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Transgender nonprofit opens a thrift shop in Portland to create a safe, ungendered shopping space

Solis Juarez-Love, left, helps Louis Smith, right, try on a bracelet at a new thrift shop, Safe Combinations, in Portland. Maine TransNet, the only transgender-led nonprofit in the state, is opening a the shop in hopes of creating a safe and affordable place for all people to shop without facing judgement.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
Solis Juarez-Love, left, helps Louis Smith, right, try on a bracelet at a new thrift shop, Safe Combinations, in Portland. Maine TransNet, the only transgender-led nonprofit in the state, is opening a the shop in hopes of creating a safe and affordable place for all people to shop without facing judgement.

On a Sunday afternoon in early June, Louis Smith and his friend Solis Juarez-Love are browsing the racks at Safe Combinations, a new thrift shop in Portland.

It isn’t just any thrift shop, though. It was created by the nonprofit Maine TransNet with people like Smith and Juarez-Love in mind – transgender and nonbinary folks who are looking for a safe, welcoming and ungendered space to try on and buy affordable clothing.

Smith gravitates towards a red dress with white flowers. After a few seconds, he puts the dress back on the rack and continues shopping, casually chatting with Juarez-Love and Kai Cardinal, the thrift store manager. He makes his way back to the dress.

“I just keep coming back to this,” Smith says while holding up the dress.

“Grab it! Take it, take it!” Juarez-Love encourages him.

Smith says it’s not something he would normally wear, but lately he's been curious to experiment with his wardrobe.

“I think I’m like taking like androgyny in like baby steps,” he says. “I’m getting there.” 

Cardinal, the shop manager, encourages him to try it on. Smith considers this, appearing unsure as he looks back at the dress and then to Cardinal. Finally, he smiles and agrees to give it a try.

Smith and Juarez-Love head to the dressing room. Cardinal says the freedom to experiment and try on whatever you want is exactly why Safe Combinations exists. All of the donated clothing is organized by type – tops, bottoms, shoes – and there are no male or female sections.

“Part of the process for this was deciding how to best rack everything as un-gender divided as possible,” Cardinal said. “We encourage folks who have a nice big dressing room to try everything on as they go. It can be hard to figure out your sizing when you start transitioning and start presenting in different ways.”

Cardinal says Maine TransNet decided to open Safe Combinations after years of hearing about negative shopping experiences, including harassment, from the transgender community in Maine. Juarez-Love says he’s felt nervous and scared shopping at some stores in the past. But not here.

“I can feel comfortable and safe [here], kind of looking at whatever I want to look at without people looking at me and wondering what I'm doing and wondering what I'm doing like in their section,” Juarez-Love says.

“I think every trans person has a story like that, especially early into transition, where you get told ‘no,’ or you get stared at, or you get treated poorly,” Cardinal says. “It can be a very dysphoric experience to go through and shop at a regular outlet store or at another thrift shop because it's very public. And it can feel like the whole world watching you.”

Hazel Johnson, a Maine TransNet volunteer, says having an affirming place to shop is extremely important for trans people as they begin to transition.

“You can go into any old shop and buy a shirt that is going to fit you and cover you and do its job. But it's hard to go into a place and find something that is going to make you feel like yourself,” Johnson says.

It’s also expensive to purchase an entirely new wardrobe, Johnson says, on top of any costs associated with a medical transition. Studies show that transgender people are more likely to have extremely low incomes, compared to both the general population and the LGBT population. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 25% of transgender people were living in poverty in Maine. Advocates say having a safe and affordable place to purchase a new wardrobe is essential for the wellbeing of trans Mainers.

“To be able to walk into a shop and be like, I need a shirt and I have $1, but I would also like to use my dollar for food. So, to get a shirt for free would be ideal, and to have that shirt be something that you just you feel fabulous in... that hasn’t existed here until now,” Johnson says.

Safe Combinations will also offer bras and binders, used to flatten one’s chest, for free.

The shop is located in the new Equality Community Center in Portland, a shared office space with other LGBTQ+ organizations in the state. Center manager Chris O’Connor says having a safe haven for trans people is more important than ever, referring to bills introduced across the country ranging from banning transgender girls from participating in youth sports to limiting transgender individuals’ abilities to receive gender-affirming health care.

“We're watching particularly trans rights be attacked across the country and the fact that we have physical space that is ours that people can't take away… I haven't experienced anything like that in Greater Portland and even in Maine,” O’Connor says.

Numerous studies show that transgender people experience incredibly high rates of poverty, harassment, violence, poor health, limited job opportunities and isolation from their larger communities. The 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey found that trans high schoolers were more likely to experience health disparities, violence, and harassment and that more than half seriously considered suicide. Maine TransNet says having safe, welcoming spaces, like Safe Combinations, is a positive step in helping trans Mainers feel a sense of belonging.

“To have something like a thrift store like this so close by … it makes all the difference, you know?” Smith says as he and Juarez-Love come back from the dressing room and get ready to check out.

Smith tried on the dress, but didn’t like it. He says he is glad he tried it, though.

“That was a big step forward,” he says.

Cardinal says the opportunity for Smith to try on the dress, and put it back, is precisely the kind of normal shopping experience that trans folks don’t often get in traditional clothing stores.

“That would be a terrifying ordeal when I first came out to have gone and done at, like, a JC Penney or even a Goodwill. I would have come back to that thing like 12 times, and I never would have tried it on,” Cardinal says. “And to just know that he felt comfortable enough to do that here … it was, yay! That's what we're here for.”

Cardinal says Safe Combinations is already overwhelmed with an outpouring of donations, but they will hold several donation drop off days later this summer, which will be posted on their website and social media. The store’s grand opening will be from 1-6 p.m. Friday, June 17, ahead of Portland’s Pride weekend.