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 the shop in hopes of creating a safe and affordable place for all people to shop without facing judgment. Credit: Esta Pratt-Kielley / Maine Public

On a Sunday afternoon in early June, Louis Smith and his friend Solis Juarez-Love browsed 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 gravitated toward a red dress with white flowers. After a few seconds, he put the dress back on the rack and continued shopping, casually chatting with Juarez-Love and Kai Cardinal, the thrift store manager. He made his way back to the dress.

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

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

Smith said 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 said. “I’m getting there.”

Cardinal, the shop manager, encouraged him to try it on. Smith considered this, appearing unsure as he looked back at the dress and then to Cardinal. Finally, he smiled and agreed to give it a try.

Smith and Juarez-Love headed to the dressing room. Cardinal said 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 ungender 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 said 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 said 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 said.

“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 said. “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, said 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 said.

It’s also expensive to purchase an entirely new wardrobe, Johnson said, on top of any costs associated with a medical transition.

Studies show that transgender people are more likely to have extremely low incomes, compared with the general population and the LGBT population. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 25 percent 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 said.

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 said 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 said.

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 said 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 said as he and Juarez-Love came back from the dressing room and get ready to check out.

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

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

Cardinal said 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 said. “And to just know that he felt comfortable enough to do that here … it was, yay! That’s what we’re here for.”

Cardinal said 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 was scheduled for 1-6 p.m. Friday ahead of Portland’s Pride weekend.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.