Preston Mitchum
Courtesy of Preston Mitchum

I love everything about manicures: the soaking of my nails, the clipping of my stressed-out cuticles, the massaging of my hands, the polishing and drying—and the lotion that people can never seem to find anywhere else.

The nail salon has been my home away from home since my undergraduate years in northeastern Ohio. It provided me with the space to live and thrive in ways that I knew the neighborhood barbershop couldn’t because it was far too homophobic, sexist and hypermasculine. Sadly, over the years I have realized that the nail salon, too, has become—and likely always has been—probably one of the most toxic places for black gay men.

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I don’t speak on the toxicity of the nail salon as an exaggeration or as a mere observer but, rather, as someone who goes multiple times a year—once every two weeks, after each paycheck, in fact—to keep my gel coat poppin’ and to make sure my eyebrows continue to slay to the high heavens. I take grooming seriously, especially when it comes to these two features, because that’s how I choose to present myself to the world. Still, going to the nail salon has become exhausting. What was once a place of solace has become as oppressive as that neighborhood barbershop—a place where I spend more time defending myself and my reason for being than I do actually enjoying quality time with myself.

Last week, as I walked into one of the many nail salons in Washington, D.C., I realized that, like before, I was one of few men. This was not uncommon. Immediately, heads turned as if a celebrity (hint: I’m not) had entered. My initial thought process was, “Maybe they are jealous of the thickness of my eyebrows.” They stared for so long, though, that it became uncomfortable and I began to feel unsafe. I realized fairly quickly that these were not jealous glares; instead, each side eye screamed, “Why is he in here?” I recognize the importance of communities needing space, so I attempted to ignore the silent intimidation directed toward me and sat at the nearest open station.

But the whispers and literal finger-pointing continued.

I was almost halfway through my manicure when the manicurist demanded that I cut my nails and leave them buff- and polish-free. Quickly, I informed her that I wanted my nails filed, not cut, and that I would like gel polish as I have had many times before. Her response: “Men shouldn’t get gel on their nails.”

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As people in my proximity began to laugh at me wanting gel polish, even boldly calling it “weird,” I decided to use this as an opportunity to discuss gender norms, masculinity, queerness—and why I would never be back again. But it didn’t escape me—even after I walked out with a free manicure—that it would happen again. These experiences are inescapable in a homophobic society with gender norms so rigid, they’re “straight.”

Last year, when #CareFreeBlackBoy took the world by storm, young black men like Jaden Smith were dismantling one-dimensional gender stereotypes and expectations. Much of the feedback was positive, but a disturbing truth was also revealed: To not be ostracized, black men had to “act like men” no matter how limiting or inauthentic it was. For me, or so I was told, part of “acting like a man” was not to arch my eyebrows and paint my nails. This is just one example of how gender stereotypes and patriarchy largely hurt everyone—those who attempt to encourage them as a social good and those who nearly kill themselves to ensure that they are staying neatly within gender binaries.

This I know to be sure: Social construction is dangerous and teaches us that men must prove that we are men—especially black gay men who are always told that they aren’t “man enough.”

As for the manicurist last week? She believed that she was right to warn me that “men don’t get polish.” She and the onlookers were shocked not only to find out that every last one of them was wrong but also to discover that this man (in all of his black gay glory) has eyebrows that even Anastasia’s kit can’t produce.

Toxic masculinity kills—and to paraphrase Jesse Williams' powerful words about the resilient beauty of black folks, just because I'm gay doesn't mean I'm not real. If we really want everyone to be free, then we must loosen up the choke hold of bigoted expectations that are burying that freedom alive. Then, and only then, will black liberation be possible.