From Burnout to Butch Cut

Hank started Butch Cut 3 years ago, which is a sustainable community-building Berlin-based art project providing a safer space for trans and non-binary people to get haircuts, massages, and talk about mental health. Zoë from Anxiety Empire popped in for a haircut, and a chat.

Hey Hank, tell us about Butch Cut ... what is it and how did it begin?

That’s a big question! Butch Cut functions as a barber shop, but it’s also a lot more than that as there are a lot of different layers to the project...

Okay, let’s begin at the beginning. Where did it begin?

I had a mental health crisis, which was something between a burnout and depression. It was really a life crisis, and a very long-announced one as I had been trying to avoid it for a long time. I was working through all the self-care strategies that I thought might work... but none of them worked, so finally I gave up, and just broke down.

I had the breakdown in London, and after it happened I came back to Berlin. I didn’t want to come back - I had already lived here for 20 years before moving to London - but I came back because I couldn’t see a way of being able to survive and function in London, which is a much more demanding place than Berlin. So I came back to this city where I had a network and a lot of friends, and people started calling and asking me to cut their hair because that’s what I had been doing occasionally for a few friends. It was very casual, not commercial at all, and I didn’t charge any money for those haircuts. But then those people each recommended me to two other people, so suddenly I’m flooded with requests from people I’d never met before.

I’m from an activist background, so I’m in the habit of trading skills with other people, and I was familiar with ‘alternative spaces’ where people can just be, and relax, and where you don’t need to spend money and can just hang out, and whoever walks through the door is accepted with hopefully less judgement than in other places. And so it was with that background that I started giving haircuts to these people who weren’t my friends. And because I had a depression I started talking about how I was feeling... actually I kept thinking I should shut up, because I was so used to not talking about my feelings and I was embarrassed to tell people how I was feeling. But, to my surprise, people didn’t mind at all. In fact they started telling me how they were, and what was going on for them in their lives. And by the end of the haircut interestingly we both felt better. So it was like a one on one self-help group situation. That continued for a few months or so and I started to feel better. And I realised that actually it was something for which there is a big demand, and need, for. I think everyone needs it, but it’s especially needed for trans and nonbinary and queer people as there aren’t really spaces where we can just relax and be ourselves and just trust that other people are not going to say something invasive, intrusive, aggressive or make an intentionally - or unintentionally - hurtful remark. So i just realised there is a demand for spaces where people can feel safe, and then I realised i had been working with something I call ‘radical vulnerability’ which is a concept of where - instead of trying to be ‘cool’ and not show your feelings - you radically do the opposite. This was a scary thing for me to do, as I’m a butch lesbian, so I always identified as someone who is very capable at dealing with a whole bunch of crap.

You felt you had to be strong? Actually, ‘strong’ is a terrible choice of word, I’d like to take that word back...

No, ‘strong’ is a really good word actually - because it’s exactly the axis around which this thought process was turning. Because what is ‘strong’? A lot of people, especially men, are expected to behave in a certain way which is harmful to them and others, because we live in a capitalist patriarchal society. And, in a way, butch lesbians are sometimes on a similar train. Basically this idea of ‘masculinity’ in our society isn’t to do with men, but to do with domination and a societal structure built for domination, and most men simply learn to become that.

I would love if the whole world could talk about their feelings, but my mission is to provide a safe space for butch, trans and nonbinary identified queer people because a lot of these people have mental health issues - just like any other part of society - but thats who I can relate to most because I’m part of that community. I think if everyone did something positive within their social group, or within their arms reach, then the world would be a better place.

Absolutely. And this world desperately needs to become a better place.

In capitalist societies people are under enormous pressure to be productive all the time. And so when we have phases where we cant be as productive or as creative as is demanded, then we think there is something wrong with us. This denies the nature of humans, the nature of life, and actually the nature of nature - even nature has productive cycles, and recovery cycles. And as humans we are perpetually going against our own nature, which is why we get a lot of weird diseases - because we are not listening to ourselves and we are not treating ourselves well. And this has been going on for generations. Capitalism began around mid 17th century, so that’s about 370 years, which is around 12 generations of capitalism. And I would say we have 3 generations of advanced capitalism.... we are going slightly off topic....

But it is an important topic because living in a capitalist society has such a large effect on our mental health...

Since the first world war, humans have been thought of as objects on a different level than ever before - I’m not trying to neglect slavery and such things - but the functionality of humans is now measured against machines, and so we are trying to keep up with machine, which is quite unhealthy... which is quite the understatement.

