The Student Taught, the Teacher Learned

With his hair, eyebrows and goatee dyed a flaming red, Jason Backe was hard to miss. But it wasn’t his looks that first caught Ted Gibson’s attention back in 1994. Nor was it Mr. Backe’s easy laugh or impish charm, or that Mr. Backe, a student at the time at the Horst Education Center, a beauty school in Minneapolis, had twice walked out on the Highly Textured Hair class Mr. Gibson was teaching.
“I was super attracted to him, but I also thought he was super annoying because he walked around so high and mighty,” said Mr. Backe, now 45 and a colorist at the Ted Gibson Salons he co-owns in Manhattan and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the couple tend to the tresses of celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Anne Hathaway.
His behavior shocked the dreadlocked, clog-wearing Mr. Gibson, now 48, who freely admits that he commanded rock-star status
“I was super hot,” said Mr. Gibson, who at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds was a competitive body builder. “Who was this guy walking out of my classroom?”
CreditDevin Yalkin for The New York Times
But as often happens, the slight friction morphed into a strong attraction.
“He was this muscle-y guy,” Mr. Backe said. “He was very charismatic and charming and everyone wanted to be around him.”
On Aug. 13, 1994, the two men went to dinner. Later, they returned to Mr. Gibson’s apartment and watched the Diana Ross film “Mahogany.” The next morning, Mr. Backe announced, “I want to be your boyfriend.”
Mr. Gibson was flummoxed.
“I was like: ‘We just went out on one date. I’m going to be traveling and having a boyfriend in every port. I’m not going to be your boyfriend.’ ”
But Mr. Backe was determined. So he told Mr. Gibson that he was welcome to refer to him any way he wanted, but that he would introduce Mr. Gibson as his boyfriend.
“I think that was part of the taming of the beast,” Mr. Gibson said. “I’m a strong character, and Jason’s a strong character, and I needed someone who could match that for me.”
Mr. Backe’s friends were a little less smitten. Alan Wilkins, who has known Mr. Backe since 1990, when they were in the “Up With People” troupe together, worried that Mr. Gibson would break Mr. Backe’s heart.
“Jason was an Eagle Scout — he was Mr. Flannel back then,” said Mr. Wilkins, who lives in Taos, N.M. “As Jason’s best friend, I was being protective.”
Their approach to relationships is just one area in which Mr. Backe and Mr. Gibson differ. Mr. Backe, who grew up in tiny Cloquet, Minn., in a home built by his great-grandparents in 1919, had never seen a person of color until college.
“Jason has friends he’s had since he was a kid, and he still talks to them,” said Mr. Gibson, who was a military brat who moved six times before age 13. “I never had that opportunity because we traveled so much.”
Mr. Gibson, who ultimately settled with his parents in Killeen, Tex., near Fort Hood, came out at 16, and it was difficult.
“My mother is very religious,” he said. “They were black Southern people who have issues with homosexuality. It was tough for them, and it was tough for me being black, gay, 6-foot-3 and a football player.”
Continue reading the main story
Zan Ray, a Houston life coach who gave the 24-year-old Mr. Gibson his first job in her salon in Austin, Tex., said, “I knew that he was special,” adding, “I saw a glimpse of his greatness.”
Mr. Backe was 15 when he told his parents he was gay, and began his career as a hair colorist at age 24.
Back then, he said, “My friends were as club kids as you can be in Minneapolis.”
With Mr. Gibson, he connected with a scene that was unknown to him.
“Ted was friends with all of the A-gays — they went to the cool parties and were very cliquey and very handsome,” Mr. Backe said.
He added: “Ted is always pushing me. If I never met Ted I’d probably be in the same salon in Minnesota, very happy. But Ted is really good at encouraging — or forcing — me to do what I wouldn’t push myself to do on my own.”
In time Mr. Backe began working for Aveda, traveling the world teaching stylists, salon owners and managers in cutting and coloring techniques and in building their businesses.
The difference in their races was a nonissue, Mr. Backe said. When he introducing Mr. Gibson to his parents, they “never brought it up.”
“The most awkward was when Ted had dreadlocks,” he said. “We were out to lunch with one of my mom’s friends and she looked at him suspiciously. And my mom said, ‘It’s O.K., Ted cuts hair.’ ”
In 1996, Mr. Gibson and Mr. Backe decided to make a public statement of their commitment to each other, organizing a symbolic ceremony in Minneapolis before 200 friends and some family members — long before same-sex marriage became legal in parts of the country. The only one missing was Mr. Gibson’s mother.
“She doesn’t really believe in same-sex marriage,” he said. “Jason and I sleep in different rooms when we visit her.”
Ten years ago, the men, who have homes in Manhattan and upstate New York, opened the Ted Gibson salon in New York. Fort Lauderdale followed in January 2012, along with stints for Mr. Gibson on the cable show “What Not to Wear.”
