What's in a hairstyle? For homeless LGBTQ youth navigating complex identities and dangerous social landscapes — a lot. That truth drives ProjectQ, the nonprofit Madin Lopez started in 2012 with little more than a mission and a barber kit.

Providing free haircuts — about 700 each year — to homeless kids is a small-scale approach to a gaping need; an everyday gesture belying the profound impact of community, belonging and self-esteem for some of this city's most vulnerable residents.

“It has such higher stakes when you don't have a home. It's so much easier to become the downtown Skid Row homeless. There's so fewer steps in between them and that than there is between you and I being in that position,” says Lopez, 31, a full-time hairstylist who, like a proper Angeleno, juggles a constellation of projects.

Having lived through their own traumas — coming out, abuse, homelessness — Lopez stepped into the role seamlessly. “I kind of became my own role model and emotional support at the same time, through the process of helping other people.”

A rush of media attention, occasional grants and donations help, but the venture is a labor of love — about $52,000 in loans and credit cards so far, “just to get to the point where we can stay afloat.”

As ProjectQ expands — plans include a new retail space in Chinatown — Lopez is mapping a broader vision for their brand of hyperlocal activism: building community, integrating elements of Black Lives Matter's agenda and exploring innovative approaches to social justice. The ProjectQ “hairstream” trailer (a road-ready salon where Lopez sees clients in Echo Park) will head out on a cross-country summer tour to visit shelters in states where “they're stripping away laws to protect queer folk and people of color,” while an upcoming class will teach Stanford doctors how to speak to trans and nonbinary people, “because so much is wrapped up in old ideas of who we think we are.”

Madin Lopez; Credit: Danny Liao

Madin Lopez; Credit: Danny Liao

Stylish, poised and determined, Lopez has an air of sobriety beyond their youthful appearance that may come in handy in a run for political office (definitely on the table, sometime in the next decade).

They know they walk a widening generational rift within the queer community — between those who lived through darker times, and those coming of age when gender fluidity is an increasingly mainstream phenomenon with mass-market appeal.

“Because I am between these two generations, I'll have to speak one language to this group and a different one to this one. I'm trying to perfect my tongue at the moment,” Lopez says, at once salty and sincere.

“We thought for a long time there was a generation of folks dying out — the dinosaurs, the old racists, the old homophobes — and then we saw all the alt-right rallies last year. So it's about speaking to the youth, but who's getting to them first?”

Many ProjectQ events, such as its annual fundraiser gala, create intergenerational spaces where young people can see glimpses of their future selves.

“Do I get to see myself in a way that's three-dimensional? No, I don't,” Lopez says. “Until watching Black Panther, I hadn't seen representation of a queer-ish, black, female-bodied person that had integrity, that was strong but graceful, that was attractive but not sexualized. It's really upsetting it took me 31 years to find a character who resembles who I want to be like … in my whole life!”

If this expansive moment feels tenuous under a Trumpian sky, Lopez is deeply confident, resolute. “I read today that black female entrepreneurship has risen in the past year. Now's our time, cool. So who's my hero? Me.”

More about Madin and ProjectQ at: https://www.projectq.me/.

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