So is feeling this pressure to be productive, is that what lead to your own mental health crisis?

It was a part of it, and I would say a lot of people have crisis because of this pressure. In my particular case it was also to do with growing up in a dysfunctional family which adds extra layers of not being able to cope with certain things, because I didn’t learn how to deal with them... but also being queer. So there you have the deadly triangle which would break anyone’s back! And so the good thing about having a breakdown was that when things are broken we can start to mend them. So I could look at the pieces and see that I had to try a new approach - which is a gift. It’s a wonderful thing to get that chance.

Wonderful - but scary too, isn’t it?

Yes it’s terrifying. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought I was going crazy. I thought I could never work again. I was in a very dark place, and not very well. But I say it was a gift because some people have similar breakdowns but they develop terminal illnesses or have an accident, so I’m really lucky that I had the chance to build myself up again from that. So I think that is a great thing.

And it sounds like Butch Cut was a big part of that building yourself up again, in being able to talk about how you were feeling. That’s not something you get to do in your average hairdressers...

When people come for the first time, I have an hour and half of alone-time with them, as I want to give people the time and attention they need. I use that time to build a connection, but I also use it to talk about mental health and self-care. A lot of people do start to cry in the chair, because it’s so emotionally moving for them to feel respected and accepted as they are. When I look at them in the mirror, and see them as they would like to see themselves - and then try to give them the haircut they want - and it’s a very powerful and empowering situation, and I really enjoy being able to give that to people.

It’s heart-breaking to hear that this experience of feeling respected, and accepted, is so uncommon for so many people.

Whoever is cutting our hair has power over how we’re going to look for the next 4 weeks, and that can feel threatening, and very scary. So most of the queer people who’ve come to me for a haircut told me they hadn’t been to a hairdresser in 6 or 7 years. A lot of the people are traumatised from going to a hairdresser, because they didn’t get the cut they wanted and often they felt mutilated by the hairdresser. Sometimes this is in a passive aggressive, sometimes in an openly aggressive way. Some people feel they’ve intentionally been given a bad haircut so that they won’t go back there. People have been told “No, I won’t cut your hair short because you’re a woman” or “I’m not going to cut your hair, because this is a barbershop and it’s only for men”. I’ve heard so many stories and felt shocked that people had these experiences.

It is unusual for queer people to be treated like a person, to be listened to, and to get what we want. Because we are so often told “No, you can’t do that”, “You can’t have that”, “You’re perverse”, “You’re weird”, “You’re out of the norm”, “No you’re a boy”, “No, you’re a girl”. These things become so ingrained in us, so sunk into our being on such a deep level, that a lot of people end up being silent, and don’t ask for what they want any more. They stop wanting.

I’d never really recognised this pain within myself. I’ve always felt different, and feel an outsider in most social situations, but I always attributed this to me being ‘weird’ or ‘different’, but never made the connection that it could have to do with being non-binary and gay growing up in a hetero dominated society, and that this feeling was imposed on me by others. I always felt it came from a feeling inside of me… so it’s really interesting for me to make that connection that it may come from outside of me, thank you.

I think that in a capitalist society things have to be normative to a certain extent. Only if there there are specific categories, can you control the ‘different’. The problem is if you have a category, then people can also fall out of that category - and then if you don’t fit in another category then you’re screwed. So if you live in a binary system like our logocentric western capitalist society, and you fall outside of the categories, then you are an un-being. And people can’t relate to you, and that creates in the other person (the one who is supposedly in the norm) a strong reaction which is often one of rejection or anger, or disgust. Our society creates these structures of belonging - we, us, they, them - and then excludes everyone who falls outside of the category, creating a stronger bond between the people who are inside the category. These categories work as a tool to dominate people, to rule people, and to pit people against each other. And it’s one of the reasons why a lot of queer people feel a lot of aggression towards them.

That aggression sometimes gets reduced to ‘homophobia’ or ‘transphobia’ or another ‘phobia’, but it’s not as simple as that is it?

It’s not always direct homophobia I think. When I was about 25 I realised people weren’t necessarily homophobic towards me, but they were afraid of me - because I didn’t fit into a category. They thought I was in one category, but when I got closer they realised I was in another category. And for people who think in categories, this freaks the hell out of them. And their reactions are usually anger or aggression. So I have to deal with their anger because I involuntarily triggered their insecurity. And this is not just true for queer people - you can be black and have white people react like that, or have a disability, or whatever else - when people can’t place you then they freak out. Ideally people would simply be interested in this new person, but most of the time that doesn’t happen.

