A transgender college freshman in the Appalachian town of Huntington, West Virginia, rummaged through an array of clothing racks on a recent Friday inside a small office space on his campus. The 19-year-old Marshall University student, who asked to be identified only as CJ to protect his privacy, plucked a Captain America T-shirt from one of the crowded racks and held it up to himself in the mirror.
“It was nice to find something that, first of all, fit me, second of all, sparks my interest, and thirdly, not get judged for it,” CJ told NBC News.
The clothing-filled office space, known on campus as the “Trans Closet,” is a place where transgender and gender-nonconforming students can browse clothes without fear of being judged, according to Shaunte Polk, director Marshall University’s LGBTQ+ Office. Polk said the clothes are donations from students and the larger Huntington community.
“We started the trans clothing drive so our students who were particularly trans or transitioning could have a space to come and try on the clothing for free in a private, comfortable yet welcoming space, and not have that fear of having people talk about them or getting the murmurs or stares,” Polk explained.
In the winter of 2017, Polk and student volunteers organized a clothing drive for what would eventually become the Trans Closet. She said she was “shocked” by the amount of donations they received in just a month. She recalled bags of clothing stacked to the ceiling.
“I was just completed blown away,” she said, noting the closet currently contains about 1,500 pieces, including jeans, shirts, tank tops, dresses, skirts, jackets and shoes. She said volunteers are still sorting through the bags collected from that initial clothing drive.
While these dedicated clothing spaces have become more popular in recent years, LGBTQ advocates have been organizing clothing drives for trans and gender-nonconforming students since at least the mid-2000s, according to Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride, a national nonprofit that works for a safer college environment for LGBTQ students. He said the drives are “wonderful programs” that give these students, who are sometimes cut off or estranged from their families, access to free clothing.
“What we find is that there are students who are transitioning who lose support from their families, and they have to drop out of school,” Windmeyer explained. He said there are some schools that offer financial support for trans and nonbinary students that find themselves in this situation, but he said those are “few and far between.”
"There’s something particularly moving about seeing a trans woman try on her first skirt."
Adding to their woes, more than 80 percent of LGBTQ students pay for school themselves, compared to 53 percent of their non-LGBTQ peers, according to the Point Foundation, America's largest scholarship-granting organization for LGBTQ students of merit.
Polk said the Trans Closet has become a popular, go-to place for Marshall University’s trans and gender-nonconforming students, many of whom have been cut off by family and lack financial support to pay for basic necessities. She said the clothing is free and sorted according to season and size, rather than gender.
“We don’t have any of that going on,” she said of men’s and women’s sections typically found in retail stores. “We don’t want anyone to feel left out or not included.”
CJ said shopping in the men’s section of retail stores can be a stressful experience. “I get a lot of looks, like people can’t decide if I’m a guy or a girl,” he explained.
He recalled one sales associate who tried to redirect him to the women’s section of the store while he was looking at jeans.
“Especially if I’m by myself, I don’t feel safe enough, because I know I don’t pass [as a man] very well,” CJ explained. But he said he does not have to worry about that at the Trans Closet.
Across the country, Travis Becker, director of the Lionel Cantu Queer Resource Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said his resource center started a clothing closet in 2016 after recognizing there were many LGBTQ students dealing with financial insecurity on campus.
“For me, that was an opportunity to really think about the way in which the Cantu Queer Resource Center could be a space that reimagined itself to really meet some of these basic needs for our students,” Becker said.
Shortly before the school’s clothing closet opened, student volunteers organized clothing drives, Becker said. They displayed the donated clothes in an empty office space, and when the clothing closet officially opened, Becker recalled being pleasantly surprised by how many students came to browse.
Becker said the space has become a runway of sorts. If a student is feeling “particularly fabulous” about an outfit, Becker explained, they will saunter down the hall while onlookers cheer them on.
“I live for those moments,” Becker said. “There’s something particularly moving about seeing a trans woman try on her first skirt.”
Aimy Franco, 28, a former U.C. Santa Cruz student who now lives in San Jose, California, said she was disowned by her family after coming out as transgender. She said she struggled to pay for basic needs like food and clothing, and she dropped out in 2016, because she could no longer afford the tuition. Franco, who now works with developmentally disabled teenagers, fondly recalled the clothing closet at the Santa Cruz campus where she once browsed for dresses.
“Having something like a clothing closet shows that, OK, we’re not just there as a tokens or another letter on the acronym,” Franco said. “It shows that people are actually invested in helping us out in some small way at the very least.”
In the Northeast, the LGBTQA Student Resource Center at Pennsylvania State University opened a clothing closet for trans and gender-nonconforming students last year. The center’s director, Brian Patchcoski, said the space currently contains hundreds of items.
“We have shoes, we’ve got jewelry, we’ve got — you name it — it’s not just clothing,” he said. “It’s really become a mini store, and it’s all by variations and size versus gender, so everything’s really mixed up.”
He said the center also helps students get professional attire through the college’s career network.
Dylan Miller, a third-year Penn State student who is trans, said the closet has spared him the added cost of clothes on top of tuition and books.
“I don’t have as much money during the year for myself,” he said, noting that he quit his summer job when the fall semester started.
The psychology major said he is grateful for the closet, where he has found a few shirts, several shoes and a favorite pair of shin-high boots to slog to class in when it rains.
“I have somewhere to go and turn to that I can feel comfortable and without feeling like I’m being judged for it or somebody watching or questioning what I’m doing,” Miller said.
Back at Marshall University, Polk is busy gathering what she called the Trans Closet’s “hot ticket items” for 2019. She’s received an outpouring of requests for feminine shoes in larger sizes, she said — including high heels, wedges and knee-high boots.
Also in high demand are chest binders for trans male students, she said, which the center is raising money to purchase. Polk noted the closet is making Marshall University — named 2015’s “most LGBT friendly” university in West Virginia by eCollegeFinder — even more welcoming.
“I definitely have seen the shift, and I love it,” Polk said.