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How Big Bro’s Barbershop creates trans-friendly space in its salon

With a new street-front shop in East Vancouver and a business award under his belt, Jessie Anderson makes strides

“I wanted to make some sort of concrete place where trans people knew their wellness was being prioritized,” says Jessie Anderson, who founded and owns Big Bro’s Barbershop in East Vancouver.

Before opening his barbershop in 2015, Anderson learned the retail ropes at Little Sister’s bookstore, where he took the lead on developing the iconic queer store’s trans resource section.

“It worked, but it was hard to facilitate parents bringing their youth in,” he says. “That’s such an important bonding moment, and you shouldn’t have to wade through butt plugs to get to binders.”

So the 25-year-old set out to create a space he considers more accessible, combining gender-affirming products and resources with haircuts to help people find or hone their gender expression.

(More than a barbershop, Big Bro’s also offers information and resources for trans people./Hannah Ackeral/Daily Xtra)

For Anderson, Big Bro’s is more than a place where people can make aesthetic changes to express their true selves; it’s a visible representation of trans people in a wider community, and a safe space where too few exist.

He still wishes he’d had more role models when he was coming out.

“Coming out felt like a really tragic thing — at the time the only trans guy I knew about was Brandon Teena from Boys Don’t Cry. I 100 percent thought that was what I was signing myself up for. Not a question in my mind, I put a whistle on my keys . . . It wasn’t a question of if I would get raped or murdered, it was when,” he says.

“It took my own life experience of surviving that made it fine,” he says, “but the idea of having a space where I could see other trans people in the flesh — it would’ve been so beneficial.”

(The community bulletin board at Big Bro’s Barbershop./Hannah Ackeral/Daily Xtra)

Now, nearly a year into his business venture, Anderson has received positive feedback, including a Small Business BC Award for best emerging entrepreneur in February 2016. In accepting the award, Anderson credited Little Sister’s for giving him “a real inside perspective on what it means to manage a queer-focused business that doesn’t just focus on profit, but is also focused on holding community space.”

He says he’s also received positive feedback from customers and would-be customers, some from as far away as New England asking if he’ll open a shop there. Anderson has no plans to expand out of Vancouver yet. He just moved into a new street-front location at 1685 Nanaimo St, and he is currently the only barber in the shop.

(After hours at Big Bro’s Barbershop./Hannah Ackeral/Daily Xtra)

One customer, he says, travelled all the way from Indiana to get his hair done. Another drove down from the BC Interior and, during his haircut, told Anderson he saw him working during Pride at Little Sister’s a few years ago.

“I had just had top surgery, and I had trans pride written on my chest,” Anderson says. “And he told me that he didn’t know trans guys were a thing. I was the first trans guy he ever saw, and then he went home and looked up some things and learnt something about himself.”

It’s that kind of support that Anderson strives to offer other trans people. But he gets a diverse clientele, he notes, from people who have recently come out, to the parents of trans kids who have questions, to straight people who just googled the closest barbershop.

“I think I give very practical, down to earth advice tailored to whoever comes in,” he says.