Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Boys in the barbershop

Having been single for all of this decade, my closest and most enduring relationships with other men have been with my barbers. This is not uncommon, as there are few platonic relationships more intimate than between a man and the man who makes him feel his most handsome.

The bond contains a physical and emotional closeness that can trigger closeted gay men like one of my childhood friends whose overcompensation is painful to witness. He recently made a belligerent social media post about how he cuts his own hair because he doesn’t want another man’s dick rubbing on his arm, and had I been in one of my trolling moods, I would’ve asked, “But in your mouth is OK?”

Despite my friend’s lack of self-awareness, he’s right in recognizing the unique nature of barbershops, which, if not fully homoerotic, provide an environment where some of the rules that restrict the way men are supposed to interact with other men are ignored or temporarily suspended. Perhaps that’s why there’s typically a surplus of alpha male energy in barbershops, where everyone is the coolest version of themselves, and an expert on whatever sport, god or type of pussy is being debated.

The very act of barbering flaunts the general prohibition against a man recognizing another man’s attractiveness. Getting my hair cut, I see men arriving to other barbers’ chairs, and whether the customers are refined pretty boys or scraggily street trade, I watch the barbers assess how to bring these men’s best appearance to the surface, how to make them their sexiest and most desirable.

The barbers’ evaluations of before-and-after beauty are done silently, of course, and it feels like we’ve all agreed to not notice this part of their craft. The straight men getting their hair cut play along, most pretending like they’re ever aware of how eminently sexy and desirable they are; but if they looked beyond themselves, they might see how barbers are able to extract handsomeness from the most parched sources.

In all my years of getting haircuts, I’ve felt a barber’s penis press against my arm no more than twice, although my biceps are braced to savor that contact should it ever happen again. Until then, I’m content with the benign touching that goes on throughout the entirety of a haircut: my barber’s calloused fingers gripping my chin, the torque of my neck as he guides my head in every direction, how he stretches my lips to get the most precise trim of my mustache.

I experience this tenderness despite my barber being a heavy-handed construction worker who takes shots while cutting my hair, and on several occasions I’ve considered finding a new barber due to his tipsy abrasiveness. But I absolutely adore the barber stationed two chairs down from mine, and any nick my ear of neck have suffered are worth those moments when my barber twists my chair into a position where I’m able to stare at my crush through the safety and discretion of several sets of mirrors.

The end of a barber-client relationship is when its intimacy is most exposed, with both parties experiencing feelings akin to a breakup. Plenty of men will admit to feeling unfaithful when getting their hair cut by someone other than their regular barber, and it’s always uncomfortable when a man runs into his former barber for the first time post-breakup, when they both recognize someone else is making the man feel pretty now.