“I’ve lived my life making statements as a hairdresser, an entrepreneur and a gay black male who’s always had obstacles in his life,” Mr. Gibson said. “How I’ve overcome them is by staring them in the face and moving through them rather than sitting back.”
Along with their salon’s growing fame and the demand for Mr. Gibson’s and Mr. Backe’s services came an upward spiral in their rates. Mr. Gibson charges up to $1,200 for a session with his scissors.
Mr. Backe admits that while Mr. Gibson is the “visionary who puts the cart before the horse,” it is most often left to him to make sure the working parts actually work.
“Ted is a dreamer,” said Mr. Backe’s sister, Jennifer Hall, a dietitian in Cloquet. “He’s the idea guy. In their bedroom there’s a whiteboard in case there is something Ted will want to do, an idea with the business. He thinks of all these great things. Jason is a doer.”
Mr. Gibson said: “Some people say, ‘My home life is completely different from my work life.’ That’s not the case for us. We used to have these really amazing parties in the ’90s. Gay, straight, black, white, Asian, trannys, models, photographers: anybody you can think of we would have at our parties. When we decided to open a salon, we said, ‘That’s the kind of people we want at our place.’ We wanted to be open to everyone.”
Ms. Ray said: “They have a really amazing common bond, and they really love and honor each other, and they work together really well. Jason brings his cute, funny little quirkiness to it, and Ted brings his ‘Tedness’ to it.”
They both recognized that their lives and businesses had become so intertwined that if something were to happen to either one of them, parsing through the red tape would be a nightmare. So they decided to wed, legally.
“It was important, for us to get married,” Mr. Gibson said. “First for love, second for money, third because we can. It’s monumental to me that we can marry, and it would be stupid if we didn’t.”
As he and Mr. Backe tiptoed in that direction, it also dawned on them that by doing so, they might also show other gay couples “that it’s possible to have a longevity to love,” as Mr. Gibson put it.
But how to do it without leaving out any of their many friends and clients? Rather than inviting a select group of people, they simply posted information on social media (more than 1,000 “likes” on Facebook) and invited anyone wishing to join them to just show up, flash-mob style, for their event.
The only criterion: wear white.
“When they do something, they have to do it big,” said Mr. Backe’s sister.
And so, at 6 p.m. on Aug. 13, 20 years after their first date, the two were married outdoors at Pier 46 in Hudson River Park, off Charles Street. About 75 friends and family, undeterred as the wind blew and rain threatened, arrived at the appointed time dressed in white.
As the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, the Rev. August Gold, an interfaith minister affiliated with the New Seminary who has known the couple for 10 years, noted that they were each other’s soul mate. Ms. Gold told the crowd, “The gospel of Ted Gibson says that love is love, and it crosses all boundaries, and that’s because love is all there is.”
The tuxedo-clad men wiped their eyes as they said their vows, each thanking the other for being his best friend. After, Mr. Gibson invited anyone who could sing to come forward. Charisse Hardy, an actress, stepped up and led the group in an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“I love Ted and I wanted to support him,” said Lupita Nyong’o, the Oscar-winning actress who was among the guests.
David Ilku, a friend, said: “They live life to the fullest. They light up the room.”
Then the crowd moved on to the couple’s salon in the Flatiron district, where hundreds of silver and gold balloons dotted the ceiling, with the words “Ted and Jason” spelled out in gold. Orchids, hydrangeas and white roses filled vases; guests ate sliders, black truffle honey grilled-cheese sandwiches and Korean-style barbecued short ribs.
The party was to end at 10:30, but the last guests did not leave until midnight.
“Over these 20 years we’ve built some amazing things together,” Mr. Gibson said. “I always say that if you have moral values and the same outlook on life, then nothing can get in the way of that kind of relationship.”
Mr. Gibson added: “I love Jason, and I’m so grateful every day to be able to hear his laugh, to hear how he talks to our dog, Spencer, to hear how profound he is, how he talks to people with his warmth and sincerity. He’s gorgeous, he’s sweet.”
Mr. Gibson’s mother, Beatrice Gibson, made sure she, too, was there to see her son wed.
“I still don’t believe in same-sex marriage,” she said. “But he’s a grown man and he’s all I have. Whatever he wants, I’m right with him.”
When Aug. 13, 2014
Where Pier 46 in Hudson River Park, Manhattan.
Family Love The tuxedo-clad couple walked through the park with Mr. Backe’s parents, Mr. Gibson’s mother and a family friend, Tanya Graham, and their Norwich terrier, Spencer.
Dance Salon Guests partied in the couple’s salon, which was lined with white roses, orchids and hydrangeas and more than 200 gold and silver balloons.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© Copyright 2016 Zan Ray Coaching