A conversation with LGBTQ+ Ally Brandy Irons

The struggle for LGBTQ+ equality consists of many players, seen and unseen, and some are straight allies who nurture LGBTQ+ youth. Brandy Irons, the owner of Branding You Salon and an instructor at Dunbar Vocational High School, is one such ally. 

Irons, a class of 96′ Alum, follows a legacy of family members who adorned the blue and gold, including her parents and son. After graduating, she trained as a cosmetologist at Capri Beauty College on Chicago’s South Side. She then attended the Canella School of Hair Design and Your School of Beauty Culture. 

In a late-night interview, she shared why she loves her job, the importance of identity and relationship-building, and why she encourages her students to share their gifts.  

PrideIndex (PI): Introduce and briefly tell us about yourself.

Brandy Irons (BI): My name is Brandy Irons, and I own Branding You Salon, located on Indiana Avenue in the Bronzeville community. I continue supporting our educational system by teaching cosmetology through Chicago Public School’s (CPS) Personal Care Services and their Cosmetology Program offered at Chicago Vocational, Dunbar Vocational, and Simeon High Schools. They also offer a Barbering Program at Excel Academy of South Shore and Simeon Career Academy High Schools.

PI: Talk a bit more about CPS’s Personal Care Services.

BI: I teach the Cosmetology Program at my alma mater, Dunbar Vocational High School, at 3000 South King Drive. My son is currently attending, and my mother, father, and daughter also graduated from Dunbar. Looks like it’s a generational thing. We’re Dunbar legacies. Regarding Personal Care Services, students earn certifications by learning from beauty industry professionals. They get to attend speaking engagements, on-site visits, and participate in job shadowing and internships that will help them gain more knowledge and experience in the hair and beauty profession. They learn about safety and infection control, hair cutting and coloring, chemical texturizing, perms, professionalism, and entrepreneurship. Honestly, I am just grateful to be a part of a program to help children in the community where I grew up.

PI: You mentioned that you come from a legacy of Dunbar attendees, including your parents and children. Does that mean that you color your hair blue and gold?

BI: No, but I have a lot of blue and gold running through my veins. I am a proud Dunbar alum.

PI: As far as your Dunbar legacy, are the grandbabies expected to attend as well?

BI: [Laughs] Not if my children have anything to do with it. They say, “Enough is enough, Mom,” but I say, listen to whatever that kid wants to do. My kids decided that they wanted to follow in my footsteps, they decided that they wanted that, so they did it. But if that’s not what my grandbabies want to do, that decision should be up to them. The great thing about Dunbar is that you not only get a high school diploma, but you can follow a career pathway as well. It is very important to be able to pursue a career pathway while getting an education, whether you receive your diploma or your GED. It is wonderful to learn and get into a trade with either. 

I love Dunbar because they understand students can learn and work a trade and still attend college. Why? College is not free because you’ve got to work yourself through college. College, especially colleges in the United States, are very expensive. To afford it and still be able to live, one should have some kind of trade under your belt. I don’t care if it’s braiding, cutting hair, or fixing air conditioners. Anything that helps earn money to get you through college is important. I learned from leaving high school and going straight to college that I had to work my way to the end. There was no way that I was going to do it by taking out loans and going into debt, especially while having children at the same time.

Dunbar understands that, and that’s why I love the school. I teach my children that they must go to college, and they will realize that school is important too. Attending Dunbar or any vocational school, like Simeon and CVS, is a great avenue for supporting students in their career pathways.

PI: How long have you been teaching in the Cosmetology Program at Dunbar?

BI: I have been the Dunbar cheerleading coach for about five years and have been the cosmetology instructor for just two years now. 

PI: Where did you attend school to be a cosmetologist?

BI: I attended several schools. I started at Capri Beauty College on Chicago’s South Side on 63rd Street. They’re closed now. From there, I attended Canella School of Hair Design for my teaching license and Your School of Beauty Culture with Dr. Mildred Dixon on East 39th Street.

PI: When did you attend Dunbar, and what year did you graduate?

BI: I attended Dunbar from 1993 to 1996, graduating in 1996. 

PI: What is the difference between a beautician and a cosmetologist?

BI: The difference for me is that it’s a cultural thing. Black people call our stylists beauticians. Of course, people call me their beautician all the time. The cosmetology trade consists of many branches or pathways. There are nail technicians, makeup artists, estheticians, hairstylists, barbers, and massage therapists. Cosmetology is the umbrella to many other professions and career pathways beyond those I have mentioned. Those are just the ones off the top of my head. If someone calls themselves a cosmetologist, they have decided on a multi-faceted career pathway. They are likely doing more than just hair. They have gone to school, completed their accreditation, and want to create a full-service salon or similar business. They are serious about this as a career and business, not just a hustle.

PI: A friend of mine recommended that I interview you for Prideindex.com. She mentioned that you were among our straight allies who champion LGBTQ+ students. Why is that important to you?

BI: Because identity, especially in our society now, identity and relationship-building are the nucleus of the educational process. Suppose we do not or are unable to help identify, form, and nurture relationships? In that case, we are missing the vital part of what is important for our student’s development as leaders. There are so many levels and obstacles that they will go through to get to know who they are. As they figure out who they are through their lifetime, that’s when they’re able to fully identify themselves. I choose right now to be someone with whom they can build a relationship and who sees them for who they are. Now, they can go through with the educational process. All of that needs to happen before they decide that they can just be a student and learn something.

