Shelly Barber gestures around her small clothing boutique in Pflugerville. There are outfits galore, along with shoes, makeup and accessories.
“Anything you need to look cool, we got it,” Barber says.
Barber wants her clients looking and feeling their best, especially in the face of the challenges they have faced lately. She runs Sammie’s Closet, a clothing pantry for transgender and nonbinary people who need outfits that align with their gender. She wants to show love to a community that has come under scrutiny in recent months.
“And what’s the opposite of hate and intolerance?” Barber says. “Love and support.”
The project started when Sammie, an acquaintance of Barber’s daughter, came to stay with her. During that time, Barber says Sammie felt comfortable enough to begin transitioning.
“I saw what she was going through,” Barber says. “And I wanted to support her.”
Barber didn’t have the funds available to help Sammie buy new outfits. But she put a request on her local Buy Nothing Facebook group, asking if anyone could donate old clothes and makeup. The response, Barber says, was overwhelming. They soon had swaths of dresses and heels, makeup sets and jewelry.
“The first time she went out in her new outfit, she was walking on air,” Barber says.
Clothing can be an accessible facet in transitioning for many transgender individuals, according to Landon Richie, a policy associate with the Trans Education Network of Texas.
“First and foremost it's about feeling comfortable in your own skin,” Richie says. “Clothing can be such a huge part of that, even before medical transition, which is a lot more inaccessible than just getting a new wardrobe which is still in and of itself not accessible to everyone.”
Access to funds can be an issue for some trans people. Studies show that while the LGBTQ+ community as a whole experiences higher rates of poverty than the overall population, trans individuals have some of the highest rates of poverty within that group. One study found that while the average poverty rate for cisgendered gay men was roughly 12%, it more than doubled to 29.4% for trans individuals. Poverty rates were compounded if individuals were also people of color. Richie says access to clothing pantries like Sammie’s Closet can be incredibly important to trans individuals.
“Especially if you’re coming out later in life, and you need a whole new wardrobe,” Richie says. “That's a lot of money. It's just not something that everybody has.”
Adding to the challenges is a new set of laws that will directly impact the transgender community in Texas. Bills are set to go into effect in the coming months that will bar transition-related healthcare for transgender minors and block trans athletes from participating in NCAA sports. Barber says she watched the events unfold and felt frustrated that she couldn’t do anything to help. Then she realized a solution might just be in her closet.
“I saw how happy it made Sammie to have those clothes,” Barber says. “So I thought, why don’t I do this for other people?”
Barber asked Sammie if the closet she helped inspire could share her name. They’ve found support from neighbors and a sponsor in the St. Joan of Arc Episcopal Church. Visitors in need of items can peruse racks of dresses and tops, sneakers and heels. Barber also has business attire for job interviews and athletic wear. While the aim is to assist trans community members, Barber says the closet is also open to anyone in need.
“If you’re homeless and you just need five days worth of clothes, we’re here for you,” Barber says. “The only need you have to have is that you want to look fabulous that day.”
Currently Sammie’s Closet is open by appointment only. But Barber hopes to see the closet grow and help more people in Pflugerville. And if the success of a recent clothing swap during Pflugerville Pride is any indication, others want to see the program expand as well. But more than anything Barber wants to stand up for people like Sammie.
“I was fortunate enough to have someone in my life like Sammie, and even though she doesn’t live with us anymore, I wanted to keep fighting for her,” Barber says. “This is how I stand up.”
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