Highlighting Humanity: Embracing Gender Diversity in Salons

Learn the harmful impact of discriminatory practices and receive actionable advice for embracing diversity, ensuring respect, and advocating for change. Learn about the legal and ethical responsibilities of salon professionals and discover best practices for promoting inclusivity in your salon, transforming it into a space where every client feels valued and respected.

A Case Study

In case you missed it, back in June of 2023, Christine Geiger, a salon owner in Traverse City, Michigan, decided to drop the following “hot take” via her salon’s Facebook page:

“If a human identifies as anything other than a man/woman please seek services at a local pet groomer. You are not welcome at this salon. Period. Should you request to have a particular pronoun used please note we may simply refer to you as ‘hey you.’”

One can assume she must have thought she was being very clever and very funny, but shortly after, three people filed certified complaints. Christine doubled-down, saying she “has no problems with the LGB. It’s the TQ+ that I’m not going to support,” she posted. “For those that don’t know what the + is for, it’s for MAP (Minor Attracted Person aka: pedophile).” 

The plus sign in the LGBTQ+ acronym is actually a placeholder for queer identities who don’t neatly fit into the acronym, but none of them are in any way holding space for child abusers. 

Christine defended her stance, saying small business owners should be able to serve whomever they wish. Given the timing, she was likely emboldened by the Supreme Court’s ruling involving 303 Creative, a web designer who refused to make wedding websites for same-sex couples, saying it would violate her sincerely held religious beliefs because, by doing so, she would be forced to express a message celebrating and promoting a conception of marriage that she believes is contrary to God’s design. 

The court held that a person’s First Amendment rights would be violated in situations where they are forced to express a message contrary to their religious beliefs. The court did not say that business owners may ignore state or federal anti-discrimination laws. The constitutional carveout applies only to expressive conduct: behavior designed to convey a message. (It’s also important to note that the case was based on a theoretical scenario; there were no actual aggrieved customers involved.)

As the news about Christine’s Facebook post spread—first in Traverse City community groups and then nationally—protesters stood outside the salon chanting and holding signs. The salon’s Google and Yelp pages were flooded with negative reviews. Christine’s distributor, Jack Winn Pro, revoked her authorization to represent their brand or sell their products

Jack Winn Pro strongly believes in and supports LGBTQ+ rights. We are committed to creating an inclusive, respectful environment for all – regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other characteristics that define who they are, the company posted. 

Apparently this free speech Christine did not like very much. She attempted to sue Traverse City and the three people who filed complaints (whom she accused of being “state actors”). 

After a brief attempt at turning her salon’s Facebook page into a “political memes page,” Christine made her business’ social media accounts private. Phone calls to the salon went straight to a voicemail box that was not accepting new messages. 

A business that chooses to sell to the public assumes a duty to serve the public without unjust discrimination.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor

Christine’s case against Traverse City and the alleged “state actors” was dismissed last week.

Today, we’re going to talk about freedom of speech, gender diversity, and how to navigate social shifts that might be a bit hard to adjust to if the only information you’re receiving is from biased partisan sources. Ultimately, this post aims to correct any misinformation you may have been exposed to. 

This article provides a basic overview explaining how gender differs from sex, why you should care, and how you can ensure your salon is an inclusive place of public accommodation.

What Freedom of Speech Is (and Isn’t)

The first and most important thing to know is that freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee you immunity from consequences. The First Amendment is why you can complain about your government without fear of secret police pulling up in a windowless van and snatching you up off the street. It’s why Congress can’t mandate church attendance. It’s why people like me can post things on the internet without running them past a government censorship board for approval first. It’s why people were allowed to pick up signs and protest outside Christine’s salon. It’s why Christine and others like her can petition the government when they feel it’s not acting in their best interests.

The First Amendment does not shield all forms of expression unconditionally.

The US has a high threshold for restricting speech, but certain categories of speech—direct threats, incitement, obscenity, and defamation—are subject to regulation. Christine Giger’s dehumanizing FB post is hate speech (“abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or similar grounds”), which is not constitutionally protected.

As a private citizen, there’s nothing stopping Christine from expressing her views, but she operates a business—a place of public accommodation—and she conveyed a discriminatory message through its social media profiles. 

Places of public accommodation (which Studio 8 most certainly is) are not allowed to discriminate against protected classes, as outlined in Title II of The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act is why you can’t ban Black or Hispanic clients. It’s why you can’t refuse services to Muslims, French people, or everyone presenting as male. Christine may not “want the woke dollar,” but if a business chooses to profit from the public market, which is established and maintained by the state, the state may require the business to abide by a legal norm of nondiscrimination.

Unfortunately, our federal government hasn’t yet included transgender people in these protections, but Christine’s state of Michigan sure has.

Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, and public services based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status. The Elliott-Larsen Act was amended in 2023 to add greater protections over sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, the legislation did not take effect until February 2024, long after Christine made a strong case for the amendment’s necessity.

Understanding Gender Identity

For the rest of this section, I’m going to assume that you (the reader) know almost nothing about the queer community. (If you already know these things, consider this a refresher.) Let’s get some foundational facts out of the way:

Biological sex and gender identity are not the same thing. 

Biological sex refers to chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia—features none of us chose but all of us are born with. Biological sex is typically binary—male (XY) or female (XX)—but exceptions do exist (we can leave that to the geneticists, all you need to know is that biological sex itself isn’t quite as binary as most people believe).

Gender identity is a complex and multifaceted concept relating to social roles and expectations surrounding the concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” within our culture. Over the years, society has come to recognize and acknowledge a spectrum of gender identities, each unique and valid in its own right. Regardless of your biological sex, your identity sits somewhere on this spectrum (masculine at one end, feminine on the other, and non-binary in the middle).

Many people are cisgender, meaning that they identify with the gender role associated with their biological sex, and they don’t feel caged by the expectations society imposes on people with their biological sex.

Transgender people, by contrast, do not feel their biological sex and gender roles are in alignment. (Yes, it really is that simple.) 

Traditional gender roles assert a heteronormative patriarchal system, where people must dress and behave a certain way based on their biological sex. These rules are messy, complicated, and constantly changing. However, we have been pushing against the borders of these restrictive boxes for decades. Katherine Hepburn offended and outraged the public by wearing pants (“the gateway drug to female perversion”) in the early 1930s. More recently, Billy Porter slayed in a tuxedo dress at the Oscars in 2019. We are no longer content to “push” these arbitrary and oppressive boundaries; we are dismantling them entirely.

Hepburn did a radical thing by refusing to wear dresses in the 1930s, when women were arrested for wearing pants in public and charged with “masquerading as men.” This fact—that women were arrested by police and sent to jail for wearing trousers—seems absolutely ludicrous to us now, as it should.

This is America, land of the free

If you genuinely believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression (as Christine claims to), you should also believe that people should be free to wear whatever clothing they want, just as they should be free to use whatever pronouns they want. 

At no point, in any of this, are you required to endorse pedophiles: literally nobody is doing that, and if they are, they should be reported to law enforcement immediately.

The patriarchal gender role system was designed to reinforce male dominance and control over women. These structured gender roles placed men in positions of authority and control in both the public and private spheres. Until the 19th century, laws reflected and enforced male dominance. Women were denied the right to own property, enter contracts, or vote. Women were socialized into submissive and nurturing subservient roles, denied opportunity and education, creating conditions that, in addition to forcing heterosexuality, were designed to keep them dependent on men, be it their fathers or husbands. 

This is our history, but these beliefs have no place in our modern society, especially in a country that values equality and freedom of expression as much as ours. Countries that weaponize the law against their citizens based on their biological sex are not nations where any American who values freedom of expression and personal autonomy would want to live.

So, to recap:

  • Forcing people to wear clothing based on their biological sex is silly.
  • Forcing people to adopt attitudes, values, and sexual preferences based on their biological sex is silly.
  • Forcing anyone to conform to a set of nebulous, arbitrary societal rules and expectations based on the biological sex they were assigned at the moment of conception is absolutely silly.

The problem we have as a country is that most people can clearly see the first two ideas as backward and archaic, but some—like Christine—are still struggling to grasp the third.

The Importance of Inclusivity in Salons

Beauty salons and barber shops have a long, rich history as inclusive community spaces where political discussion and grassroots organization happen. From the days of the Madam C. J. Walker Company, change has taken root in our chairs—the women’s liberation movement, the civil rights movement, and now, the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Beauty salons have played a huge but hidden role in shaping our society. 

Salon owners are community leaders, and we should not take that for granted.  

As beauty professionals, our entire business is about personal expression. People come to us because we can make their outer appearance consistent with their inner identity. This is the core of what we do. Personal expression is a fundamental aspect of individual autonomy, and infringing on that right of expression is at extreme odds with our core values of personal freedom and empowering individuality. 

Opposing anyone’s human right to be who they are runs counter to the fundamental ethos of our industry.

Salon owners have an ethical responsibility to create a welcoming environment for all. A discriminatory environment undermines public trust, but it’s also a betrayal. Christine and others like her reflect negatively on those of us who are working hard to ensure our profession is held in high esteem. (I hope I’m conveying exactly how disgusted I am—because I do take this personally, and so should you.)

