Oliver is transgender. And with that, the Army reservist in the Los Angeles area became the latest citizen at the center of a recurring American debate: Where does freedom of religion end and discrimination begin?
After six years serving in the Army as a woman, including a tour in Afghanistan, Oliver began identifying as genderqueer and switched to the pronoun “they” rather than “her” or “him.”
Oliver identifies mostly as male. The Army reservist wears masculine clothing. And then there’s the haircut — always short, ever since high school.
But when Oliver, 24, made an appointment at a new barbershop in Rancho Cucomonga, Calif., a week ago, the first thing they saw was a woman with half her hair long and half her head shaved, asking for a trim.
Oliver saw the owner turn the woman away. Oliver said the owner told the woman that the shop doesn’t cut women’s hair. But Oliver still thought keeping their own appointment wouldn’t be a problem. After all, the veteran doesn’t have long hair — and doesn’t identify as a woman.
“He said, ‘We only do men’s haircuts,’ ” Oliver said. “I said, ‘I’m here for a men’s haircut, just like you’re doing on the gentleman in the chair there.’ ”
Other customers were watching the encounter, Oliver said, and Oliver left the store with cheeks burning from embarrassment. After thinking it over, Oliver decided to try again. “I called back to try to talk to him and explain that I identify more male than female. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, ma’am. We don’t cut any type of women’s hair.’ ”
Staff at The Barbershop in Rancho Cucomonga declined to comment on Monday, and the owner, Richard Hernandez, could not be reached on his personal phone.
But he told CBS News in Los Angeles that his religion forbids cutting women’s hair. “The Bible teaches us that a woman’s hair is given to her for her glory, and I would not want to take away any of her glory from her.”
Hernandez told CBS that he is Christian, but did not specify whether he belongs to one of the few small denominations that tell women never to cut their hair. The Bible includes several stories such as that of Samson, whose strength came from his uncut hair. But this particular idea comes from Chapter 11 of First Corinthians, which also seems to repeat several times that men are superior to women, and women are meant to gratify men. “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering,” the verses say.
Peter Renn, a lawyer at LGBT rights organization Lambda Legal, is talking to Oliver about the incident and may pursue legal action. He said that California law that prevents discrimination on the basis of gender or gender identity should have compelled Hernandez or one of his employees to cut Oliver’s hair.
If the shop offers a service — in this case, the haircut that the other person with Oliver’s hairstyle was getting that day — then it must offer that same service to any person, Renn said.
“Religion can’t and shouldn’t be used as a shield for discriminatory business practices,” he added.
But Hernandez told CBS that he thinks the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion protects his right not cut Oliver’s hair.
“It’s not our intention at all to discriminate against anyone based on their sexual orientation, based on their gender or any such thing like that,” he said. “I value the Constitution that we have in this country and hope that it upholds for me as well as others.”
The dispute seems bound for a fight in court — despite the warning offered by the very next verse in First Corinthians, right after the one about hairstyles. It reads, “But if anyone is disposed to be contentious — we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”