Safe Space: Building a Future of Inclusion for the Trans Community at Salons

Friday, Feb. 23, 2024

By Heather Diehl

Safe Space Salon and Art Gallery in Durham, N.C., exudes a welcoming energy starting with the pride flags waving in the wind and the wagging tail of Cassie, the salon’s dog, greeting everyone as they walk inside. The name, Safe Space, encompasses exactly what owner, Panduh Kat (she/they), has strived to create in their salon. The Safe Space team passionately works to protect the LGBTQ+ community while simultaneously exuding a silly and loving energy. 

Historically, haircuts have been gendered. Haircut prices are often determined by gender not style, and women are expected to go to salons while men go to barbers. In an effort to break these norms, Safe Space Salon remains gender neutral, determining their prices by the length of the appointment.

Siblings Vincet Hewitt (he/him), Aurea Hewitt (she/her) and Emilia Hewitt (he/they) play ball with the salon’s dog, Cassie, who is always ready to welcome people into Safe Space Salon. Photo by Heather Diehl.

As someone who identifies as queer, Kat felt the environments of the salons she worked in leading up to the Safe Space opening in 2021 were hostile and unwelcoming.

Owner of Safe Space Salon, Panduh Kat (she/they) styles Emilia Hewitt’s (he/they) hair after a haircut on Feb. 3, 2024. Photo by Heather Diehl.

Policies targeting the transgender community and their ability to seek gender- affirming care are being actively debated across the United States. In North Carolina, a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for minors was passed in 2023, prohibiting hormone blockers, hormone therapies and surgeries. However, this ban does not acknowledge gender-affirming care outside of the medical sphere, which can help people’s physical appearance match the gender they identify with internally. 

Finding a place where people are respectful of different pronouns and identities and will give their clients the haircut they desire is not always an option for transgender and non-binary people, which is why Kat feels Safe Space Salon is a necessity. They believe people, regardless of how they identify, deserve to receive a haircut that reflects who they are.

Stylist Hysteria Slater May (they/them) applies hair dye to a client. Slater May commutes 90 minutes each day to be able to contribute to the Safe Space Community, because they have not found a place with the same values near their home. Photo by Heather Diehl.
Sarah Beth Craven (she/her) has her hair dyed  pink during an appointment on Feb. 3, 2024. Photo by Heather Diehl.

Stylist Esther Johnson (she/her) gives Kelly Sereghy (she/her) a haircut on Feb. 3, 2024. Photo by Heather Diehl.

Expression of your inner self is very much tied to your hair,” Kat said.  “A lot of people tie their outward selves to their inner selves and when the reflection doesn’t fit what you feel inside, it’s like a really horrible feeling.” 

The people of Safe Space take pride in helping people achieve outward expression that gives them confidence. 

“When it feels like politics are all out to get you and against you, and it feels like you can’t do anything, the best thing that you can do is something,” Taryn Masterson (she/they), another member of the Safe Space team, said. “And that’s what happens here.”

Although hair is part of their vision for the salon, there is a grander plan that is focused on the community. The walls are decorated with art from local artists that are rotated every couple of weeks, creating opportunities for them to sell their artwork. In addition to organizing mutual aid and clothing swaps regularly, Safe Space also donates to the LGBTQ Center of Durham. They continue to combat the politics that are against their community by taking direct action to care for their community in a variety of ways. 

Emilia Hewitt (he/they) stands by while his mother, Nicole Hewitt (she/her), has her haircut by Panduh Kat (she/they). Photo by Heather Diehl

Safe Space Salon stands as a pillar of inclusivity amidst a turbulent environment for LGBTQ+ people. Queer and transgender people in the South face a lot of challenges, but in Durham, they have a place where they can truly feel safe. 

Edited by Abigail Keller and Stefan Stalker