gay around me when I am presenting butch. Generally pretty sexy. Butch lesbian.
KATHY: I don’t know. I think the word that comes up for me is scary. And I wish it wasn't scary, but, like, I -- I always … I never wanted to catch a butch woman's attention.
KATHY: I don't know how to describe that, but yeah, that's basically how I feel. And even the word I found, like ...
[LOW MUSIC COMES IN]
KATHY: ... it's weird to say, because you almost have to, like, lower your voice a little bit to say it, like [LOW VOICE] "butch."
KATHY: You can't really say it up here -- [HIGH VOICE] "butch" -- It sounds weird, doesn't it?
RACHEL: Yep. [HIGH VOICE] Butch.Yep.
KATHY: It's like a really forceful --
RACHEL: [HIGH VOICE] We're just talkin’ butch. [LAUGHS]
KATHY: We're just -- [LAUGHS]
RACHEL: [SPEAKING VOICE] We're talking butch, is that better? [KATHY LAUGHS IN AFFIRMATION] That's my butch voice.
KATHY: Yeah, I like it.
[LOW MUSIC OUT]
RACHEL: So, what made you start thinking about the word butch and your relationship to it?
KATHY: I think that ... for most of my life I’ve had long hair, and I’ve always worn T-shirts and jeans all the time. And that was very clearly my comfort zone. But something must’ve been off because ... for the longest time I just couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and I felt like I didn’t look “right.” But I was scared of the alternatives. Like, I didn’t let myself to have short hair, and I didn’t let myself wear guy’s clothing, even though I do think those things probably would’ve make me feel more like myself. I just didn’t let myself engage because... I just felt like I would end up looking butch. And I started to think that, like, "Wow, like, maybe I think that butch is a dirty word. And not only am I afraid of looking butch, but I’m terrified of being around people who look butch as well." And it feels pretty shitty to say that out loud.
RACHEL: Right. Where do you think this aversion comes from?
KATHY: I mean, when I was younger, it comes from my parents like wanting me, wanting me to appear normal. Like a girl.
[MONTAGE OF KIDS FROM YOUTUBE TALKING ABOUT GENDER NORMS]
KIDS FROM YOUTUBE: Girls like pink, boys don’t. Most girls have longer hair than boys. Girls have long hair, boys have short hair. Boys are stronger than the girls. That looks like a boy, that one looks like a girl.
KATHY: When I was around 4, right before I moved to the US, I remember my dad letting me get a really short haircut, and my mom was so mad because I looked like a boy.
[TOM CHANG MUSIC COMES IN]
KATHY: I really wanted to be this Chinese pop star, Tom Chang --
KATHY: -- who was a guy.
KATHY: And so I had the same haircut as that dude. But I just remember there was a photo of me saying goodbye at the airport, in Taiwan, going to America. And I have, like, such a short haircut. And I look at it now, and I kinda cringe because, like, you can't tell what gender I am, and I don't know why it's cringey for me, but I was just like, "Ugh, that's not a good look." That -- I remember that specific time as the time I was basically a boy.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
RACHEL: A lot of younger people today describe themselves more as like, "masculine of center" or, you know, all these other different terms. Like, do you find those terms less threatening or scary than "butch"?
KATHY: I think so?
RACHEL: Or is it just more female masculinity is what's scary?
KATHY: Um … I feel like, to me, it's more the fact that when you present as a woman who's masculine of center, you almost become a target. And so me not wanting to be that target meant shunning all parts of that in other people as well. Like, I wouldn't -- I don't even associate, I think.
RACHEL: Wow. Do you ever -- do you ever fantasize about how you would present or be in the world if there wasn't family or societal pressures, do you ever just fantasize, like, "How would I express myself? Or, "How would I want to?"
KATHY: You know, I daydreamed a lot when I was younger, when I was growing up. And up until college, all of my daydreams featured me -- not myself, but like I was playing a male character?
[VACATION TWANG MUSIC]
[KATHY'S FANTASY IS PLAYED OUT]
GUY: Oh, hey!
GIRL: Oh, hey, Kathy! How’s it going?
GUY: Uh, do you ... wanna go out sometime?
GIRL: Umm ... Yes! I do! Oh my gosh! [SWOONING]
GUY: Alright, cool.
KATHY: And I wonder if that person in my daydreams is sort of like what you're talking about, like, taking away all of society, taking away --
RACHEL: Yeah, I think so.
KATHY: -- Societal pressure and parental pressure. I think I would be that person.
RACHEL: Yeah, I think it's also similar to who you were when you were really little, ‘cause like when I look back, I was a total little boy, and everyone thought I was a boy ... And, I think that bit by bit as I, you know, maybe turned 9 or 10, I started to internalize people's embarrassment about mistaking me for a boy, and I just started getting more cues that this wasn't normal as I aged. I should be starting to wear dresses, so I went through a femme phase I guess when I was 12 or 13, mostly going to so many bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, I had to dress up every weekend.
