SCSU’s new clothing and toiletries closet helps and uplifts LGBTQ students
By Cara McDonough / Photography by Daniel Eugene
The “Open Door Closet” isn’t your typical closet.
Yes, it takes up a corner space in a room, has drapes that act as doors for privacy and includes many of the accoutrements a closet might have (and then some) – from dresses, T-shirts, shoes and work outfits all the way to toiletries, accessories, and even wigs.
But while it’s clearly functional, providing items to anyone who needs them at Southern Connecticut State University, the closet is more than a necessity: it’s a space for gathering, support, encouragement and, sometimes, transformation.
The closet is a new addition to the university’s Sexuality and Gender Equality (SAGE) Center, which provides a wealth of programs and general support on campus and beyond, including its scholarship and “Ally in Progress” programs, an online map of all-gender restrooms on campus, and much more. In April, the center held its third annual “Lavender Graduation,” celebrating the accomplishments of graduating LGBTQ individuals.
“A lot of what we do is about creating safer spaces,” says Jenna Retort, assistant director in the Office of Student Conduct and Civic Responsibility, and coordinator of the SAGE Center. Safer, because people there recognize that when it comes to sexuality and gender, education is an ongoing process – not something wrapped up in one training session.
The SAGE Center, located in the university’s Adanti Student Center, is a cozy enclave decked out with colorful décor, plentiful seating and a friendly roster of student staff and interns. It’s a place that conveys an immediate sense of welcoming and warmth.
While the closet is located there, nestled at the back of the room with neat rows of clothing and other supplies, it isn’t only meant for the LGBTQ community the SAGE Center serves.
The Open Door Closet grew out of a planned clothing drive for an outside agency, says Retort. The drive soon yielded a sizable collection of clothing, shoes, wigs, accessories and toiletries. That’s when the event’s organizers started looking at the university’s own population with the donations in mind.
“We have a lot of students right on campus that have need,” Retort says, noting that the university already had a food pantry, but no clothing or toiletry items for those in need.
So staff and students working in the SAGE Center spent their winter break stocking and organizing the closet and put a call out to the community when school reconvened in January, letting faculty and students know that supplies and clothing were available to anyone who needed them.
The center’s website lists clear directions for getting access to the closet, whether visitors want to come to the site first, or call the office to ask about a particular item. “Students may need to utilize the Open Door Closet for a variety of reasons at various periods during their time at Southern and are always welcome to come to get items, no questions asked,” the site says. It also lists acceptable items for donation, and how to donate them.
“Getting students connected to resources is a way to help them feel comfortable during their time at the university,” Retort says.
As a truly “open” resource, the Open Door Closet might help students in a number of circumstances, whether they want the visit to be confidential, or want help from the supportive staff and students who help run the center. One student may simply visit to access needed toiletries, like toothpaste. Or the closet might provide professional attire to students who are doing their first internships, or need clothes for a job interview. Staff is happy to provide guidance on what clothes are appropriate to wear.
The closet also, importantly, may be a source of clothes for students who are questioning their gender, transitioning or simply want to experiment – and aren’t sure where to turn for guidance.
For various reasons, the closet might be especially important to the LGBTQ community, says Retort. “Scarcity of resources impacts the LGBTQ+ community more than others.” Research backs this up: the American Psychological Association states that the LGBTQ community is “especially susceptible to socioeconomic disadvantages,” due to discrimination, marginalization of youth, and other factors.
“We are an institution committed to access, and our students are coming to us with barriers to success,” says Retort. “We all work together to ease that burden for our students.”
Other Connecticut universities are considering similar measures meant to help students explore and connect. The University of Connecticut’s Rainbow Center in Storrs – which hosts a wide range of events, discussions and programming, including a lecture series, “safe zone” training and its own Lavender Graduation – is planning to host a clothing swap sometime in the future, says Julia Anderson, the center’s program coordinator.
Demetrius Colvin, director of the Student Resource Center at Wesleyan University in Middletown, says the center hosts a monthly clothing swap social on the first Friday of every month, highlighting community materials they collect for everyone in their areas of focus, including those in underrepresented racial, socioeconomic and sexuality/gender groups. Donated items include clothing, accessories, shoes, hygiene products, shelf-stable food and condoms.
“First and foremost, our monthly clothing swap socials are about community building amongst underrepresented and marginalized students at Wesleyan University,” he says. “So we purposefully collaborate with student performers, DJs, and organizations during our socials that reflect the values of our center to uplift the communities that we serve. Between the free clothes, great music, free food, and community engagement, there is something for everyone to get out of stopping on by.”
It’s clear that Connecticut’s institutions of higher learning are heeding a call, looking to help assuage need and ensure students are comfortable and supported while they do it.
“For me, it’s important for us to do this because there are students who are questioning their gender identity and might not have the resources to dress the way they want or express themselves,” says Mary Fitzgerald, a grad student who is getting a degree in social work and doing an internship at the SAGE Center.
She was at the center when a student in that position was trying on clothes from the Open Door Closet with support from her and others. “The joy that it brought … it was awesome.”