Constance Brooks is looking at a cream-colored jacket with shoulder pads. The tag says it's a Bob Mackie, the famed designer of Cher's sparkling costumes. I insist she take the jacket home, whether it fits or not, simply for the brand's sake.
"Just break my ribs real quick," she jokes when I can't button the too-tight jacket for her. We decide to cover the gap with a scarf.
Brooks organized the inaugural Trans Closet clothing drive at The LGBT Community Center of Charlotte on Saturday, where transgender people who are starting to transition to their true gender and need a new wardrobe could try on and take home gently used clothes, free of charge. Donated items were collected the preceding week.
"When you first come out as a trans person, you have one wardrobe set for a very specific gender and in the next two, three years, you start building a new wardrobe," said Brooks, who is starting her transition. "This is an opportunity for [transgender individuals] to get the start of that wardrobe without going to spend a lot of money."
Events such as these are based on safety and comfort concerns because transgender people often face unequal treatment or harassment while shopping for what may seem to a store employee or shopper as opposite-sex clothing. When Brooks was in high school and still coming to terms with her identity, story employees often told her she couldn't try on women's clothes in the women's dressing rooms. Another store said she could use the bridal fitting room only when it was empty.
"People can come here and they won't be harassed," said O'Neale Atkinson, director of the The LGBT Community Center. "We're not going to question whether or not you're picking up male- and female-presenting clothing. You're doing you, and we embrace that."
Leftover clothes at Saturday's event will be saved for another Trans Closet event in coming months. One shopper, who asked not to be identified, wanted to see more women's shoes in larger sizes, since those making the transition from male to female may have larger feet than can fit into most women's shoes.
Atkinson blamed the small attendance at Saturday event — there was only one other shopper browsing while Brooks and I spoke — on marketing issues. But, he said, the small turnout does not reflect the need for this resource, or others, in the trans community. The LGBT Center hosts two transgender organizations that meet twice a month. About 10 to 30 people attend these meetings. The center's most frequent calls are for transgender resources, like trans-friendly doctors and therapists.
"There's absolutely a need," Atkinson said. "This was our first time trying to do this, so obviously there are some growing pains and some lessons to be learned."