i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture and the times we live in.
Your hair is too long, said my father. You'll never get a job. My hands went instinctively to my light brown strands. Then, in 2012, they stretched to my chin. For a woman, this length would be unremarkable — short, even. But for a man, the length was, and is, political. In my father's eyes, or at least from the perspective of many from his generation, employed men have short hair. Unemployed hippies and homosexuals let it grow.
I would think of my father's words in the months that followed. I finished graduate school with a Master's in English and Writing. Eventually, it became clear that my work reading poetry in East Village bars would not keep the lights on. So I applied for jobs. As I sat in interviews and listed my accomplishments and the assets I could bring to a company, my hand again would again rise to brush some tendrils from my face. Was it actually possible, I wondered, that something as trivial as hair length could factor in an employer's decision in hiring?
I haven't found any reliable statistics regarding employment discrimination of men with long hair. Although interestingly, I did find a support group called the Longhairs, which provides this demographic with grooming tips and works to break down cultural stigma. They also sell hair ties.
However, as a gay man with long hair, I was curious as to whether my locks were a "tell" regarding my sexual orientation that may be influencing job opportunities. After all, to be a man with long hair in the United States is to be gender-nonconforming. (Worldwide, there are exceptions to this rule: many Orthodox Jewish and Muslim communities have long-haired men due to religious beliefs; and thanks to Bob Marley, dreadlocks are popular in Jamaica and internationally.) And workplace discrimination against LGBT employees is a very real issue. Around 21 percent have reported bias in hiring, promotions, and pay, reports the UCLA's Williams Institute.
I never did get a call back from the more corporate office settings in which I brought my resume. Whether it was due to my hair, I cannot say. But I found myself diverted to a profession where its length did not matter. My first job was as a writer for a blog covering New York society and the arts scene. My hair there was unremarked upon — tame even, considering the colors, shapes, and styles sported by artists and those they attract. I stopped thinking about the stigma. I let it grow.
It is 2017. My hair is around three feet in length. I haven't cut it since I moved to Los Angeles nearly five years ago. There are numerous reasons why I haven't undergone the coup. It is certainly more cost-effective, since I've saved a significant sum by skipping the salon. A part of it is also sentimental. When we reach adulthood, there are no more notches to be made on the wall to measure growth. In fact, a shrinking in height may happen as we age. But hair length is a physical testament to time's passage. It can grow even after we die. It is the last part of our bodies to resist going gently into that good night.
Hair can be a source of vanity - but also in a way that transcends gender. Its length has opened the door for me to be less gender-conforming in my attire, allowing me to choose between dresses and suits for any given occasion.
It is also a source of intimacy. Other than myself, it is only my partner who touches my hair with any regularity. Sometimes, for humor, he'll flip it for dramatic effect, but the act can also be one of tenderness. Occasionally, strangers ask for permission to touch it. There are many thought pieces in the world about the implications of this act, particularly when it comes to race or ethnicity. But usually, I assent. If shaking a person's hand, or kissing their cheek can be an introduction, than why not this other physical gesture?
Of course, not everyone asks permission. This has lead to interesting encounters. Shortly before the presidential election, I found myself in a gay bar in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a stop on a road trip my partner and I were taking across the country. A few minutes after we ordered a drink, the door opened, and a bachelorette party barged into the bar. The bride-to-be spotted me, and, in a surreal scene, began sprinting across the room. She seized my hair, and marveled how she had never seen a boy with long locks before.
The act opened a floodgate of strange stories. She told me what a relief it was to be in Omaha, which was so much more liberal than where she was raised, citing a "transgender restroom" in a previous watering hole as proof of its progressiveness. Her "hippie aunt," she claimed — an outspoken woman with liberal views in a conservative area — was recently kidnapped and held hostage by the Ku Klux Klan in her native Idaho. It took a week for her to gain access to a phone, alert the authorities, and escape. That would never happen in Omaha, she said. Throughout this telling, the nodding bride held the length of my hair in her hands, as if it were a talisman or a testament to the state of the world.
I can't verify if such a crime as the kidnapping actually took place. The transgender restroom exists — but it was actually a point of local controversy when it was created, since it was meant to prevent trans people from using the men's or women's facilities.
Regardless, this woman's story strikes at the heart of why hair is political and important. It can proclaim to the world you're a hippie aunt or a homosexual, that you defy gender or cultural norms. Yes, this can make one a target for hate or derision. But now, it is more important than ever to be visible with our otherness. Now is not the time to be conventional or to cut what it is that makes us unique. We must resist those political forces that pressure us to do so, because far more than hair is at risk.
The rights and lives of vulnerable communities — women, LGBT people, Muslims, people of color — are under attack from a political administration that has rolled back protections for trans students and remained silent as gay and bisexual men in Chechnya are rounded up in concentration camps and killed. For a man, cutting one's hair is a small thing. But it does have meaning. It is a snip for conformity, for patriarchy, for perpetuating the gender binaries that engender sexism and homophobia.
I may not have grasped why I was growing my hair out when I began this journey several years ago. But today, the mission is clear. My hair is a symbol of my queerness and my resistance. Originally, the question that plagued me was, Am I employable with long hair? But the angle is wrong. The real questions should be: What is the threat of long hair? What does it represent? And how can we as a society make it so that a person need not conform to a gender binary for fear of facing discrimination in the first place?
Text Daniel Reynolds
Photography Hairfreaky via Flickr Creative Commons