Cura and Couture: Queer Closet Fashions Supportive Community on Campus
It’s not always easy to feel comfortable in one’s own skin as a college student, especially if a person identifies as transgender or identifies in a way that does not conform to traditional gendered expectations of how a person looks or dresses.
Saint Louis University’s new Queer Closet, a student-founded, student-run clothing resource center, aims to help, creating community and carrying cura along with jackets, shirts and binders.
“It’s a safe space that takes the emotional labor out of shopping as you’re considering transitioning or how to live your real gender identity,” junior Grayson Chamberlain, the closet’s co-founder said. “It’s terrible to walk into a store to buy boxers and to have a sales associate say, ‘What size is your boyfriend?’”
"One major issue in the queer community involves the expression of gender," senior Regis Wilson, past president of the Rainbow Alliance and Queer Closet co-organizer, said. "Many individuals question their gender and how best to express it at an affordable cost. One way we thought of bridging that gap was Queer Closet. With this resource, gender queer, questioning, androgynous and transsexual individuals can experiment with their gender expression."
Housed in the office of Rainbow Alliance, the student group dedicated to supporting LGBTQIA Billikens and allies, the closet is a clothing library, where any student can check out and purchase donated clothing items, including fashion accessories and undergarments that help people wear garments that correspond to their gender identification in a flattering, comfortable way.
“Anyone who is seeking to present themselves in a way that is gender-non-conforming can find it trying or even risky to walk across a clothing store aisle to a different section,” junior Abby Lawrence, vice president of Rainbow Alliance and closet co-organizer, said. “This is way a for SLU students who are exploring ways to express their identity to try things before they are ready to go shopping fully on their own.”
Carrying Cura Along with Clothing
Chamberlain, who identifies as transgender, recalled the loneliness he experienced as he transitioned and was inspired to start a forerunner to Queer Closet in his residence hall room. The junior psychology and women and gender studies major started lending clothing out to other students from his own wardrobe.
“Freshmen boys come to college and realize, ‘Oh, I’m going to a nice restaurant and I only have T-shirts,’” Chamberlain explained. Beyond helping his fellow Billikens avoid fashion faux pas, Chamberlain wanted to help other students who were seeking to express their gender identities with a campus-wide resource, one that could build a community to support students on their identity formation journeys.
“No one who is questioning should have to go it alone,” Chamberlain said. “Going through that by yourself is terrible because nobody has the right answers and you don’t necessarily know anyone else who is trans or gender non-conforming or non-binary.”
Queer Closet, for its organizers, creates a community where students can seek those answers and share their experiences without stigma. Providing that space and support, according to Lawrence, is at the heart of SLU’s Jesuit mission and values.
“In an individualized sense, you can’t be discussing the whole person if you’re not discussing gender identity or expression,” Lawrence, who is majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology and women's and gender studies, said.
“Every person’s experience of gender is different," Lawrence continued. "For some people, this is going to be the first time they are going to be their whole person. By having this on campus, and these tools available, students are able to care for themselves as whole people, and we’re able to assist them in growing and expressing themselves to the fullest.”
Seeking SLU Support to Start a New Sartorial Resource
Working with Lawrence and the leaders of Rainbow Alliance, the idea morphed into Queer Closet. Chamberlain, Lawrence and Wilson, a student in the Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business, worked with Leah Sweetman, Ph.D., assistant director of the Center for Service and Community Engagement (CSCE) to complete and submit a 1818 grant.
"We were pleased to partner with Queer Closet so that individuals can acquire clothing that fits them and allows them to express who they are," Sweetman said. "Opening Queer Closet on our campus is a step toward being more affirming of students in their own identities. It has been exciting to see all of the fun items on display in the Closet that are now ready to be worn to class, on a date or to a job interview."
Inspired by the University’s bicentennial celebrations and call to service, the 1818 grant program funded 18 projects including Queer Closet as a way to help students craft projects that address real-world issues.
The CSCE received 54 applications for 1818 grants last year and 306 students and faculty members were involved in the 18 projects that formed the grant program's inaugural class.
The grant’s support enabled the closet to purchase display racks and hangers, laundry supplies, and storage for the closet’s stock.
In an individualized sense, you can’t be discussing the whole person if you’re not discussing gender identity or expression."Abby Lawrence, Queer Closet co-founder and vice president of Rainbow Alliance
Chamberlain, Wilson and Lawrence, along with other volunteers, have washed and sorted through the closet’s initial donations – more than 200 items – to ensure the clothes are appealing to Billikens across a host of identities.
Closet volunteers may, if needed, also act as fashion and fit consultants, another service to their fellow Billikens.
“That too can be a traumatic experience, if you go to try on a bra or a pair of pants and the person doesn’t quite know how to handle the situation,” Lawrence said.
The closet has also been represented at University resource fairs as a way of raising awareness about LGBTQIA issues on campus and in the wider St. Louis community.
“We are taking on the role of diversity workers in campus life,” Lawrence said, explaining that those involved with the closet have taken on the role to respond to an institutional need at SLU and on other campuses.
How to Use the Closet
- The closet is open by appointment and its organizers hope to set regular hours in the future.
- It costs $5 in dues to access the closet’s library. The $5 is a check-out fee and checked out items must be returned to the closet.
- Once an item or items is returned, a person can check out more clothes.
- Clothing can also be purchased at any time. Prices are set by the closet's organizing committee.
- Dues will go toward sustaining the closet’s stock and operations.
Want to Help?
- Queer Closet is currently accepting donations.
- Donated clothing items must meet the same requirements as those set by organizations like Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
- The closet does not accept donated socks, swimsuits, brassieres, underwear or other undergarments of any kind.
Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of now more than 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.
Story and photos by Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications