Transgender Clothing Closets Are a Major Win for Self-Expression—and Mental Health

Photo: Stocksy/Kate Daigneault
Clothing is a form of communication—it lets us share who we are without having to say a word. A black turtleneck bodysuit exudes a classic, fuss-free vibe, a vintage band tee flaunts an obsession with the '70s punk scene, while sharply pointed heels that authoritatively click-clack between cubicles say "I've got this—and I'm ready for that promotion whenever you are."

And while many people take for granted that they can walk into a store and leave with a garment that reflects how they feel on the inside, it's not so easy for those who identify as transgender or non-binary. Cost and sizing of clothes can be a barrier, as well as stares from other shoppers (or worse), and many dressing rooms are still labeled as strictly male or female, making it awkward to try on new things. With this in mind, a growing number of LGBTQ+ resource centers and universities are opening free clothing closets for trans and gender non-conforming people, giving them a place to explore and express their identities through fashion.

Such programs are cropping up in all corners of the US, from Georgia (Kennesaw State University) and West Virginia (Marshall University) to Missouri (The Center Project), Pennsylvania (Penn State University), New Mexico (The Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico) and California (UC Santa Cruz), to name just a few. According to Aydin Olson-Kennedy, LCSW, clothing closets like these are super important for the wellness of the LGBTQ+ community. And these safe spaces are particularly important now, as the government is reportedly proposing to narrow the definition of gender—basing it solely on the genitals a person is born with, and effectively ending the recognition of transgender people under federal law.

"Up until the creation of synthetic hormones about 100 years ago, people largely exhibited their gender identity through clothing and profession. Medical interventions didn't exist," says Olson-Kennedy, executive director of the Los Angeles Gender Center. "And in a lot of places, that may still be the case. From a mental health perspective, it’s really important for trans folks to not feel invisible in their own world when they look in the mirror. It’s not just about going out in public. It's also about our private lives."

"From a mental health perspective, it’s really important for trans folks to not feel invisible in their own world when they look in the mirror. It’s not just about going out in public. It's also about our private lives."—Aydin Olson-Kennedy, LCSW

Yet, at the typical American mall, many obstacles still stand in the way. "There’s a lot of vulnerability, especially if you’re an identifiable trans person, to go into clothing stores that are still segregated and highly gendered," says Olson-Kennedy. "It can be really emotionally dangerous—and sometimes also physically dangerous, particularly if you’re seen to be a man shopping in the women’s clothing department." Segregated dressing rooms can also be a source of stress, he adds, and it can be hard to simply find garments that work for one's body. "Men’s and women’s clothes are cut differently, and it can take quite a bit of time and energy to try and find things that fit," he says.

Marshall University student Marcus Williams, 20, found this to be true before Marshall opened its own trans closet in late 2017. "One thing I  struggled with was trying on clothes and feeling like I looked nice in them," he says. "That’s very hard to do in this day and age, especially for someone in the plus-size community. It was a very big deal to know [the trans closet] had representation for all sizes—and being in that very inclusive space, even a person who’s more self-conscious about how their body looks would feel at ease."

Indeed, there's no shortage of pieces to choose from in Marshall's closet, which actually took over an entire office at the school. Shaunte Polk, the school's LGBTQ+ program administrator, says that students and community members donated over 1,500 items during Marshall's first trans closet clothing drive last year, and they're getting new donations all the time. The school also received a grant to offer students free chest binders, which are often cost-prohibitive.

transgender clothing closets
Photo: Stocksy/Carey Shaw

Polk says many students and faculty members come on a weekly basis to shop a rotating selection of dresses, suits, ties, casual clothes, shoes, makeup, jewelry—and, crucially, they don't have to hand over any cash to do so. "We often don't think about all of the expensive things related to transitioning. It's not just insurance-covered services like hormones and surgery, but clothes and makeup and haircuts too," says Olson-Kennedy. This price tag is an extra-large burden for college students, and particularly for students whose families may not be willing to financially support their transition and education, as is the case for many in the trans community. (A recent survey found 83 percent of LGBTQ students pay for college on their own.) "It's really important to try to create equity amongst people who wouldn’t have the money to go and buy new clothes," Olson-Kennedy proclaims.

At the end of the day, the impact of these resources transcends the external.

That's because, at the end of the day, the impact of these resources transcends the external. Polk tells me that several of her students have used Marshall's trans closet to try on not just nail polish and suit jackets, but different identities, finding their own place on the gender spectrum for the first time. "A lot of our questioning students are now able to self-identify with what they would like to be recognized as," she says, recounting the story of a freshman from a small West Virginia town who wasn't sure where he landed when he first enrolled at the school. "He has been able to try on so many things and get the feeling of what he feels most comfortable in, and it has helped him to identify as non-binary. He feels great about that, and it’s because of the closet."

Williams had a similar experience with Marshall's closet. "Simply being able to try something you haven't tried before to see if it fits you is an opportunity that a lot of people don’t get," he says. "The trans closet allows people to assess how they feel, rather than be thrown into some type of gender stereotype."

It's a privilege that's likely saving lives, says Olson-Kennedy, who believes that validation and support can go a long way toward preventing depression, suicide, and drug use among the LGBTQ+ community. (Studies show that more than half of transgender male teens and over 40 percent of non-binary individuals have attempted suicide in their lifetimes, while 20 to 30 percent of gay and trans people battle substance abuse, compared with 9 percent of the general population.) "Clothing exchanges allow people to feel affirmed, and that plays a role in decreasing some of the scary statistics that we are all too familiar with," he explains.

Olson-Kennedy urges trans and non-binary people to contact their local LGBTQ+ resource center if they're interested in finding a clothing closet near them. And if you simply want to help, consider donating a portion of your own closet to the cause. You may just be giving someone the visual language to start telling their own story, their way.

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Erin Magner is a Los Angeles-based writer who's obsessed with learning from people's stories—and then telling those stories in a way that (hopefully) inspires others. Her work has previously appeared on Refinery29, Racked, and NYLON.

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