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Queer guides forge a path to gender euphoria with style

//Co-organizers of Marsha’s Closet Erin Lowrey and Ari Rosenblum at the Mile High Behavioral Healthcare center in Sheridan on June 11. Photo by Ali Mai | acmwatkins@gmail.com.

Finding well-fitting clothing is more than an exercise in style in the trans community—it’s a matter of mental health. Those experiencing gender dysphoria have significantly higher rates of suicide than that of the general population, so finding ways to affirm identity is crucial. While everyone wants to feel more affirmed in their expression, easing the path to gender euphoria can save trans lives.

“Even when I looked incredibly rough, emoting the person that I actually am and dressing like that person was kind of a huge deal for me,” said Marla Barker, a trans woman who began her transition two years ago (she/her). “My life immediately got better when I started doing it. Even before I started doing hormones, it was a big help to just be out.”

Unlike antiquated clothing sizes, the challenges faced by trans people are not uniform. Transfeminine, transmasculine and nonbinary people have their own unique set of clothing hurdles to face. From finding sizes that shirk narrow ideas of body types to accessories that express a person’s creativity, the task can seem daunting to say the least. 

“Personally, for me, I’ll go to stores, and on the surface, I have a beard and body hair. I look very stereotypically male if you will,” said Ari Rosenblum, NXT Queer Youth Program team lead at Mile High Behavioral Healthcare which includes the Transgender Center of the Rockies (they/them). “And, definitely feeling like I’m going to be judged when I’m trying on sparkly shoes in the women’s department, or just in general shopping around in the women’s department. It’s definitely something that, as a nonbinary person, is very uncomfortable for me.”

The Transgender Center of the Rockies has long provided gender-affirming clothing items but only recently launched their pop-up shop Marsha’s Closet, named in honor of Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson. Co-organizers of Marsha’s Closet, Rosenblum and Erin Lowrey, hope the donation-based store will increase access to clothing and accessories while helping Denver’s trans community obtain gender euphoria.

Interviews with Rosenblum along with various members of the trans and nonbinary communities revealed nuggets of advice that can help someone at the beginning of their self-affirming journey. The biggest takeaway from every interview was that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Interviewees found ways to navigate their own personal journeys according to personal preferences. However, the end goal should always be the same: personal satisfaction.

The Experimentation

According to Rosenblum, many people at the start of their journey often struggle with finding their own sense of fashion. For that reason, thrifting can be useful. 

“I do like thrift stores, but it is very much a toss-up on if I’m going to be able to find anything,” said Oliver Albright, a transmasculine person (he/him). “That said, I find I’m much more willing to make compromises on what I consider good when I’m talking about thrifting versus going to a box store. I’m much more OK with the idea of having to alter clothes myself if I spend thrift store prices on something rather than if it was full price.” 

Thrift stores provide low-cost garments, making it easier to experiment without spending tons of money. The ability to buy large quantities of items makes it easier to take a trial-and-error approach to developing a new sense of fashion. That’s especially important, since finding a style that doesn’t clash with itself can be more challenging than expected. 

“The whole thing is kind of, there’s all these separate little steps of needing to relearn things,” said Kate Mackenzie, who began her transition four years ago (she/her). “The only way to figure it out is by exploring, you figure it out by doing.”

The Buddy System

The importance of a supportive social circle cannot be understated, whether it’s familial or adopted. For one, friends can provide feedback on what looks good and what does not. For adults relearning how to present themselves to the world, friends create a safe space to experiment, mirroring how young people are offered time to experiment with style. 

“There’s a space, a leeway for kids figuring out fashion. If a kid looks goofy, that’s fine—they’re a kid. That doesn’t necessarily exist for adults,” Mackenzie said. 

According to Mackenzie, children benefit from having fewer expectations placed on them around personal style,  which creates a space for kids to try on what looks good or not without facing scrutiny from adults. Parents can also act as guides. However, adults who are relearning how to dress have to do it from square one.

“Even now, two years after I started to transition, I still find myself feeling like I’m kind of dressing like a middle school girl,” Barker said. “I will go out with my mom or something, and she’ll say, ‘That is a crazy combination of colors. You should not do that.’ Having people around who will say that to me is great, but it’s fairly unusual. There’s still a lot of us that don’t have family connections for a huge myriad of reasons.”

