The Midwest Beauty House (MBH) now joins a handful of hair establishments in the greater Madison area that proudly bear a pink, white, and baby blue barber pole sticker in their front window. A tweak to the traditional red, white, and blue, this image is the official symbol of Strands for Trans, a global movement that strives to make hair salons and barbershops more inclusive environments for transgender and nonbinary patrons. With locations on Atwood Avenue and Winnebago Street, MBH aims to bring greater inclusion and belonging to Madison’s east side.
As stated on the Strands for Trans website, hair salons and barbershops have always been heavily gendered and make strong delineations between men and women, leaving transgender people “feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome and unsure.”
MBH’s decision to become a Strands for Trans establishment came at the recommendation of a nonbinary member of their team. “We stand for a better beauty culture for all because we want to make sure that all human beings have a safe space,” shop manager Ashley Joy said. “It was just a no-brainer on our part to be like, ‘Hey let’s be on this. Let’s be a place where they know for sure, if they need to look on a registry, that they can find a safe space here in Madison.’”
Joy has worked in the industry for almost 20 years and is passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion work within the beauty industry. Unafraid to push the status quo, she emphasizes the importance of leading by example. “From my standpoint, when you’ve been in the industry for as long as [I] have, you’ve seen a lot of things where you’re like, ‘I wish it was different,’” Joy explained. “So how do you make things different, you go ahead in your own path and make that difference and you show people that it’s possible.”
With “better beauty culture” as their motto, MBH employees aim to give their clients a holistic experience that accounts for their emotional and mental wellbeing in addition to their physical beauty. MBH beauty operators are diligent about using their clients’ preferred pronouns and making the chair a place where anyone can share anything. “We want that barbershop feel but with a salon environment of self-care, mental health care, DEI work, and [an] inclusionary atmosphere,” Joy said. “I want to create an inviting culture that’s friendly, knowledgeable, capable, and honest without prejudice for people.”
MBH’s mission to be explicit in their trans allyship is a welcomed change of pace for trans community members who’ve had negative experiences at such establishments in the past. “Growing up, when I went to the barbershop, they were uncomfortable,” local Black queer trans activist SunShine Raynebow explained. “I would be around these people saying very negative things and I would internalize that. So as an adult, I would have moments where I don’t want to go to a beauty salon or a barbershop. I’m happy that these places exist.”
And while MBH has made strides to build the beauty industry they want to see, Joy hopes that this is only the beginning. “We’re not all going to be able to do this our whole lives and so we want to make sure that the next generation that comes up after us is even more on top of it and that we’ve provided this platform for growth. That’s really what it’s about: evolution and growth,” she said.
When asked about what tangible change she’d like to see at other salons, Joy discussed the importance of non-gendered pricing for cuts and styles. “In the future, I look forward to seeing salons be more open about that […] and then just being better so that as new generations come up, it’s not even a question anymore. It’s just how society is,” she explained.
MBH’s move to join Strands for Trans follows recent efforts by other Madison establishments to protect and defend trans community members. In response to the transphobic stickers that began to appear in East Madison last spring, the arts nonprofit Communication released a “Trans Lives are Precious” sticker pack. Using their in-house risograph machine, this project was a quick and cheap way to cover up and combat the other hateful stickers. Half of all proceeds are being donated to the local organization Madison Area Transgender Association (MATA).
“It is essential to my quality of life that I don’t separate art, business, activism and community from each other. Each informs the other and each makes the other stronger,” Communication Director Jennifer Bastian said. “If communication succeeds as a business, I want it to be because we have created a space and collective that can bring more care to those that need it, and more power to those that haven’t traditionally had enough.”
“If my Trans siblings are suffering, I am compelled to try and change the situation that is causing them harm, and hold those causing harm accountable,” she continued. “A safer, more supportive community should be the goal for all.”
In addition to the importance of visibility and verbal affirmations of allyship, SunShine Raynebow also emphasizes this same importance of direct action. “If I walk into a space and I feel uncomfortable because a person is being hateful towards me, I want to be able to go tell a person who works there or to the person who owns the place, ‘Hey, I felt uncomfortable because of something that happened between me and this person. I need you to go do something about it. What are you going to do about that?’”
While Madison establishments and organizations have prioritized the protection of our transgender and nonbinary community members, there are still local groups whose beliefs and actions jeopardize their safety. Sisters4Sisters2022, a group of self-proclaimed radical feminists that denies the existence of transgender women, is organizing a rally in Madison in late April of this year. This event and the sentiments behind it will be a test of the strength of Madison’s solidarity and dedication to affirming trans lives.