Jasper Barber is no eyeliner novice. Most people struggle to achieve even a passable cat’s-eye style look, with a single black wing at the outer corner of the eye. But Jasper’s one-of-a-kind version pushes the boundaries of this makeup mainstay, with multiple precise wings flaring out dramatically.
Jasper, who is 18 years old, is used to defying convention. They identify as nonbinary — neither male nor female — and uses he/him and gender-neutral they/them pronouns. And, as an artist and self-described “book nerd” living in Utah County, Jasper sees gender expression as a creative process that can change daily.
“Sometimes I want to look like [and] be seen as a pretty boy, other times as a masculine girl,” Jasper said. They see themselves as “a genderqueer shapeshifter” whose ideal look is “an androgynous, queer-coded villain.”
Even with such a clear sense of self, Jasper often struggles to get clothing that affirms their gender identity.
Up until this summer, Jasper didn’t have their own income to purchase clothes. Plus, for anyone whose identity or taste in fashion departs from the traditional “male” and “female” binary, shopping in a store can be awkward and stressful if employees or other shoppers think you’re browsing in the “wrong” section.
“I always get weird stares,” Jasper explained.
The freedom to dress in a way that demonstrates who you are is also directly tied to mental health outcomes, particularly for transgender, nonbinary and other gender-nonconforming people.
According to The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, “transgender and nonbinary youth with access to binders, shapewear, and gender-affirming clothing reported lower rates of attempting suicide in the past year compared to transgender and nonbinary youth without access.”
Teenagers and young adults often face obstacles when trying to get such items, though. COVID-caused economic downturn pushed millions of Americans ages 18 to 29 to move in with family members, and that growth was most dramatic among 18- to 24-year-olds, according to the Pew Research Center.
Young people living with their parents can have fewer opportunities to reinvent themselves, especially if they’re pressured to present as a gender that feels wrong to them. And if they’re students who haven’t yet entered the workforce, or they lost their job or had their pay cut, money for new clothes can be hard to come by.
“Any obstacle that youth face — economic, racial, cultural — is exaggerated for transgender youth, because all of their challenges compound,” said Dr. Jessica Robnett, who works in the University of Utah’s Transgender Adolescent Program, in a blog post in March. “We are seeing awful, hard outcomes for people who feel constantly pressured to hide their identities. Choosing to be your true, authentic self is a challenging path.”
Wanting to present as more feminine or masculine involves a lot more than buying a couple of dresses or ties, though. A functional wardrobe also includes undergarments, shoes, accessories and a selection of clothing that ranges from professional to casual. And several organizations and groups in Utah are stepping in to help, hosting pop-up and permanent “clothing closets” where people can take what they need for free.
A wardrobe overhaul
On a Saturday morning in August, volunteers at the Glendale library are arranging pairs of shoes, folding jeans neatly on long tables, and hanging tops and dresses on racks. At one end of the large meeting room is a table of new binders (which flatten the breasts to create a more masculine-looking chest) and packages of underwear, sorted by size for easy browsing.
Organized by Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid, the community group’s first gender-affirming clothing closet was tailored specifically to teenage and homeless transgender people, although anyone in need was welcome.
It could almost pass as a typical clothing boutique, but many of the volunteers are gender-fluid, a selection of librarian-curated queer books and movies fill another table along a wall and there’s — very intentionally — no “men’s section” or “women’s section.”
And unlike a regular store, everything is free. It’s like a food pantry, except for donated clothes and accessories. In this setting, transgender and nonbinary individuals can find support and feel comfortable to experiment with fit and style without judgment.
The decision to hold the Aug. 7 pop-up clothing closet at a library was a deliberate way to ensure a welcoming environment, said organizer Cameron (who uses they/them pronouns and requested to be identified only by their first name).
“Libraries tend to be a very accessible place, they tend to be places where a lot of people come, they tend to be a place where people feel safe,” they said.
Glendale library staff worked with the team to set up two private changing areas, so people could try on a variety of items and “see what connects best with them,” Cameron said.