PI: Back when I attended high school, the vocational shop classes mainly consisted of males. There were 90% male and 10% or even less of that were females. But for cosmetology, it was 95% female and 5% male. Is it still like that today? Are most cosmetologists, even in high school, female rather than male?

BI: That is very true. Out of a class of sixty students, I probably have two male students. A lot of the straight guys, the ones that want to learn cosmetology, will steer away because of the fear of their identity being mistaken. I think that it is a shame because society has created this stigma and because we created this stigma throughout the generations in the way we speak about male cosmetologists and the way we talk about men who do hair. We’ve made it the norm to tell young men that they can’t be straight if they are doing female hair, but it’s the furthest thing from the truth. Regardless of your sexual orientation, if your heart is there, it’s really a gift of yourself that you want to give to others. 

If you have something to give that you are comfortable with, then share it, and it’s okay that you do. Being a cosmetologist is more than just making sure that somebody’s hair is neat and clean. It also goes beyond your sexuality. Many male students have asked me, “Hey, can you teach me how to cut hair?” “Hey, can I be an intern in your salon?” or “I can’t take cosmetology because my parents won’t let me, but can you teach me how to cut hair?” I say, absolutely, absolutely. I would, no matter what it is. I am here to help.

I also want to add another very important thing. At the beginning of the school year, one of the things that I always ask the students is what their names are and what their pronouns are. I do this because I want them to be able to think about that. I want them to tell me their identity so that I can respond to them respectfully and have the rest of the class respond to them respectfully. I’ve ensured that we have an atmosphere in my classroom that is very respectful and gender-neutral.

PI: It is outstanding and very commendable that you have taken that approach to the male students reaching out to you for that support. In some Black barbershops, gay men feel unwelcome. It’s the bravado and machismo. Guys talking about their sexual conquests. The barber bonding relationship is an essential part of male development. It’s important to have a place of male camaraderie that is not about anything sexual. That is something that we lack on both sides of the equation in not allowing boys to go into cosmetology or allowing gay people to be able to sit in a barbershop without feeling uncomfortable. Definitely something to work on.

BI: Absolutely. As a community, that is definitely something that we need to work on. Yet, I commend the family for being as outgoing as they are. When I say the “family,” I mean the LGBTQ community. I really do applaud them. They continue to show love regardless of what the world says or about them. That love precedes everything. That’s precisely what we’re all here to do. We’re here to give and receive love. We’re here to provide the gift of love to one another through our artistic work in performing our crafts.

It doesn’t matter who you put your gift on, as long as you understand that you’re giving that person what they need in that moment. Barbershops and salons are not just places to get a service. They’re places you go to mentally decompress. You don’t go there for twenty to thirty minutes, an hour, or however long it may take to get your hair done. You aren’t just sitting there to hurry up and get out. People don’t often realize it, but you’re in a place of sharing and in your most vulnerable state. When you sit in a chair, you are mentally vulnerable.

You don’t know exactly what this person is capable of or their mental state when you are sitting in their chair. When you decide to open up, it becomes a beautiful experience of camaraderie not only for the client and servicer and all the people within the establishment as they engage in conversation. The client can mentally decompress for however long it takes to complete their service. 

PI: You mentioned earlier that you’ve had students who secretly approach you with interest in taking your cosmetology class. Do you ever try to speak to any of their parents? If so, what do you or would you say to some of these parents who have a son who may be a star basketball player but wants to learn cosmetology? What advice would you give? 

BI: As a parent, a mother of four, and a grandmother, I instinctively allow my children to be who they are. They came into this world with personalities and are who God called them to be. My advice is to allow that, but allow it within reason. You don’t want them to be disobedient or disrespectful to you. You want to teach them certain basic moral concepts in terms of who they are and want to be.

You can do nothing to make that person other than who they were born to be. They are assumed to be whoever they are going to be. If they are artistic and born to be creative, they will do it in certain ways. There is nothing at all that we can do. The only thing we as parents should be doing is making sure that they come into their calling safely, respectfully, and responsibly with a high moral content.

PI: Outstanding advice. Is there anything else you would like to share? Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?

BI: I want to share with the community my hopes that they understand that we are all human beings. I don’t want to bring God into this too much, but I believe we fight not against flesh and blood and can conquer all things through love. When I say that, I say it from a place of experience in dealing with people. It doesn’t matter whether you are straight, gay, or transgender. Whatever your pronouns, ensure that you cultivate love and look at things from a natural and supernatural standpoint. 

PI: Where would you like to ultimately see yourself in the future?

BI: I want to continue my educational process. The reason I work for CPS right now is to better understand people and children as well as working relationships. Most of all, I want to be an exceptional instructor to teach these things. 

My next level would be opening beauty schools across the United States and Africa, which will help cultivate and promote self-love. No matter what that looks like for you. Self-love and self-respect and teaching the concepts of Cosmetology on a high level. Many people don’t know how to read or even do the math, but they could still pass the Cosmetology exam because the exceptional nature of teaching is having someone who can help cultivate what’s already inside. 

I am working to understand the nature of teaching and running a school so that one day, I can take what I have learned to other countries. I want to help other countries already doing great, but I want to help give this knowledge to help make them a bigger community and more knowledge around that.

PI: Brandy, I want to thank you very much for your time and support of our community, and we will show you love in return. 

BI: It was my pleasure speaking with you and thank you very much.