Butch Cut hold events to bring people together - events like craft afternoons and clothes swaps - can you share a bit about why the events are important to you?

The Butch Cut social events are interesting as they are intergenerational. There are older lesbians sitting next to very young queers, and although they may use totally different terminologies, they love or respect each other anyway, and it’s kind of special. I really feel that intergenerational communication is lacking in our communities, and a lot of misunderstanding arises from that. And each generation has a lot to offer the next, so it’s important to have the input from the older queers. Like the leaves that fall from the trees, which nourish the earth, and help the tree to grow again. Nowadays all the leaves in the city get raked away, and so you have to wonder whether the trees are getting enough nourishment. This is a bit like the queer scene in Berlin - every 6 years or so there is a cut between one generation of queers and the next. But at the Butch Cut events people sit together and realise “Oh, you’re not a trans hating feminist just because you’re over forty. You’re actually pretty cool.” People over a certain age are in such a different political mind-frame that they often just don’t understand what is going on with the younger kids and can feel very disrespected by it. For example, lesbians over fifty fought for 30 years for women-only spaces, and for them ‘women-only’ often means people who were born ‘female’ and not trans women. And it was important at the time to have such spaces... but now it is unacceptable. So it’s very difficult to bridge those different opinions. We need to respect each other. We need more communication, so thats what I’m trying to do with Butch Cut.

That feels really important, for this section of society and society at large.

Im in a moment of being kind to myself, and learning to love myself, in order to be able to be kind and gentle with other people so we can find a basis for communication. Only then we can have proper discussions about what I think, and about what you think. Right now so many people are terribly hurt and traumatised so they cant even have a normal discussion, because people are angry and don’t want to listen. And that’s not a good basis for building community and coming together. The community has to be on a basis of trust and respect, and that has to start with myself. If I don’t respect myself then I cant respect other people. It’s very basic.

It sounds basic. But I think most people - myself included - find that process of loving and respecting ourselves quite difficult, and something which takes time. Do you actively practise self-care?

Doing Butch Cut I need at least 2 full days of self-care each week to recharge my batteries, so that I can be present with the people and give them all my energy. And this means that I purposefully have a limited amount of haircut appointments each week, as I can’t deal with more than that and remain present.

And your haircuts are paid for on a donation basis aren’t they?

Yes, I do it on a solidarity based sliding scale, so I trust that people can think for themselves, be honest, and want this project to continue to exist. If people ask me how much they should pay I suggest giving around a certain amount, but usually I try not to say anything and let people figure it out for themselves - most people are very generous and caring - and if they value the project they usually donate more than they would usually pay for a haircut elsewhere.  

If you pay €100 to visit a fancy hairdresser they will probably be friendly and respectful towards you. But a lot of people from the queer community, especially trans and non-binary people, have low income and so it is out of reach for them to pay for self-care. Everyday wellness areas, such as swimming pools which usually only have ‘male’ and ‘female’ changing rooms, saunas, massage places where people aren’t trained how to be respectful of scars, nail parlours, barber shops... they often exclude trans, queer or non-binary people. For example, more often that not, trans women get a friend to do their nails at home because its too uncomfortable for them to walk into a nail bar where they may get laughed at, or stared at, or ridiculed.

Hopefully in the future all hairdressers and self-care places will be trans and non-binary inclusive and be safe places for everyone, but that’s not what the situation is right now.

What are your future plans for Butch Cut?

As an experiment Butch Cut has been a great success, and I’m excited to see, in the future, if it translates into something more long-term, or if that’s even necessary. But I think it is necessary, as people need it. So I’m thinking about how to continue the project and keep it sustainable. There has been an explosion in the prices of rent in Berlin, so if I wanted to look for a bigger space which is appropriate for the demand, and employ a couple of coworkers, then pretty quickly I would have to come up with a very different concept.

I think that this project can have a much bigger impact than just the work that I’m doing - it’s also about people realising what they can have, and then demanding it. I think it is furthering social change to just treat people like humans, and then they won’t want to be subhumans after.

Hank, you rock. We need more people like you. Big love. Anyone in Berlin who fancies a cut and chat about mental health at Butch Cut, go make an appointment via facebook.com/butchcutberlin/