The buzzing sound of clippers fills a small barbershop tucked away at Salon Plaza off Galleria Blvd. in Charlotte. Owners Alicia Phillips, who goes by Brown, and Sakinah Dunlap are all smiles and laughter behind their masks. These two women know how to make you feel at home.
Brown and Dunlap met in barber school a few years ago and have worked together ever since. Brown had a plan for opening an all-girl shop, and the two knew they wanted to focus on building an LGBTQ-friendly space together. “When I started barbering, I saw it was all dominated by men,” she says.
They noticed how LGBTQ people felt the need to be guarded at mainstream places. Clients that they saw at their previous shop are completely different in Doyenne, the space they opened on Feb. 15. The name means “a woman who is the most respected or prominent person in a particular field.”
Empowering other women of color and LGBTQ people has always been a goal for Brown. “Seeing another woman succeed and do well, that’s everything to me, especially if you are part of the LGBTQ+,” she says. “I just want everyone to know you can do the same thing. Men don’t have to dominate everything.”
Opening a month before COVID-19 was a challenge and brought many businesses like theirs to a halt. The first presumptive positive result for the novel coronavirus in North Carolina was on March 3. “Stay-at-home” orders and temporary closures soon followed. Barbershops were not able to reopen until May 22, when Gov. Roy Cooper moved the state into Phase Two of his plan to loosen coronavirus restrictions. The “safer at home” recommendation allowed restaurants, salons and swimming pools to reopen at 50 percent capacity.
LGBTQ-serving businesses like Doyenne which provide safe and affirming places, sometimes the only ones an LGBTQ person can find in a city, have faced significant challenges this year. Data from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and PSB Research found that 30 percent of LGBTQ have had their work hours reduced, compared to 22 percent of the general population and that 59 percent have spent less as a result of COVID-19.
People of color have also faced additional challenges. According to a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Black applicants who applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans were treated poorly or unfairly compared to their white counterparts. Dunlap says they did apply for the loan program but did not have the business history to qualify.
A client told them about a grant opportunity. The “Queer to Stay: An LGBTQ+ Business Preservation Initiative” launched on July 30 and eligible businesses had to apply by Aug. 14. Dunlap says it was only a matter of weeks before they received the good news. Doyenne was one of 10 businesses that received funding through the initiative aimed at supporting and preserving businesses that serve the LGBTQ community with a focus on LGBTQ people of color, women and the transgender community.
According to a recent press release, “We must preserve affirming, welcoming community spaces for LGBTQ+ people — including young people who may not have supportive families or communities at home,” said HRC President Alphonso David. Doyenne is an LGBTQ- and Black-owned barbershop “that serves as a home for LGBTQ+ people to feel welcome, comfortable and safe,” stated the press release.
The fund, which is not a loan, is a partnership between HRC and SHOWTIME. HRC would not disclose the financial amount provided to each business but did confirm via email that each business received an equal amount, and the funds were disbursed on Sept. 23.
Other awardees of “Queer to Stay” include: Alibi Lounge in New York; Amplio Fitness in Rocky River, Ohio; Salon Benders in Long Beach, Calif.; Blush & Blu in Denver, Colo.; El Rio in San Francisco, Calif.; Freed Bodyworks in Washington, D.C.; Herz in Mobile, Ala.; My Sister’s Room in Atlanta, Ga.; and Pearl Bar in Houston, Texas.
We Welcome Everyone
Dunlap grew up in West Charlotte and remembers the community being close knit, despite being a place where it did not always feel safe to be a lesbian. She only came out a few years ago. “This is me. Love me, or I’m okay with you going,” she says. She hopes that Doyenne provides that same level of comfort and safeness for other LGBTQ people. “I just want people to feel the way I felt when I finally said this is me. We just become a big family.”
Places like Doyenne mean that we have a voice, according to Brown. “You can’t take what I build from me,” she says. “Being here, that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to make you laugh, have a good time, make you feel like family.” The two even take trips to a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina with some of their clients. “I don’t want it to be just another barbershop,” says Dunlap. “We welcome you to be our family.”
Since both the enactment of HB2 in North Carolina and the election of President Trump in 2016, LGBTQ people in Charlotte have faced a heightened fear of hate and discrimination. The Charlotte Observer reported in 2016, that “public records and interviews across the state suggest that targeting of LGBTQ residents is so commonplace that many take it for granted as a sad — and sometimes dangerous — fact of their lives.” A partial repeal of HB2 was passed by the N.C. legislature in 2017.
“It’s big to have a safe haven,” adds Dunlap. “It’s hard being LGBTQ+ and being a person of color. It’s just so hard.” She says the conversation gives her chills thinking about the impact that hate has on people. “I just want to live my life and be happy the same way you do,” she adds.
Brown grew up in in a church family in Norfolk, Va. and remembers how hard it was being LGBTQ. “I didn’t really open up until I moved here,” she says. “Coming here, I saw a lot of us making it and building something.”
“It means the world to us knowing that two African-American women who are strong, well-educated, openly a part of the LGBTQ+ community opened a business, started a brand and made it through a pandemic,” they say in the HRC press release.
Business has been picking up slowly since Doyenne was able to reopen and the grant was a needed boost. Now, they are planning for a bright future. They hope to make the Doyenne brand bigger through merchandising and involvement in the community after the pandemic.
“This is my purpose,” says Dunlap. “It’s like, growing up, maybe if I had that space how would I have turned out years ago. Would it have took me so long, or would I have tried to hide it for so long? We welcome everyone. I don’t care if you’re purple — I don’t care if you’ve got a green dog, we’re just going to love you.”