Button downs, black leather jackets, summer jumpers, and stacks of sweatshirts were neatly folded, stacked organized into sections in a meeting room in the LGBT Center, ready for the Center’s inaugural Clothing Swap & Drop. The event, kicked off the new Clothing Closet, which will be a permanent community resource.
Housed in the LGBT Center’s lounge area, the closet will be open to the public starting on Nov. 28 on Mondays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays. Students, faculty, staff, and community members are welcome to drop off used, freshly laundered clothing or peruse the racks to take a new outfit home.
The Clothing Closet is presented in partnership with Wellness at Penn, which commissioned canvas bags and notecards reminding closet patrons to “wash before you drop and after you swap,” all designed by Wellness’ student interns.
Julia Mills Burton, a nurse practitioner and gynecology section chief at Wellness at Penn's Student Health and Counseling division, serves as the chair of Wellness’ LGBTQ working group. Students told her they needed more access to affordable clothing, Burton says. “Sometimes there are financial hardships, particularly as people are going through gender transition,” she says. This program will “provide opportunities for them to have access to clothing that might be gender affirming for them.”
Jake Muscato, the Center’s new associate director, and Wes Alvers, a master’s student at the School of Social Policy & Practice and the Center’s social work intern, worked together to set up the space.
According to data collected by Penn Diversity in 2020, 1.6% of students self-identified as transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming/diverse. Transition can be expensive, Muscato says. In addition to health care costs, the price of new clothing can add up.
Muscato and Alvers are also working with Wellness to source binders, shapewear, tucking underwear, and tucking tape. “There’s a lot of different kinds of clothing that trans folks use that we can’t really find in a store,” Muscato says. The group hopes to offer these items to students in the spring semester.
For now, they’re concentrating on clothing. Muscato and Alvers started the day with 18 large bags of clean clothes, which they sourced from donations from a wide range of people, including Burton’s local Buy Nothing group.
“Getting a number of styles was really important to us,” says Muscato, “so that people can find that euphoria and that comfort and that excitement at multiple points of their day.”
Gender affirmation isn’t exclusive to trans people, Alvers says. “Oftentimes, folks assume that trans people or people in the LGBT community are the only ones who express their gender with their clothing. Cis folks and straight folks do that also.
“Gender expression is for everyone,” they say. “Everyone should feel validated and confirmed. This space is about opening up that larger conversation.”
At Penn, there are people from around the world and many walks of life, Muscato says.
“We’re trying our best to create the Center as a space where people feel seen and represented. We want everyone to feel like there is something here for them,” he says. “And we need clothes. People need clothes.”