PORTLAND, Maine — A quick trip to the mall for a new dress or summer sandals is effortless for many, and even fun for others.
But that same shopping trip can be overwhelming or even impossible for a trans person.
"It might look like just a JC Penneys to someone else, but to a trans person, that can be a very terrifying experience," Kai Cardinal, manager of Safe Combinations, said. "Stepping into a different section for the first time in their life and what’s going to happen from that? Will they be judged? Will they be flagged somewhere by someone? Any range of bad things can happen during that process, and that can be very scary, especially for people that are newly out."
Cardinal hopes the new safe, affirming thrift shop operated by TransNet of Maine will make such shopping trips easier and maybe even fun.
The shop, located in the Equality Community Center in downtown Portland, will hold its grand opening at noon on Friday, one day before Portland's Pride parade passes just down the street.
Finding affordable clothing is often a struggle for transgender Mainers, who see twice the poverty rate of the rest of the state, Maine TransNet Executive Director Quinn Gormley said. So clothing at Safe Combinations has suggested prices: $10 for footwear and $25 for one-piece garments like dresses or jumpsuits. But customers are asked only to pay what they can. And gender-affirming undergarments, such as binders and bras, are free.
“One of the challenges of coming out or transitioning is, could you replace your entire wardrobe this afternoon if your life depended on it,” Gormley said. “For a lot of trans Mainers, that question isn’t hypothetical. Our lives and certainly our livelihoods depend on having clothing that looks professional and affirms who they are, and the answer unfortunately for too many Mainers is no, they can’t afford to do that.”
Cardinal said the shop is working with a family who has taken in a young trans person whose biological family is "not supporting them and has been awful to them."
“They are in that exact situation: They have no clothes on their back. They came out of the situation with nothing, not even a cellphone," they said. "And so we’re working with them to get some clothes for this youth, and to be able to not only feel affirmed but just feel human again, and that’s a huge struggle that can be felt frequently in this community.”
Since TransNet announced it would accept donations of clothing, the shop has been overwhelmed with dresses and belts, neckties, necklaces, bras, and shoes -- even a wedding dress. So much so that they've put donations on hold until after Pride, Cardinal said.
But the bounty on the shelves isn't just available for the LGBTQ+ community. Everyone is encouraged to shop at Safe Combinations to help the store and TransNet thrive and to create a comfortable, community shopping environment.
“We also think it’s important to have that opportunity for folks to be able to be shopping together, for the trans and queer community to be shopping with the allies that support us so much and to all feel comfortable in the same place," Cardinal said. "And to be able to show that immediate support and also be able to find something that makes you feel good, even if you aren’t trans."
“We need cis people to shop here, because that’s the only way we’re going to have enough business in order to stay open," Gormley said. "So shopping here and donating here helps trans people, so you’re not taking anything away.”