For Em Lassen, a student at Goucher College in Towson, a closetful of clothing can come with a lot of extra baggage.
Lassen, 19, identifies as queer, non-binary (does not identify solely as either male or female) and trans, and prefers “they/them” pronouns. That can make just picking out an outfit in the morning complicated.
“There’s a lot of thought that goes into what I wear some days,” Lassen said. “Because some days I’m just like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just gonna throw that on.’ And some days, if I pick out something the night before, it’s like, ‘This isn’t right’ … it doesn’t fit who I am that day. It is a struggle.”
Because clothing is so wrapped up in gender norms, filling a closet can be a struggle for students who identify outside gender binaries, said Summer Rai Torres, Goucher’s assistant director for LGBTQIA+ students. (The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual.)
That is why her office launched the Gender Affirming Closet, a two-day event in which students could try on and take home “gender-affirming items” of clothing.
The idea, Torres said, came from “meeting with students and realizing how much they wanted a space for themselves and a space to kind of be free to have fun with clothing in a way that their cisgender [someone whose identity corresponds with the sex assigned at birth] peers kind of get to do.”
The Gender Affirming Closet opened in a room in the school’s Pinkard Community Service and Multicultural Affairs Center for two full days, Feb. 7 and 8. It was the first event of its kind at Goucher, Torres said. Between 10 and 15 students attended the event, she said.
Torres, who works with the approximately 40 percent of Goucher’s campus that identifies on the LGBTQ spectrum, said for students that are non-binary, transgender, gender or gender nonconforming, finding clothing that affirms one’s identity can be a grueling experience.
“When we think about a store, it’s so gendered,” Torres said. Clothing is separated by gender, and a transgender person might not be welcome in their fitting room of choice.
Besides that, Torres said, clothing can be expensive. Someone coming out for the first time might need a whole new closet of clothing. Binders to flatten the chests of people who were born female, often used to combat gender dysphoria, can cost $30 or more, which can be prohibitive to students without their own income.
The closet, made up of clothing donated by the Goucher community and organized by category, not gender, provides a safe — and free — space for students to explore how they express themselves, Torres said.
“Especially for those in our community who are newly transitioning or finding new ways to express themselves, or low income ... or like if you’re not out at home and college is really the only place you can show your true shelf, then I think it’s a fantastic resource that we have,” Lassen said.
Lassen said trying or taking clothes from the closet can also help trans or non-binary students navigate dressing for social situations with no set norms or rules as to how they should dress — job interviews, for instance, or dates.
“Every person who is non-binary is non-binary in a different way,” Lassen said. “That’s hard, but it’s also really cool.”
Some students, Lassen said, might need the closet more than them. But for Lassen, it is important as a sign that “the support is there.”
Bryan Coker, Goucher’s vice president and dean of students, said the school administration is “proud” of initiatives like the Gender Affirming Closet that provide services for historically marginalized groups.
“At Goucher, we strive to create and maintain a welcoming and supportive campus environment for all members of our community,” Coker said in an emailed statement.
“Goucher is a fantastic place,” Lassen said. “And even with that, sometimes it’s really scary to be out and to be your true self … some people don’t get it, and that’s hard.”
Naomi Turner, a senior at Goucher and a student employee of the Center for Race, Equity and Identity, which holds the LGBTQ program, said freshman year is a time many students are exploring their identity.
“I think there’s a lot of freedom in moving away from your parents’ home,” Turner said. “I think there’s a lot of freedom in being with like-aged and like-minded individuals, and I think people start to meet people in ways they never did back home. So maybe they didn’t have exposure and thought it was just themselves, but when they’re learning about other identities, other experiences, they start to identify more with those parts of themselves, as well as have the freedom to go about expressing it.
Lassen and Torres were especially excited about the fact that the community donated five binders. Lassen called it “mind-blowing.” The binders were laid out with a fact sheet explaining how to use them safely – if used incorrectly, they can cause breathing problems and injury.
Lassen donated a bag of clothing and took some, too – patterned socks and a soft, powder-blue hoodie, comfortable enough to nap in.
“How I’m perceived is really not up to me,” Lassen said. “But I’m coming to terms with, like, I am who I am no matter what people think.”