ALL PHOTOS BY DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN
“At the end of the day, Haus Of Threes is here so that people stop harming themselves.”
“A cis woman can go into a doctor and ask for boobs that drag on the floor.”
Po Couto drops the kind of gems that have you cracking up and crying in the same breath. It’s an approach born from their trans non-binary experience and learning to push “information in a way that is digestible.”
Couto continues, “My community goes into the doctor and we have to sign our reality away to live our truth. You need a dump truck [for the aforementioned enlarged boobs]. But someone can go [to a physician] rattled and feel they need gender-affirming surgery [and be turned away].”
A hair stylist by trade and radical organizer by necessity, they have spent decades facing closed doors and seeking viable alternative refuges.
“We don’t have spaces to hold our trauma,” Couto says. “How many places do heterosexuals have to go? While we have nowhere.”
To fill the void, Couto started imagining Haus Of Threes (HOT) as a queer collaborative about five years ago, and opened its physical home, the HOT Boston clubhouse in Charlestown, as a meeting place “without conditions” this year (they say “Haus Of Threes is my art, my artist name, and my vision for unity”). It’s also a curated therapy office, co-working space, vintage boutique, hair salon, and home base for traveling meetups, all operating out of a cozy loft fashioned to be a “safe space built for and by our community to heal, nurture, and protect.”
HOT does a lot, all of which Couto says ties into themes of “harm reduction, accessibility, and reparations”—“My business succeeds when someone else’s business succeeds.” And with so much at stake, the grind never stops. HOT has major long-term goals, but between mile markers Couto hustles to keep the lights on—from shouldering a GoFundMe campaign, to cutting hair for 24 hours straight to pay next month’s rent, as they’re about to do.
This weekend on Revere Beach, the multilateral business will also host its first-ever All Queers On Deck, a “unity-driven” event with vendors and entertainment. Like everything Couto does, the outing, a collaboration with Save the Harbor, will provide comfort for participants as well as inspiration for future endeavors.
“I want a HOT Progress parade next year,” Couto says. “Pride is one thing. We want progress.”
In the interim, HOT is planning a nightclub party in October and a Queer Caravan Across America project to follow, all of which Couto hopes to spotlight in a documentary that “captures the non-verbal essence of transformation that happens through self-care.”
“I plan on going across the country with this,” Couto says. “Other people are going to need it—that’s the theory. [Society] talks about gayness, we talk about heterosexuality, we talk about transness as if these things aren’t connected—but they’re very connected.
“The work I’ve done behind my chair provides a safe space for our queer community. My business is creating socially interactive art installations intended to spark unity, hope, and joy, while bringing education, harm reduction, and the foundations of strong community to the forefront. I want people to reimagine what community and chosen family could look like without all the barriers.”
“I wasn’t raised up, I was dragged up.”
Part of Couto’s coming-of-age story is similar to that of many working-class South Coast natives—a hardscrabble existence, relatives and friends enduring substance-abuse issues. Other parts of their experience, however, are especially unique, together making for the motivated charismatic creative who moved to Greater Boston for the region’s “community.”
“Coming from Fall River, we’ve been burying people for generations,” Couto says, referring to the opioid epidemic as well as hatred against LGBTQ+ people. They worked for youth programs around the region for years, seeing the problem up close. “As an trans non-binary autistic, my whole life is not supposed to be real.”
They add, “You can’t exist like this in Fall River.” Couto explains that they “pulled back the first layer, thinking I was gay” early on, only to realize “22 years later” that “I’m not a gender.”
“I’ve identified as three,” they say, “and all of it is bullshit.”
The pandemic gave Couto more time to think. They recall, “I spent months dating myself and I learned that I am really weird.” They also thought a lot about their craft, their community, and “13 years of stories [heard from] behind my chair.”
For Couto, most salons have never cut it. Even before picking up their own scissors, they recall hearing nonsense from hairdressers like, You can’t put those two styles together.
“I just walked out the door, like, What do you mean?”
“You can go into a barbershop anywhere and talk about whatever you want,” Couto says, noting some exceptions. Most people, they explain, wouldn’t bring the pressing issues they engage on a regular basis into a typical corner salon.
“If you go in there and people say, No, you can’t cut your hair short, or Bro, you’re not a girl, that makes people commit self-harm,” Couto says. “At the end of the day, Haus Of Threes is here so that people stop harming themselves. The system is so that people [can feel welcome coming in].”
In a community where “gender-affirming haircuts are the first approach to being whole in society, because we place so much weight on hair,” Couto has long sensed the need for more than a simple salon. So when the Boston shop where they were working at the start of the pandemic kept asking employees to cut in less-than-safe surroundings, they started looking for a more egalitarian arrangement—first by bringing Haus Of Threes from house to house, and then by finding it a home of its own.
“I am a collaborator by nature,” Couto says. “If I’m going to come into a situation, I’m going to give as much as I take.”
The power of threes
The original vision for HOT was as succinctly summarized as it is challenging to face head-on: “lower the self-harm rate for [the queer] community.”
Couto had been doing fashion and nightclub events in the Hub under the HOT banner since before 2017. In those kinds of spaces, though, they realized, people are pushed you into alcohol, drugs, and negative situations, and a lot of times can develop addiction, life damaging, and life-taking habits. What was needed, Couto says, was some kind of community “brain that can collect the data and then sort through it and build a system within a system.”
After Couto’s aunt who raised them in Fall River passed away, motivation set in to put a roof over the Haus where such a brain could find solace and flourish. A relentless search and a small bit of solid luck later, and HOT landed its current Charlestown arrangement. The enterprise’s many intersecting outfits occupy about 4,000 square feet, and Couto hopes that through fundraisers and potentially cooperation with the city and arts organizations, they can expand into an additional neighboring unit of comparable size.
“This is a co-op that’s styled,” Couto says. They’re standing by a couch in the center of the HOT clubhouse, which is partitioned into work, play, vintage thrift, and therapy rooms, with Couto’s barber chair flanking the scene on a platform off to the side. It’s like a movie set, but cozier. Truer.
“For me it’s my heritage, this is real to me.”
Haus Of Threes, they say, has a “kinetic business model,” “which means there’s not a thing that this will touch that is not already in motion.”
“When you succeed, I succeed, we succeed,” Couto adds. “One for me, one for you, one for them.”
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A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.