It’s late summer 2018. The Kavanaugh confirmation hearings are raging in Washington, D.C. while out on the open road, stylist Madin Lopez (they/them) is driving around middle America and the Deep South with their wife and a friend offering haircuts to gender non-conforming queer youth out of an airstream trailer referred to as the “Hairstream Trailer” which sports the image of a bearded lady and the phrase, “using hair as a form of social justice.” At a Wyoming gas station, Lopez gets approached by a random dude on the street, curious about the trio.
“I had a choice,” says Lopez. “Do I tell him what I do, or do I just brush him off and walk away for my own safety? It was kind of terrifying to be honest. We were three queer black people driving around middle America and the South with a bearded lady on the side of our trailer.”
Lopez decided to level with the man and explained they were going from state to state, county to county, offering free haircuts for queer kids. The man said he’d be right back, turned and walked away. “I was like, where is he going, what is he going to do,” says Lopez. “He came back with a twenty-dollar bill and said, ‘put it in your tank and keep on going.’”
Lopez has always done just that. Their Project Q, a storefront salon in LA’s Chinatown, offers free haircuts, workshops (presently online), and food and hygiene boxes to low-income and homeless (primarily black and brown) queer youth. Though haircuts are free (Project Q is funded by grants and members), youth still pony up. “What we’re teaching them is that a dollar is just an assigned number to their energy,” says Lopez, “and also teaching them that their attention is their most important source of currency,” This means that in exchange for a cut, a young person might be expected to finish a poem, take an HIV test, or talk about why their life matters.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Lopez began cutting hair in high school. They saw it as a threefold opportunity to be artistic, be social, and make money. It was also a way to escape a neglectful home while helping people and making them feel good. “I would trade haircuts for bus tokens or lunch tickets or sanitary napkins or whatever I needed to make sure that my physical body was taken care of,” says Lopez.
Their first customer was Lopez’s skeptical father. “I gave my first haircut to my dad because he didn’t believe in my path,” they say. “I was supposed to give him a fade and I didn’t know how to do a fade. I started cutting and the fade just kept getting higher and higher until I had to cut all his hair off.” Even if that first cut was a failure, Lopez was determined it would be their craft.
In 2012, Lopez hosted a haircut booth at the Queer People of Color Conference at CSUN (Cal State University Northridge) and one “customer” was a young person who asked Lopez to shave their head because they were going to come out to their parents when they got home from the conference. “We shaved it all off and there was that moment where they looked in the mirror and they saw themselves for the first time,” says Lopez. “It was really beautiful.”
According to Lopez, providing haircuts to queer youth is an essential service. A lot of young people are coming out of foster care or are wards of the state and thus don’t have a lot of say over their own bodies. “Having a haircut is kind of your first chance to choose what you would like to have done to your own body,” says Lopez. It’s also low risk; hair grows back. “I think that’s important so that they can try different hats on and see who they are.”
Of course, the pandemic isn’t easy on a hair stylist. In early September, Lopez got the greenlight to reopen the doors at Project Q for haircuts for the first time in six months, which means the delicate balancing act of offering services while providing safety for staff. Meanwhile, a hair product line called Project Curls was recently launched with proceeds going to fund a free, online school for youth who want to learn how to be trauma-informed barbers. The school will launch in mid to late 2021. How will Lopez handle all this on their plate? Shear strength, of course.