One particular dress stood out to Evie Denison, 24. The black and red frock had a cat’s face across the bodice and curious kittens scampering on piano keys along the hem, and she pronounced it “ridiculous” and “wonderful.”
“You won’t see a piano cat dress anywhere, because that says, ‘I’m the kind of person who loves anthropomorphic cats playing instruments,’” she said. “I’m such a big fan of this.”
She and her friend Willow Christensen, 24 — both trans women — are just “your basic binary bitches,” as Evie jokingly describes them.
Willow had traveled to Salt Lake City that weekend from her home in Cedar City. She recently came out as transgender and is working to fill her closet with gender-affirming essentials. Willow was pleased with the cheery yellow polka dot dress she found at the clothing closet.
When a person comes out as trans, it’s an acknowledgement that “the life you’ve been living is not necessarily the life you want to be living, and suddenly there’s all these clothes that make you feel terrible,” said Evie, who lives in Murray but is originally from Indiana.
Wanting to outwardly express your gender identity but not having anything in your closet that affirms who you are “a very hard thing, especially if you haven’t got a lot of friends around who are willing to just give you clothes,” she said. Being trans can be “horribly expensive.”
Besides being affordable, the clothing closet at the library felt “very communal,” Willow said. While you can find on-trend clothing in standard stores, she said, such spaces are often “impersonal.”
But since the items at the clothing closet were donated, Willow said, the environment felt human and familiar.
“These are all clothes that have been loved in some manner prior, that folks just probably don’t fit in or don’t identify in a way that lets them really enjoy them as much as they used to,” she said. “I feel like every piece in there had a story behind it.”
Support for all
The members of Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid plan to continue hosting clothing closet events, open to anyone in need but focused on transgender people.
Cameron said the group will make some adjustments for future events, including coordinating with queer groups in schools, taking requests for certain items in advance, and having more resources available to people who need help.
Their hope “is no one who comes walks out feeling alone,” Cameron said.
Other organizations in Salt Lake and Utah counties appear to have a similar goal.
In the Salt Lake City School District, West High School and East High School both have free clothing available.
Students of any gender, identity or sexual orientation can “shop” at East High School’s free Leopard Boutique for “whatever items fit them best,” said Tiffany Provost, a family and school collaboration specialist. “We want to try and be inclusive to everyone.”
Stocked with new and secondhand clothing, shoes, jackets, underwear and more, the Leopard Boutique is open before and after school as well as during lunch. All students in the school district are welcome, as are any people they live with, Provost explained. And, she said, any young person in need can come shop as well.
All gender-indicative labels were recently removed from the clothing, Provost said. If a student can’t find what they’re looking for, the school offers vouchers for Deseret Industries.
Across Salt Lake City at West High School, there is a small clothing selection available to students and families as part of the Family Resource Center, which also offers a food pantry, school supplies and helps connect people to community resources and services.
The Family Resource Center clothing closet stocks basic items like sweatshirts, coats, socks and underwear, said Sara Palomino, who’s also a family and school collaboration specialist. Like East, West can offer vouchers to nearby stores if a student or family needs something specific.
Being able to have their day-to-day needs met increases students’ chances of succeeding in school, Palomino said. “School is one of the few institutions and organizations in the community that is supposed to be safe for all students and families.” And when things are not going well at home, “education will suffer.”
LGBTQ youth, young adults and their families outside of the Salt Lake metro area can turn to Encircle for housing and support — including help finding gender-affirming clothing. A staff member managing Encircle’s text message helpline said that members of Encircle’s in-home staff can often point people in the right direction.
Since coming out as nonbinary, Jasper said it feels like they’re now free of a heavy weight.
In a recent video Jasper posted on TikTok, that freedom is visible. Confidently lip-syncing to a remix of the song “Primadonna” by Marina and the Diamonds, Jasper’s look is bold and fierce, complete with vibrant turquoise hair and, of course, flawless eyeliner.
The caption encapsulates Jasper’s constantly shifting style: “Clothes have no gender, makeup has no gender. Wear what makes you happy.”