salon Benders (copy)

Owners Cal Bigari and Jessie Santiago stand in front of Salon Benders during their opening last year.

When Jessica Santiago and Cal Bigari took over the Hot Cha Coffee Pot space on Fourth Street last year, they didn't expect a global pandemic to stand in the way of their salon's success.

But through the shutdown, uncertainty surrounding the Safer at Home order and some help from their Long Beach neighbors, the Salon Benders continues to stand tall, and as of last week, is back open for business.

"We have been worried every single day for six months," Santiago said. "We've only been open for six days (as of Monday, Sept. 21), so we are still struggling."

The salon is a safe-haven for people in the LGBTQ+ community. It's a space where it doesn't matter how someone looks, or what their lifestyle looks like: all are welcome. But like any other business, without a stable influx of customers, it gets harder to pay the bills.

"Basically the entire world is made for heterosexual white people," Santiago said. "In queer spaces like Salon Benders, we don’t have to explain why our bodies look the way it does or our lifestyle. We can just be."

To help keep the salon stay afloat, Salon Benders was awarded a grant from the Human Rights Campaign — an LGBTQ+ civil rights organization — and Showtime Network. The initiative is titled "Queer to Stay: An LGBTQ+ Business Preservation Initiative Funding" and was awarded to nine salons across the United States.

"Now more than ever, it’s especially important to preserve affirming, welcoming community spaces for LGBTQ+ people, including young people who may not have supportive families of communities at home, face rejection or discrimination for simply being who they are," Viet Tran, press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, said.

While the dollar amount wasn't shared with the public, Tran said that amount reached five figures and all of the salons received the same amount.

"Since the onset of COVID-19, we know that Salon Benders is among the many LGBTQ businesses who are struggling to stay open and continuing providing a space for its queer community," Tran said. "Salon Benders has played such a vital role in creating intentional, safe spaces for all members of the LGBTQ+ community and it's important that we preserve this space where folks can show up authentically, connect with fellow community members, and feel truly welcome."

And that's the keyword, Santiago said: intentional.

"We want people to feel safe here, we want people to feel welcome and not concerned about feeling out of place," she said. "That's why we reach out to the community the way we do. That's why we make it a point to let people know that no matter how you identify, we are here for you."

The grant also helped pay for a patio redesign for folks who prefer to get their hair done outside. While salons are currently able to operate at minimal capacity inside, Santiago said that they need to be prepared for rules to change while the pandemic is still a concern.

Other recipients of the grant includes Alibi Lounge, New York, New York; Amplio Fitness, Rocky River, Ohio; Blush & Blu, Denver, Colo.; Doyenne, Charlotte, N.C.; El Rio, San Francisco, Calif.; Freed Bodyworks, Washington, D.C.; Herz, Mobile, Ala.; My Sister’s Room, Atlanta, Ga.; and Pearl Bar in Houston, Texas.

"With all of the financial help that we received, we've been able to pay our back bills," Santiago said. "But the uncertainty is still there and that means this struggle is going to continue for a very long time, until it doesn't."

Salon Benders is open for new and returning clients, but appointments are required. Go to salonbenders.com or email salonbenders@gmail.com.

Additionally, donations are still being accepted via Venmo.com/salon-benders.

Stephanie Stutzman can be reached at sstutzman@gazettes.com

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