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SLU's Queer Closet Lends Students Clothes And Confidence

Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Queer Closet co-founder and SLU student Regis Wilson prepares to help a client at the Rainbow Alliance Office.

A clothing library at St. Louis University is helping students find outfits that match their gender identity.

The student-led Queer Closetallows transgender and gender-nonconforming people to find affordable clothing that helps them feel more comfortable. 

“I think one of the biggest and best aspects of the Queer Closet is the idea you’re working with someone who understands what you’re going through and someone who understands the queer experience,” said co-founder Regis Wilson, a SLU business major who identifies as gender-nonconforming.

The Queer Closet started in a SLU dorm room when founder Grayson Chamberlain, a transgender man, lent outfits to his friends who didn’t have clothing to match their gender identities.

Last year, the closet’s founders received $1,800 from SLU’s 1818 Community Engagement Grant program, which supports student-led service projects. The money allowed the closet's founders to move it out of Chamberlain's dorm room and into the office of the LGBTQ student organization Rainbow Alliance.

For $5, students can buy a membership to the closet. After that, they make an appointment to visit and choose clothes to rent for three weeks. If they find something they love, they can buy it for a low price.

Queer Closet client Nick Balint swaps old items for new pieces at the Rainbow Alliance's office.
Credit Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Queer Closet client Nick Balint swaps old items for new pieces at the Rainbow Alliance's office.

Most of the closet’s items are donated or swapped, Wilson said. The grant money helped buy underwear and T-shirts to sell. The Queer Closet’s workers also help people find places to buy chest binders and other more expensive items.

Wilson and other employees use a spreadsheet to keep track of the 600 pieces of clothing, which lists items’ status as well as information about color, cut, thickness and shape.

Instead of separating pieces by gender, workers display all of the items together on rolling racks, loosely grouped by the type of clothing. Pieces range from suit jackets and windbreakers to brocade trousers and sundresses.

“They’re set out in a way, like, ‘These are pants!’ These are shirts!’” Wilson said. The racks are stored in a storage room with a doorway framed by a rainbow feather boa. 

Clothes can be a crucial way to explore gender identity, Wilson said. But going into retail stores that are organized by gender can be scary and traumatic for people who don’t fit traditional gender norms, clients say.

“Even if you want to try something on, if you’re transgender, the clothes you find in most stores don’t always fit you right,” said Nick Balint, a junior journalism and theater major and Queer Closet client. “It’s literally not sewn for your body shape. You have to try things on, you have to navigate the dressing room every time. And depending on how you look, that can be super awkward or uncomfortable.”

After Balint came out as a transgender man, the Queer Closet offered a place to find clothes — and advice on how to wear them.

“This was affordable, and it was comfortable for me to have someone like Grayson, who’s another transgender man, helping me pick out things, helping me to tuck in the right way, or help the sleeves so they looked nice,” Balint said.

On a recent afternoon at the closet, Balint sifted through the racks, looking for items that fit his favorite aesthetic, “'80s movie frat boy.” He picked up a baggy, bleached-out denim shirt. Wilson looked up the item and entered it in the database on his laptop.

Wilson said offering knowledge and support is just as important as the clothes, especially for young people who may be struggling with their self-image. 

Queer Closet co-founder Regis Wilson keeps track of 600 pieces in a spreadsheet.
Credit Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Queer Closet co-founder Regis Wilson keeps track of 600 pieces in a spreadsheet.

“Building up that self-confidence is something I thought was really important,” Wilson said. “That could go a long way with queer individuals, because most of us lack a lot of self-confidence, being a group of individuals who are kind of shunned in a lot of [aspects] and facets of society.” 

For Balint, that confidence came in the form of a plain red T-shirt.

“I bought that red shirt, and I still wear it all the time. I French tuck it!” he said. He wore it recently for an interview in front of his English class.

“When I saw myself on camera, I was like, ‘Oh! I look really good!’”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.