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Trans Clippers Project Gives People A Chance To Reclaim Their Gender Expression During The Pandemic03:34
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Neighbor Lauren Keisling trims the hair of Ryley Copans in their backyard with a brand new pair of clippers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Neighbor Lauren Keisling trims the hair of Ryley Copans in their backyard with a brand new pair of clippers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At a time when clippers are scarce, there’s an effort underway to get them in the hands of transgender people to help them maintain their gender identity.

The Trans Clippers Project just made its first set of deliveries around Boston thanks to community fundraising and local volunteers.

Grace Walker, who's the Massachusetts coordinator for the project, leads the local team. The national group is now in the midst of fundraising to order another batch of clippers. Organizers say the project has spread to 18 states with a spin-off starting up in Toronto.

This month, Walker, along with other volunteers, personally delivered nearly 20 brand new hair clippers to trans folks in the community. She included information about food pantries and online support groups, along with a handwritten note of encouragement.

“It's a little care package and each one has their name that I ironed on to there," Walker said. "I want everyone to feel that they are cared for and that they're not alone.”

Neighbor Lauren Keisling trims the hair of Ryley Copans in their backyard with a brand new pair of clippers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Neighbor Lauren Keisling trims the hair of Ryley Copans in their backyard with a brand new pair of clippers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

During one delivery, a person didn’t want to show their hair because it made them so uncomfortable. Walker's third delivery one day took her to Roslindale. She had a bag  marked “Ryley.” It’s made the recipient, a non-binary transgender person, emotional.

‘That has my name on it. Like my real name," said Ryley Copans. "And I changed my name like six, seven years ago now. But seeing a perfect stranger using that, and they only know me that way..."

In an earlier conversation, Copans, who goes by the pronouns they/them, admitted that they were willing to risk their life for a haircut. Time was passing by in quarantine and their hair was growing long. They were starting to skip showers to avoid seeing their body and found themselves getting increasingly depressed.

“For a lot of trans folks, we experience dysphoria, which for folks who don't know is a word that means a very strong of strong, deep discomfort with either parts of our body, and/or parts of our appearance that align with the sex that we were assigned at birth," Copans said.

Copans connected with Walker through a grassroots effort out of New Orleans and founded by the organization Imagine Water Works. Co-founder of the group Klie Kliebert said not passing can put trans people in danger, and even a haircut can make them vulnerable to COVID-19.

“If they can feel a little more comfortable in their bodies and maybe even continue to present closer to what feels good to them," Kliebert said, "then they're also either less likely to be misgendered in the first place, or can at least have that solace that comes with knowing that you feel good in your body, even if you're not necessarily being seen that moment."

Ari Gabrek was the first person to receive a set of clippers. They had contacted an online forum looking for someone to give them a haircut. People argued with them and tried to dissuade them from cutting their hair, but Gabrek said their hair was nearly to their shoulders and they had started to feel depressed. The clippers offered freedom.

"I had just gotten a chest binder earlier in the year and my physical appearance had, over the last few months, started to finally get conformed to what I wanted," Gabrek said. "And the haircut was something that was important because I've been being misgendered now for months since I moved back down to New Orleans."

They said just remembered what it felt like to cut their hair, made them cry. The emotion was so strong, like a pure sense of elation or euphoria.

Neighbor Lauren Keisling trims the hair of Ryley Copans in their backyard with a brand new pair of clippers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Neighbor Lauren Keisling trims the hair of Ryley Copans in their backyard with a brand new pair of clippers. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"I was to the point if Klie wouldn't have stepped in and offered to do the Clippers Project, I was about to leap in to ask somebody to come over to cut my hair," Gabrek said. "My gender expression is a portion of my mental health...it [made] it so that it's difficult to kind of function on a day-to-day basis because when I [would] first wake up in the morning, I [was] presented with something that looks like a girl and I'm not a girl."

In Copan's backyard, their neighbor Lauren Keisling did the honors. Keisling’s only experience is shaving her own head, but she felt confident with clippers. They set up a chair under the afternoon sun, each donned a face mask, and they used an extension cord to plug in the clippers.

“OK, ready? Alright. If at any point I get you or make you uncomfortable, let me know,” Keisling said as she turned on the clippers.

“I trust you,” Copans replied.

“I'm just taking words that I've heard from my hairstylist," Keisling said, laughing. "I'm like, what are you supposed to say?”

It went by quicker than either expected and Copan’s relief was palpable. At a moment when Copan’s looking for work and applying for food stamps, their hair is one thing they can control.

One of Ryley Copans many tattoos, this one is a quote from the Andrea Gibson poem, “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out.” (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
One of Ryley Copans many tattoos, this one is a quote from the Andrea Gibson poem, “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out.” (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

They compared the haircut to the first shower after they received top surgery or getting a tattoo. Copans has 13 tattoos. One is a quote on their forearm from a favorite poet and spoken word artist named Andrea Gibson.  It says "Flying is not pushing away the ground."

A haircut brings comfort when everything else feels out of their hands.

“This is exactly how it's supposed to be," Copans said. "This is how it's always supposed to be.”

This segment aired on May 29, 2020.

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Cristela Guerra Twitter Reporter
Cristela Guerra is an arts and culture reporter for The ARTery.

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