From curly to coily, straight to wavy, the differences in our hair stem from the beautiful diversity of races and ethnicities throughout the world. Add on the element of queerness, and you open up a door to millions of established, trending, and brand-new hairstyles like mullets, blunt bangs, wolf cuts, and so much more that rise to popularity each year. As the daughter of white and Black Puerto Rican parents, no one knows this better than Jessie Santiago, the queer Afro-Latina founder and owner of the Los Angeles-based hair salon, Salon Benders, where she also works as a hairstylist and colorist. Founded in 2018, her salon rebels against decades of homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, white supremacy, misogyny, and European beauty standards for straight hair in the hair industry through services geared toward LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities. By offering trauma-informed and inclusive cut, color, and wellness services, continuously vetting hair stylists employed at the salon, and even recycling 99 percent of their used hair color and chemical toxins to become a fully sustainable space, it’s not only a beauty project; it’s an ongoing act of activism and resistance.
“Hair is healing already but this is a whole new level of healing. [Salon Benders] has become a safe sanctuary for queer people to just come and be themselves when sometimes they can’t be themselves anywhere else. When you get to have your haircut in a community with people who understand your lifestyle, it’s going to be a better haircut,” Santiago tells HipLatina. “You’re going to leave feeling more like yourself Because during the whole entire process, when you’re saying, ‘This is what I want, this is how I feel, this is who I am,’ the person on the other end can identify with those things. We can hear that and can create these looks for people while having the nuance of who they are and translate it in a way that I feel a lot of traditional hair salons can’t. It’s a completely different way of doing hair.”
Over the past six years, she has also made it her top priority that no hair texture or desired haircut is turned away at her salon in order to combat anti-Blackness and white supremacy that has become frighteningly normalized in the industry. Especially as someone who has struggled with accepting, celebrating, and taking care of her curly hair throughout her life. Growing up, though her mom didn’t encourage her and her sister to straighten their curls, no one knew what to do with it either since her dad, who shared a similar hair texture, wasn’t around. This led to many years of blow drying, pulling, tugging, rubber bands, and ponytails, and it only got worse when she moved to Virginia with her family after her parents’ divorce.
“I was raised around very, very, very white people and was encouraged to assimilate,” she explains. “My sister and I grew up desperately straightening our hair and ironing our hair and putting chemicals on our hair, and doing everything that we possibly could to look and feel and be as culturally white as possible. Because when I wore my hair straight, people complimented me. People said, ‘Your hair’s so pretty,’ or ‘You look so good with straight hair.’ I was treated better, I wasn’t made fun of, I wasn’t bullied anymore, and over the course of your young life, it changes a person. It changed me.”
But perhaps one good thing it unlocked inside of her from an early age was a love for dramatic hair experimentation and transformation. Being “raised by queer women,” including her lesbian biological mom and military stepmom who rocked butch pixie cuts and shaved hair, she was often given the responsibility of handling clippers and became used to doing DIY haircuts in the bathroom. Doing so allowed her to channel her struggles into a skill she could harness by the time she was 17 years old, working as a hairstylist by 19, and becoming fully licensed before turning 21.
“I understood ideas about beauty and power and makeup from a very young age. I loved being able to change your look and aesthetic however you wanted,” she says. “It was one of the only things that I felt like I excelled at.”
Still, it wasn’t until she moved to California in 2011 as an adult that she finally began unpacking the trauma she had endured throughout her childhood and the pain she felt toward her hair, which she was still straightening almost every day despite encouragement from friends to let out her natural texture. Even when she finally decided, “I’m not doing this anymore,” it turned out that was only the first step in a much longer hair-healing journey.
“I felt completely disassociated from myself, from my body, from my hair,” she says. “I felt like I was ugly. I felt like I was unkempt. I felt like I didn’t look professional. I felt like people were going to treat me differently. It took me at least a year or two to get my hair into optimal health, to be able to even curl again, and I’m still learning. But,” she adds, “I feel like I have become an expert and fallen in even deeper love with curly hair. Almost all of my clients have textured hair now because I have chosen to work with other people who have similar experiences to my own. And now I’m able to hold that space for other people who want to go through that journey, which has been incredibly healing and beautiful to watch.”
But just as it was a long journey to love her natural texture, it was also a long, uncertain road to opening the salon itself after two decades of working in the industry. She was an overworked, underpaid hairstylist in white affluent cities in Southern California where she couldn’t relate to anyone and where she felt like less of a person and more of a service. It was no wonder that she was experiencing a significant amount of burnout to the point that she considered leaving the hair world altogether.
Around this time, however, she met her partner Cal, a trans man whose “terrible” haircut was the first thing she noticed about him the first time they met. But because of the testosterone he was taking, he was also dealing with many aspects of life that trans people often battle with during transition like sensitive skin, cystic acne, changing hair patterns, and even struggling to grow or groom a beard. As she began recommending products and routines, he asked one question that couldn’t help but stick inside her mind: “Do you ever market to our community?”
“Cis people have the privilege of having our parents teach us how to shave, how to groom but he didn’t have that opportunity and most trans people don’t, so he wasn’t doing the things most of us are taught. Falling in love with him and seeing his experience was so eye-opening,” she explains. She wanted to cater to people like Cal whom the hair industry was overlooking and leaving out, despite, she notes, often taking inspiration from queer culture to kick off the next trending thing. But she was still reeling from the trauma of being rejected by her queer community years prior when she fell in love with a cis boy, despite identifying as a lesbian her whole life.
“I was completely iced out and friends that I’d had for decades stopped talking to me,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘If the queer community is this club of exclusive people that gatekeep, I don’t want to be a part of that.’ So I struggled with my own identity and community and where I fit in with the queer community for a really long time. When I met Cal, I didn’t even identify as a queer even though I had mostly dated in the queer community and that was most of my lived experience. So for Cal, it was a question of, ‘How can we heal? How can you heal?'”
Months of conversations led to her finally combatting her greatest fears and starting a queer, trans, and BIPOC-centered hair salon from the ground up, where she was the one and only hairstylist they could afford to have at the time. And almost as soon as she opened the doors, her chair was booked for nearly a year and half, demonstrating to her the need for safe spaces like these where hair textures of all kinds could be celebrated and haircuts provided regardless of gender identity or expression. In both the queer and BIPOC communities, she’s seen how traumatic it can be to receive a haircut only because it’ll keep you safe or your family happy, or it’s easier for you or the salon to “deal” with. This is all too common rather than experiencing a cut or style that is gender-aligning and texture-affirming, not to mention empowering and in many cases, the latter can be life-saving.
Today, Santiago runs her business with the help of four additional hair stylists who are continuously vetted and trained to maintain a safe, ethical space, offers equitably priced and accessible haircuts to marginalized communities facing financial hardship through their Give a Cut program, and maintains a loyal clientele from all over the country. They even offer wellness and energy work services like massages, therapy, and meditation, and community events like book club nights and other gatherings to create safe spaces for queer and BIPOC folks. In everything that they do, centering a queer and BIPOC clientele is an essential focal point of Salon Bender’s mission because of how much it’s needed and how much work there is left to be done. But for her, queer hair is more than a marketing tool or catchphrase; it’s a way of life that has brought healing to her community as much as to herself. She notes:
“Queer hair encompasses who I am just like my skin, just like my voice, and all of the other things that make me, me. That joy of who we are as queer people is resistance, it’s revolutionary because queer people, trans people, Black people are some of the most resilient people who exist. Even the existence of curly hair is an open resistance. So I look at the hair salon as a rebellious social justice movement in the form of joy, love, and beauty. it’s my favorite way to be an activist.”