That’s why having supportive friends, whether cis or trans, can be hugely beneficial. This is especially true if the support is coming from someone who has already walked this path. Mackenzie said that having people who are enthusiastic about the process and want to see her in something that will make her happy makes the whole process less overwhelming. 

Having supportive friends and family members also opens the doors to more closets ready to be raided while allowing trans people a safe space to experiment. Beyond that is the peace of mind that comes with having a buddy present, especially if someone has a fear of being confronted while shopping.

“Do I want them to start a fight? No. But the assurance that if someone starts a scene, I’m not on my own? I appreciate that,” Mackenzie said. 

The Secret to Women’s Sizes is That None of it Makes Any Sense

Women’s sizes present their own peculiarities. While men’s sizes tend to be uniform across brands, there’s no standardization across women’s sizes. On top of that, there’s the societal expectation of the “ideal” female body type, which manufacturers cater to. 

“No company is consistent at all,” said Sable Schultz, director of trans services at the Center on Colfax (she/her). “Most fashions are designed for very, very specific body types, which looks good on a lot of the runway models but can be an extra challenge if you have a bigger bodies or if don’t have the same development as maybe cisgender people.” 

All this adds up to trans women having to navigate sizes that change from brand to brand. Bras present a special challenge as well, since many trans women have chests that are smaller than what manufacturers build to. 

Schultz’s advice on this is to get a measuring tape and get one’s sizes down. Retailer websites often have clothing options that provide sizing charts, making it possible to figure out what is a small, medium or large across different brands. As far as bras go, Mackenzie recommends Google as a good resource to learn about sizing. 

While trans women face a plethora of ill-fitting choices, trans men face a dearth of options. Schultz said that there is a lack of shops catering to transmasculine people. Many trans men are forced to shop in the children’s section, leading to clothing choices that are often seen as unprofessional. Another area that provides a hurdle is chest binders, a very specific piece of attire often used prior to medical intervention. 

“The main issue I’ve had with buying binders is, again, in the advertising. They’re often advertised as being for cis men as shapewear or for cis women as ‘butch’ or ‘tomboy’ clothes,” Albright said. “Not to say that cis people can’t or shouldn’t be interested in owning a binder for any reason, but it is kind of alienating to see one of the few things that are actually made for you being advertised to anyone but you.”

Albright currently uses a compression sports bra to fulfill that purpose. He said that sizing can be tricky since measurements must be taken in inches. A soft tape measure is the best way to get those measurements down. 

The DIY Scene

Barker’s particular challenge is height.

“When it comes to body sizes, I’m six feet tall. It’s tough to find women’s sizes, generally, and also, oftentimes if I do, my shoulders will be a little bit big or I’ll be more tall than expected. It’s a funny combination. By and large, when you find larger sizes of clothing, they’ll fit me in one way or another. I’ll be comfy in the waist here, but it’ll be baggy in places that look unfortunate.”

However, her search for well-fitting clothing has led her to discover queer designers. Although there is a cost premium due to the fact these are independent producers, Barker said that it’s nice to find something made for bodies like hers. She recommends Erica Williams and Maya Kern in particular. 

As a former graphic designer, Barker makes her own T-shirt designs. Through a website called Threadless, she uploads her image, chooses a shirt fit and purchases the resulting product at cost. For people who know how to work tech, it’s fast, she said. The website also allows users to set up their own store. Although not everyone possesses graphic design skills, for those that do this one way to make properly fitting clothing. 

The Winding Path to Gender Euphoria

While online shops and thrift stores provide ways to anonymously and cheaply experiment (while keeping return policies in mind), the importance of the transgender and nonbinary community cannot be overstated. Resources such as Marsha’s Closet, or clothing swaps, not only provide clothing but potentially introduce like-minded people willing to give guidance. 

Rosenblum said that there are a lot of rules in creative expression that prevent people from being creative. Their advice? Break them. 

Some people like to go slow, others like to dash their anxiety against a rock and dive right in. It’s OK to find new items in drips and drabs rather than reinvent style all at once. The important thing is to feel validated in what one wears. The end goal should be euphoria. 

“Gender dysphoria is talked about a whole lot,” Mackenzie said. “I don’t need to explain that to you, but a sentiment I see barely with people providing advice to new trans folks is that nobody ever talks about gender euphoria as much—how good it feels to actually see yourself as a woman. How good it looks to see yourself and go, ‘Holy shit. I am, in fact, a cute girl.’ It’s a big deal. Even if you’re not doing it all the time, it feels good to be doing it at all.”

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