How an Atlanta barbershop serving LGBTQ+ clientele is changing the game

Discussion in 'Mental, Medical and Sexual Health' started by OckyDub, Jul 7, 2021.

  1. OckyDub

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    Master Barber & Entrepreneur Perry Meeks and Gee Smalls

    Perry Meeks, 39, master barber and owner of The Grain Grooming Studio in Buckhead is affectionately called Blanca by many of his clients—a reference to the character and mother of The House of Evangelista played by trans actress MJ Rodriguez on the hit show “POSE.” The Grain is nestled on the corner of North Fulton Drive before a row of beautiful homes in Buckhead, and if you drive too fast you’ll most likely miss it. But the same can’t be said for the Black gay men and other members of the community who regularly flock to Meeks’ shop for his cutting expertise and the de facto community center environment he’s created in the absence of an actual LGBTQ center in Atlanta. At The Grain, Meeks and his staff are providing more than just haircuts, they’re changing the narrative about how Black gay men should expect to be treated once they enter a Black barbershop by expanding on the model that has historically been unwelcoming to gay men by making the experience more inclusive.

    It may not come as a surprise that a barbershop that is owned, staffed, and serving a majority LGBTQ+ clientele in Atlanta—a city often referred to as the Black gay mecca—but for Meeks, who holds a marketing degree, worked in corporate America, and taught as an adjunct professor at Westwood College in his hometown of Memphis, TN, before opening The Grain over a decade ago, it has all come as a beautiful surprise.

    “I had never been to Atlanta before. I didn’t know anything about it,” said Meeks. “I didn’t know it was the gay capital. I was a little country naïve boy who hadn’t been anywhere. I wasn’t well-traveled. Atlanta is probably the first place that I can say I actually traveled to because I wanted more,” he said.

    “This is not just a shop where we come and make money. We’re learning a lot about life here and we’re here to encourage each other.”
    — Perry Meeks
    Meeks tells The Reckoning that he initially began honing his skills as a barber by cutting the hair of friends in his neighborhood, but he didn’t take the craft seriously or start training until his parents, specifically his father, urged him to do so.

    “My dad told me, ‘You never know what corporate America is gonna do, you need a backup plan.” “They encouraged me to get a trade just in case…to have something to fall back on, and I’m glad they did cause look at what I’m doing,” he said.

    While there are documented stories of the homophobia many Black gay men have experienced inside black barbershops, Meeks, who is masculine-presenting and identifies as fluid, says his experience has been the exact opposite and does not disagree that how he presents has played a role in how he’s perceived in this space.

    “It was never uncomfortable for me in the barbershop. Honestly, I never thought about it until I got here and I started cutting hair, and I started becoming a popular barber within the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “They started to give testimonies: ‘Man it’s so cool here. I’ve always been so tense in barbershops because they talk about pu***, they talk about basketball and sports and I’m not into any of that shit. So I would be like, Oh my God, are we done yet? I wanna get out of here,” Meeks recalls his clients sharing with him.

    The negative experiences his clients have had is one reason why Meeks has been intentional about creating an environment, complete with comfortable couches, and a movie-sized projector screen in the middle of the shop to enhance the client experience.

    “They would be so comfortable they wanted to stick around. This is why I made the environment like this so people can hang when they’re done getting their haircut,” said Meeks. “It reminds you of the old barbershops where guys used to actually come and play checkers and hang and talk shit. Now we have a place where we can do that here. People always tell me they’re so grateful that they have a place to come where they can talk about Britney Spears or Wendy Williams,” he said.

    ‘It’s not just about our craft, it’s about our lives.’

    Elijah Sanders, 25, an Atlanta transplant from Minnesota, has been cutting hair for three years and is a new addition to the team of professional barbers at The Grain. Sanders tells The Reckoning that his experience as a client and in some cases as a gay barber has been less than pleasant.

    “The experience that I’ve had in the barbershop has been this underlying, unwelcoming thing,” he said. “I could feel the tension when other LGBTQ people would come in, and they’re nervous to talk to somebody, or they get overlooked. We’re not ‘finna’ play that. At the end of the day, if the whole shop is not a safe space for you, know that my chair is a safe space,” said Sanders.

    “When I was hiring people to work here, I was really intentional about having good human beings here so we wouldn’t have conflict at all,” said Meeks. “ It was a lot of people that were really skilled, with resumes, that I could tell would be really uncomfortable with the environment we have…and I was like, cool, well this isn’t for you then,” he said.

    “Perry is very selective about who comes in here, the energy, the space, so I’m very appreciative that he picked me,” said Sanders, who is now in his fifth month as a barber at The Grain.

    “This is not just a shop where we come and make money. We’re learning a lot about life here and we’re here to encourage each other,” said Meeks. “ It’s not just about our craft, it’s about our lives. We spend more time here than we do at home...sometimes 12, 14 hours a day. It’s so important to like who you’re around. We don’t come to work to make friends, but you’re spending your life at work. It’s important for me that people have a sense of home here,” he said.

    It’s one reason why Gee Smalls, co-owner of Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar and The Gentlemen's Foundation, who was in Meeks’ chair at the same time as he spoke to The Reckoning, says he’s a client.

    Perry is a friend, and he’s a Black business owner, so I try to support Black businesses as much as I can. I don’t go to the barbershop much, but this is a place that I feel comfortable coming into,” said Smalls. “ And I did have the experience in a barbershop where I was afraid to go. Not only because I was not as masculine as the other people in the shop, but also because I was half white and half Black, so my hair was always different in the barbershop.”

    Smalls also tells The Reckoning that he was motivated to cut his own hair in high school because of the negative experiences he had inside of Black barbershops, which he says makes a shop like The Grain that much more important.

    “It’s surprising that it’s taken so long to have a space like this, which makes us appreciate it even more. It’s also a nice space, it’s a professional space, the energy in the room is loving, accepting, and affirming, which is most important. You can go into a lot of barbershops in and outside of Atlanta as a Black LGBTQ person, and while they may tolerate you, they don’t affirm who you are. So you can’t completely rest in yourself. This place provides that,” said Smalls.

    [​IMG]
    The barbershop lounge area

    “I don’t consider myself a trailblazer, but some people have said it,” said Meeks, who has been blazing a path of visibility for others to follow in Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ community and on national television through his appearance on the former BET reality show “INK, PAPER, SCISSOR$,” where he revealed his sexual orientation to his late mother.

    “I have to talk to my clients that are still closeted. They share a lot of fear,” said Meeks.

    I actually posted something on my social media the other day that said, “F**k what everybody else thinks. Life is too short. Live your life, and whoever loves you will catch up,” he said.

    Meeks says Atlanta is where he became a man.

    “Being away from home, being away from your safety net, I didn’t realize how coddled I was. I didn’t realize how much more growth that I needed to become a man. I always tell people that I grew up here.”

    And now he’s providing his shop as a service to beautify the exterior of Black gay men across the city while simultaneously working towards providing a blueprint for his clients to live their best lives, one haircut at a time.

    The House of Perry: How an Atlanta barbershop serving LGBTQ+ clientele is changing the game — The Reckoning
     
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