Meet the UK activist bringing clothes and community to trans youth
G(end)er Swap: gender-affirming fashion can be a ‘lifesaver’ for young trans people – who can wait years for vital healthcare
“Mainstream fashion brands don’t make clothes for trans and gender non-conforming bodies,” said Santiago Sorrenti, a genderqueer activist, educator and founder of the LGBTQ+ organisation G(end)er Swap. “It can be difficult to find sizing and cuts that fit.”
Santi launched G(end)er Swap in 2017 as a London-based ‘clothes swap’ – to create a safe space for trans and gender-nonconforming people to find gender-affirming clothes and community.
“I had started shopping more in the men’s section of clothing stores and was having issues accessing changing rooms,” Santi told me. “When I did a Google search of ‘queer clothes swaps’ to find a safe space to explore my gender expression, and to connect with like-minded folks, I couldn’t find any – so I decided to start my own.”
At G(end)er Swap’s first events, Santi found there was a huge demand for transitional items, such as wigs, make-up and binders (compression vests that flatten chest tissue and are typically worn by trans men or transmasculine and non-binary people who want their chests to appear flatter).
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“Waiting lists for gender-affirming healthcare are gargantuan […] It’s important that there are resources to support young people as best we can in the meantime,” Santi said.
Lack of access to healthcare and support
In the UK, although the NHS has a legal obligation to provide specialist care within 18 weeks of a referral from a doctor, many trans people wait years for a first appointment. It’s particularly difficult for young people: the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in London and Leeds are the only publicly funded gender clinics for under-18s in England and Wales. Scotland has one youth clinic, in Glasgow.
In December 2020, a High Court ruling stopped under-16s from accessing puberty blockers. By delaying puberty until a trans person is old enough to make decisions about gender-affirming medical care, hormone-blocking treatment has been shown to significantly reduce trans teens’ risk of suicide and mental health problems.
The decision has since been overturned, but delays caused by the court case have increased waiting times further – leaving many young trans people in limbo, without access to essential healthcare and support.
“Making style resources, clothes and transitional items, such as binders, affordable and more accessible has been key to sustaining the well-being of trans folks, especially young people,” Santi emphasised.
Last year, G(end)er Swap partnered with GC2B, a US company selling chest binders, to provide hundreds of free binders to transmasculine people in the UK as well as service users at LGBTQ+ rights charities elsewhere, including Bilitis in Bulgaria and Oasis in Nigeria.
Second-hand binders are also available on G(end)er Swap’s online shop, and at in-person collection points, including a Lush cosmetics branch in London, in exchange for a small donation.
‘Fashion is a lifesaver’
Although we live in a very binary society where people tend to make assumptions about gender based on physical markers such as appearance and dress, “not a lot of folks understand why clothes are important to the LGBTQ+ community,” Santi explained.
Being misread and misgendered can trigger gender dysphoria – but the right clothes can be affirming for a trans person. “When clothes fit right, a sense of gender euphoria is released,” they told me: “Fashion is a lifesaver for many.”
“Style has been an integral part of affirming and understanding my queer identity,” Santi added. But low-income trans people, and trans teenagers who live with unaccepting parents, often struggle to access the clothes and transitional items they may need in order to feel more comfortable in their bodies.
In 2020, G(end)er Swap was recognised by Social Enterprise UK for its “outstanding response to COVID-19” after it expanded its digital presence to support LGBTQ+ young people at home. Santi gave online workshops and also created a YouTube channel sharing gender-affirming style tips such as make-up tutorials and how to measure yourself for a well-fitting binder. Free downloadable resources teach DIY alterations and upcycling.
This model is not only sustainable but cost-saving, Santi explained; it means that young or low-income trans people don’t have to fork out for a gender-affirming wardrobe.
Following feedback from the trans community, the project has expanded; new initiatives range from ‘back to school’ styling tips to trans-awareness training for retail staff, and support for trans women in prison with donations of gender-affirming clothes and make-up. Since 2017, Santi has delivered more than 100 workshops (online and in person) for trans and gender non-conforming young people and allies.
G(end)er Swap is shortlisted for the 2021 National Diversity Awards in the gender category for community organisations.
Queer community is vital
A 2021 survey by trans-led group TransActual found a “hostile environment” in the UK for trans and non-binary people, particularly trans people of colour. They experience elevated rates of homelessness, unemployment and discrimination when accessing housing and healthcare; transphobic bullying online and in the workplace; and transphobic street harassment – all reinforced by a media landscape that is largely hostile to trans people.
“I would love for there to be physical locations for people to go to, to find clothes and binders, to attend workshops – an ongoing community space, like a trans-safe clothing haven,” Santi said, describing their plans for G(end)er Swap.
Spaces like these help trans people access a vital sense of community. Santi explained: “Queer community is so important because it's where we feel safe, form our chosen families and find lifelong kinship. It’s where we feel free to be ourselves.”
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