Every human being who walks into your salon deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. This is what it means to be a professional

Salon owners who discriminate face a variety of very unpleasant legal consequences. For instance, Michigan salon owners who publicly share Christine’s sentiment would run afoul of the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Individuals who can prove they were discriminated against could file civil lawsuits, pulling the salon owner into lengthy and tremendously expensive proceedings that will certainly destroy the salon’s reputation and its budget. Federal agencies could step in and impose penalties or force the salon owner to take corrective actions.

Inclusivity Best Practices for Salon Owners

Alright, now we can talk about how you can create an inclusive salon that welcomes and supports everyone. 

Advertise inclusivity. When you’re part of a privileged class, it’s easy to overlook or underestimate the challenges and fears faced by those who routinely experience discrimination.  It can be incredibly difficult to fully grasp the depth and breadth of the obstacles and anxieties that individuals from discriminated-against groups endure daily. At this point in our nation’s development, it isn’t enough to silently consider your salon a safe space. 

Visible signage advertising inclusivity is a powerful statement of support and a commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment for all clients. 

Creating client-facing non-discrimination policies is a great start, but marginalized clients are more likely to notice overt invitations (a cute flag or a window cling, for instance). This signage significantly reduces the anxiety and hesitation a trans person might feel about entering a new space.

When possible, show inclusivity in your marketing materials too—and please don’t limit it to the performative song and dance every business does throughout the month of June.

Every month is Pride Month if you’re truly an inclusive business.

Eliminate sex-based pricing. If you haven’t done away with sex-based pricing ($15 for men, $50 for women), now is the time. 

While sex-based pricing isn’t universally illegal, in some states, general consumer protection or anti-discrimination statutes might be interpreted to cover gender-based pricing, particularly if such pricing can be demonstrated to be discriminatory without a basis in significant differences in the cost or delivery of the service. California passed the Gender Tax Repeal Act, which made it illegal to discriminate against customers based on their gender in terms of pricing. Businesses in California must provide a price list for services, and any price difference must be based on the amount of time, difficulty, or cost of providing the service, not the customer’s sex.

My colleague Jaime Schrabeck and I have advocated gender-neutral pricing for years. If you want to learn more about why, read this article Jaime wrote for Nailpro. (Both of our salons have gender-neutral pricing, so if you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments.)

Train your employees on LGBTQIA+ issues, terminology, and sensitivity. If you felt a twinge of discomfort at the thought of having to gather your employees to discuss how to treat queer people like human beings, that’s exactly why you need to do it.

In the US, a lot of trans people still feel uncomfortable coming out, for good reason. Transgender individuals face disproportionately high rates of violence compared to the cisgender population. In 2022, the U.S. Transgender Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 47% of transgender people have thought about moving to another state because their state government considered or passed laws that target them for unequal treatment.

In Conclusion

Change is hard. I’m from a small town populated almost entirely by sweet, church-going snowbirds and retirees, so I know how strange and overwhelming this can seem to people who don’t often interface with “the gays.” The concept of gender is so ingrained that seeing anyone subvert our expectations can be alarming at first. Hateful and false rhetoric amplifies the fear and confusion, encouraging our worst impulses.

It’s up to us to do better; nobody said it would be easy.

I understand that this can be hard, but do you know what I would argue is harder? Being the parent of a trans kid, having to worry about the Christines in this world, who are quick to categorize them as subhuman perverts and sexual deviants.

It’s easy to stay silent while people make racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, or transphobic remarks in our chairs or in the break room. It costs us nothing to be neutral, to save ourselves from ridicule or judgment, to protect our salons from becoming collateral damage in a perpetually aggrieved client’s quest to be Facebook Villain of the Day. As a salon owner, I get that. I truly do.

I’m asking you to do the hard thing anyway, because it’s the right thing to do, and now is the time to do it. Make an effort to learn. Maybe also take a second to recognize and respect your professional “ancestors,” who understood that our salons are sacred, intimate spaces where people from diverse backgrounds come together to share and exchange ideas. Catalyzing shifts in societal norms is an important part of our industry’s history and our role in American society. Our communities and our kids deserve nothing but the best from us.

Now is the time to start seeing other people as humans whose chromosomes don’t dictate who they are allowed to be. Appreciate the things that make us individuals. If your love for other people is conditional on them being the exact person you want them to be, figure out why that is. Genuinely try to understand your discomfort, preferably with help from some queer allies who are open to answering any questions you have. 

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about the history of the trans community in the beauty industry and how you can be a better ally, here are several links to get you started: 

The Salon Professional Academy – Gender Equality in the Beauty Industry
PBL Magazine – Why The Beauty Industry Needs To Do More For Trans And Non-Binary Clients
Salon Services Pro – How Are Salons Creating Safe Spaces?
Boulevard – The Ongoing Legacy of Trans Women in Beauty – Jody Suzanne Ford, trans Birmingham hairdresser shot to death in 1977, paved way for others to live unafraid


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