By Frankie Rowley
For trans youth in southwest Florida, buying clothes isn’t a pleasant pastime. It more closely resembles a tactical operation of avoiding clerks’ stares, navigating gendered departments, and outrunning a wall of dysphoria.
For Tristán Key, a gender-fluid trans man clothing is one of the most important expression of his identity.
“Dressing with the right clothing can only be described as feeling like you finally belong to yourself. Dressing differently than how you identify can make you feel so insecure and even ashamed,” said Key.
Like Key, many trans people struggle with gender dysphoria, an extreme discomfort with the gender they were assigned at birth. This dysphoria can include unease with their body and their expected gender role.
Transitioning to a different gender involves more than social changes, like being called by their preferred name or medical changes like hormones or surgery.
Trans people express their gender by styling their hair differently and wearing makeup or not.
But hair and makeup are easier than buying clothes.
“We look at clothing differently. We have to. Wearing a dress isn’t going to make me feel the same way as wearing a suit,” said Kenzie Roots, a transgender woman. “Clothes can help or destroy our mental health quite easily. It’s sad actually.”
Many trans people fear that going to malls or department stores can lead to discrimination or violence. In five years, at least 128 trans people have been murdered, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Key and Roots found a more understanding way to shop: Instagram.
Clothing Swaps (@clothing_swaps_charity) is an Instagram-based charity owned and operated by Zoe Richotte, an Estero High School senior.
In just two years, Clothing Swaps has made a name for itself in the trans community. The page has over 1,600 followers.
It acts as a safe space for trans youth to connect. They swap clothing through the Instagram, participate in Richotte’s giveaways, and message her directly for certain items.
“I raise money from friends and family through things like GoFundMe and use my own money to buy a lot of the items I give away,” said Richotte. “People also DM me with clothes they would like to donate. We organize the items into categories, like gender affirming products, clothing, toiletries, etc. and then I host giveaways for the items.”
Clothing Swaps addresses problems trans people face when trying to access the clothes that represent them.
“I donate items like clothing, bathroom products, gaffs, binders, bras and filling, etc. Anything really that will help alleviate the dysphoria for the individual.”
Binders are undergarments that flattens breasts. Gaffs are undergarments that flatten the crotch.
Clothing Swaps also donates accessories, toiletries and makeup.
When trans youth live with families who don’t accept them, they sometimes go into hiding. They conform to how they’re “supposed” to dress.
“It’s hard for trans people that have to hide their true selves to have access to clothes that are specific to their gender because they’re focused on not getting caught,” said S’Niyah Tate, a trans woman.
Tate received makeup from Clothing Swaps when she was still closeted.
Back then, she didn’t shop for clothes. Instead, she stole items from her female cousin and wore them when no one else was home.
“When I was closeted, I was in constant fear of being caught,” Tate said. “I couldn’t buy my own clothes. I didn’t have any money and I was scared to go shopping because I didn’t want to be looked at or talked about.”
Clothing Swaps doubles as a safe space for trans people to connect with those facing the same trials. Although it is online, it’s much easier than online shopping.
Not many retailer’s websites are designed for trans people’s situations.
“Men’s clothing is more straight fitted and comes in bigger sizes. Women’s clothing is more form fitted and comes in smaller sizes. It’s made to fit the ‘ideal’ body type for that gender, which makes finding clothes hard for trans people,” said Key.
Those ill-fitting garments can heighten dysphoria.
“Sometimes, when I try men’s outfits on, I’ll feel a tad dysphoric, because of how it looks on me, with a body that doesn’t match my identity or what I wish to look like,” said Oliver Rubarski, a trans-masculine student and Gender Sexuality Alliance president.
Online shopping customers can’t try on clothing beforehand, making every delivered package a risk for dysphoria.
Richotte converts the clothing sizes from women’s to men’s and vice versa for her charity.
Many trans people simply can’t afford the clothes they want. Having to order clothes in special sizes online can be difficult and so can finding inexpensive gender-affirming products.
“From my experience, products marketed towards our community can be quite pricey. Good quality binders cost quite a bit of money and anything that’s ‘gender-neutral’ is more expensive than normal clothing most of the time,” said Rubarski.
Clothing Swaps tries to ease that financial burden.
“About 98% of the people I help never have to put any money towards the things they receive,” said Richotte. “The only exception is when people want to do a true clothing swap with someone, then they have to pay to ship the items.”
While Clothing Swaps continues to serve its small following, the retail battleground rages on. Similar charities could be the start of a new way for trans people to shop.
“I’ve been told by the people who follow me how much I’ve helped them and the responses I get from the winners of my giveaways proves that I’m making a positive impact,” said Richotte. “I want the trans people I help to know that there are people who love them and want to help them have a better world to live in.”