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Filmmaker Explores Challenges of Being 'Gay in the Black Barbershop'

Filmmaker Derrick L. Middleton hopes his new documentary, "Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop," helps to change what he says is a culture of "homophobia" in these spaces.
'Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop' / Derrick L. Middleton

In an unassuming art space in Harlem, filmmaker Derrick L. Middleton recently screened his documentary, "Shape Up: Gay in the Black Barbershop." The actor and director hopes the film will shed light on the culture of "homophobia" he says permeates these spaces.

"It is time for dialogue -- a conversation of the minds to bring an end to what many gay men of color like me experience daily when we want to simply get into the shop and get out," Middleton told NBC OUT.

The Harlem native's uneasiness with barbershops was instilled at the age of 5, when his father took him for his first haircut and uttered four words: "You're a man now." He said the words stung, because he knew he was not like other boys his age.

“My fear of the barbershop would be something I carried from childhood into adulthood," Middleton said.

RELATED: Essay: Sharing My Truth in a Black Barbershop

Black barbershops, according to Middleton, are staples in the community, where men gather to talk about politics, sports, community relations and -- of course -- women.

“If you walk into the barbershop, everyone automatically thinks you are a heterosexual man,” he added.

"I will no longer be a willing participant in the homophobia that's outwardly displayed in barbershops."

In "Shape Up," Middleton explains he rarely related to conversations being had in the barbershops he frequented, and he feared what would happened if he were outed in these spaces. This led him to quietly creep back into the closet when getting a haircut.

“It’s been part of my strategy when looking for barbers to scope out the shop, because I wanted to feel some sense of security when I walked in,” he said.

Middleton's barbershop fears were realized roughly two years ago when he was "kicked out" of a Harlem establishment.

“The barber who wanted me out of the shop yelled things like 'sissy,' and it was so loud everyone in the shop turned to take notice.” he explained. The experience made him feel helpless, but he said the worst part was feeling defeated afterwards for not standing up for himself.

"Shape Up" is his way of speaking up now and helping to make barbershops a more welcoming place.

“I will no longer be a willing participant in the homophobia that’s outwardly displayed in barbershops," Middleton said.

The documentary includes appearances by former NFL player Wade Davis, journalist Clay Cane and writer Michael Arceneaux, who all share their own experiences as gay men in black barbershops. Middleton's current barber also makes appearances in the film, and Middleton said the two are working together to create an atmosphere where all people feel safe and comfortable.

"Shape Up" was a Grand Prize winner in last month's March on Washington Film Festival, and it was screened at the White House on July 20.

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