RACHEL: Um, but then, in my early 20s, it was more of a process of then kind of getting back to that little boy that I once was before people told me, I, you know, should be presenting differently. And I think that's like a common narrative in so many masculine females' stories. Is ... it's a lot about reclaiming their masculinity.
KATHY: Well, what -- what do you identify as now?
RACHEL: Um, I invented the term "boy lady." [LAUGHS]
KATHY: That's great.
RACHEL: So yeah, there's -- there aren't enough terms. Or there aren't that many terms that feel comfortable. I'm not just totally masculine, like, I don't feel butch. There's definitely like a feminine -- I think it's more of a male femininity, but, um ... it's so hard to describe this stuff.
RACHEL: But -- but I feel like I am a boy or a guy at heart, in my head. I don't know how to explain, but then I'm a little bit lady, so ..
RACHEL: "Boy lady," it is!
KATHY: Yeah. Did you have the same thoughts about butch and the stigma that it carries?
RACHEL: A little bit, I don't think it was as conscious. But I think ... you know, I cut my hair in my early 20s, just, you know, maybe a couple years after I came out. So I think it was part of that process of feeling more comfortable with being openly queer in the world, and allowing those signifiers to kind of shine. You know, whereas I passed before with longer hair.
[SUBTLE MUSIC IN]
KATHY: I think passing is a safety blanket. I think that being butch means basically screaming out to the world that you're gay, and there's no real hiding from it? It's not wanting to stand out, and just wanting to be left alone to, y'know, live the life that I want. I think that is the safety that comes with passing.
RACHEL: Mhm, which -- which is great if you feel comfortable but then if you're not feeling comfortable with how you're presenting, or you're having a desire to and you're holding that back, then I guess the question is, "At what cost?"
KATHY: Right, yeah, and -- and I think the reason I keep thinking about this is because I just I don't know. And I don't want to be a person that hates something just to hate it for no -- no reason, or to be scared of something and not really, like, kind of tackle it. You know what I mean? Like, I feel like I should be a lot more like you than the way I present now. And if I never -- if I never step into those shoes and see what that's like, am I not -- can I be happier?
[HOPEFUL MUSIC IN]
RACHEL: Well, what are you thinking, Kathy? How do you think you can become happier?
KATHY: I think -- I think that ... Honestly, I think that I have to cut my hair.
RACHEL: Just gonna lean into your butchness.
RACHEL: Take the plunge.
KATHY: Oh. That sounds so scary.
RACHEL: Kathy, there’s no shame in asking for a 90’s boy band haircut.
RACHEL: I think you’re really gonna like having short hair.
KATHY: Thanks, Rachel. Thanks for being my guide.
[LOUD STREET SOUNDS]
KATHY: So, a few weeks ago ...
KATHY: We’re on Mohawk St.
KATHY: I found a place in Echo Park in Los Angeles called Folklore Salon. Their tagline says, "A salon for dames, gents, and folks in between." I brought in some photos of what I thought I could pull off -- basically short on the sides, longer on top -- I think it's called the "baby butch"?
KATHY: I brought in some photos of what I thought I could pull off. Basically short on the sides, longer on top. I think it’s called the baby butch.
JOYCE: Say goodbye. [SCISSOR SOUNDS]
KATHY: And I was so nervous! My heart was beating so fast when Joyce, my stylist, started cutting off my hair. There was just so much hair.
KATHY: You know, I’ve heard people say that once you cut your hair, it can feel like a second coming out. Because now the world probably sees you as queer. There's no hiding anymore. It was scary when I did it, and, honestly, it's still a little scary now.
JOYCE: See you soon.
[FACETIME CALLING SOUND]
TOBIN: Oh my god. Oh my gooooooooood!
KATHY: I did it!
[TOBIN CONTINUES EXCITEDLY SAYING "GOD"]
[TANGO-ESQUE MUSIC IN]
TOBIN: Wait! Can you do some side angles?
KATHY: Like that?
TOBIN: Oh, it’s so fucking cute.
KATHY: Is it?
TOBIN: Now that you’ve done it -- now that you’ve cut it, are you ready to go shorter? Like a totally shaved side?
KATHY: Maybe. Maybe. I’m also scared that I’ll just end up with your haircut, Tobin.
TOBIN: Listen. I would be okay if we started a thing where we go to the barber together, we sit in chairs next to each other, we hold hands, and we say “I’ll have what she’s having.”
[TANGO-ESQUE MUSIC OUT]
[CREDITS MUSIC STARTS]
KATHY: Alright. That's our show.
TOBIN: Credits time!
KATHY: Our producer...
TOBIN: Matt Collette!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton and Suzie Lechtenberg!
KATHY: Sound design...
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom and Isaac Jones!
KATHY: Executive producer...
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: We had production help this week from Cathy Wong, Tommy Bazarian, and Rachel Matlow.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: [SINGING] Impossible! Things are happening ev-ery day!
KATHY: No! Tobin!