For the past week, I’ve been living in a Chinese Hairstyling Academy. The students here are overwhelmingly male, impeccably dressed, and sport modern hairdos with exotic perms and colorations. At night, they sleep 6 guys to a room, and during the day, they sit in class, mastering the technique and theory behind hairstyling and design. I know what many of you are thinking….I must be the only straight guy for miles.
Throughout my longitudinal study of the Chinese hairstyling industry, I’ve had frequent inquiries, from Western friends, about the prevalence and connotations of homosexuality in the industry. And from all indications, my hunch is that it’s miniscule.
Generally speaking, Chinese small town folk are not affront to accepting or discussing the idea of homosexuality. In a society in which children are your social security, homosexuality (or more specifically a failure to procreate) represents a potential breakdown of the system, especially with most families having only one child. Unlike in the West, Chinese traditional opposition to homosexuality is not rooted in any form of biblical prohibition. But rather, it’s seen as deviant in the sense that it uproots the ancient social order which has underbellied civilization for thousands of years.
This is not to say that there are no gay men in China, nor does one not encounter what we would consider “flamboyant” Chinese men. They just don’t tend to gravitate towards the hairstyling industry. In the West, upscale hairstyling provides a safe haven of sorts for gay men. It’s an industry in which homosexuality among men is presumed to be the default, and it plays on our stereotypes of gay men’s heightened sense of fashion. This is not the case in China, or if it is, I have been oblivious to it. No doubt there are gay men (and women) in the industry, but my best estimate is that the proportion is no higher than the national average, and likely lower.
As Westerners, we tend to associate hairstyling with homosexuality. The thinking goes, “Those guys are way too fashionable, they know too much about hair and style, they must be gay.” In China however, it’s the opposite. Fashionable Chinese male hairstylists are often assumed to be philandering womanizers, who use their looks and fashion as a means to pick up on female customers–a stereotype which has little corroboration from my fieldwork. The barbershop itself is often a locus for hyper-masculine one-upmanship, with occasional boasting of outings with prostitutes, and gay jokes. In short, the hair salon does not provide any form of safe haven for homosexuality in China. For those who are gay, my guess is that this had no influence on their decision to enter the hairstyling industry. In all likelihood any gay workers in the industry would most likely remain in the closet, to both colleagues and clients, if not to themselves.