When Yue Zhang grad, a Ph.D. student in biophysics, started graduate school at Cornell in 2022, she was disappointed to find that Cornell offered no gender-affirming repository of clothing. Instead, Zhang said, there were only sporadic clothing swaps.
When Zhang — who identifies as a trans woman — joined QGrads, an LGBTQ+ graduate student organization, she found a community that supported her vision to create a more permanent clothing resource. This vision ultimately became the Life Transitions Closet, a resource for people undergoing life changes, particularly in gender identity and expression.
“There’s plenty of people who, for any number of reasons, can’t get a hold of a wardrobe they feel fits them,” Zhang said. The Life Transitions Closet is able to fill that gap in the community.
The Life Transitions Closet is open to walk-ins from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays. It recently shifted locations from a transitory room in the basement of 626 Thurston Avenue to a permanent location in the LGBT Resource Center, Room 302 of the same building.
Donations and acquisitions are facilitated on a walk-in basis. The repository operates without a constant presence, so people can go in and scan a QR code to either donate or take clothing, meaning those who may be uncomfortable being seen in the space do not need to interact with others.
In 2022, the Life Transitions Closet received a $1,000 grant from the Belonging at Cornell Grant Program that funded the creation of the closet. Gundeep Singh grad, a Ph.D. student in biophysics and co-president of QGrads, said that when Zhang first approached them with the idea for the closet, he thought Zhang’s idea seemed great, but Singh worried that the closet would not be feasible.
“[The closet] seemed like such a logistical, organizational hurdle,” Singh said. “At the beginning, [I thought that] it would be cool to have [the closet], but [thought], ‘How can we make that happen?’”
Around the same time that discussions began about the Life Transitions Closet, Zhang noticed a call for ideas from the Belonging at Cornell Grant Program. While the program began in Fall 2020 with only a faculty and staff grant option, in Fall 2022, the Presidential Advisors on Diversity and Equity decided to add a second graduate student and professional student category to further enhance the sense of belonging for the campus community, according to a newsletter from September 2022. The grant awards up to $1,000 to projects that promise to promote a sense of belonging and fair treatment and make a sustained difference to the Cornell campus.
The QGrads Life Transitions Closet team, consisting of Zhang, Singh and Alex Pasqualini grad, a Ph.D. student in music and sound studies, was one of the inaugural grant recipients.
Their proposal called for a donation-based community closet that offered free, gender-affirming clothes to queer, trans and non-binary students undergoing a transitory period of gender identity and expression. The Trans Empowerment Programming of Cornell’s LGBT Resources Center also sponsored the proposal, and that initial connection ended up landing the Life Transitions Closet its permanent home at 626 Thurston Ave.
Cortney Johnson, the interim director of the LGBT Resource Center at Cornell, said the center was happy to help fulfill the students’ idea for the Life Transitions Closet.
“The Life Transitions Closet is important because it provides an opportunity for students to find affirming clothes for free, in a welcoming space,” Johnson wrote in an email to The Sun. Johnson hopes, however, that the “students [will] remain the visionaries for the space” while they provide support to the project.
Zhang said that people of all ages and backgrounds often find it difficult to discover clothing they feel comfortable in. Both Singh and Zhang reflected on their personal experience utilizing clothing as a means of gender expression and personal fulfillment.
“I identify as genderqueer myself, and finding clothes that affirm that gender identity is super important. I do believe that the transformation comes from both inner to outer and outer to inner,” Singh said. “[Having] other people see you as who you want to be seen [as] is something that clothes and accessories can serve a purpose for.”
Zhang meanwhile said she “had the whole experience” of needing to find clothing during a transition.
“I spent all of high school completely in the closet,” Zhang said. “ As soon as I started undergrad, I made as many transitions as I could.”
Although Zhang said her sense of style has not changed since her gender transition, she did say that even something as simple as “dressing up pretty in front of a mirror at home… makes me feel a lot happier.”
Clothing is crucial for self-fulfillment, both Zhang and Singh believe, and the closet can help students who desire affirming clothing but face barriers to alternative options. Pasqualini wrote that they would have loved to try new ways of presenting themselves without the costs associated with buying a new wardrobe or pieces.
“I would have benefitted from [the closet’s resources] at the beginning of my gender exploration,” Pasqualini wrote in an email to The Sun.
Whether students are faced with societal pressures to shop only in certain sections, a lack of financial means to purchase new clothing or any other barrier, the Life Transitions Closet provides a resource, and the team hopes the closet serves as a helpful resource for a long time to come, according to both the QGrads graduate students and Johnson.
To continue improving the closet, the group has recently acquired a supply of electronic tags for clothes, which can track flow of donations and acquisitions. Singh says that they are hoping to use the tags to implement a better way of organizing which clothes come in and out. Prioritizing the comfort of the people they serve, however, will always be the closet’s top priority, so leaving people’s privacy intact comes first.
“[The electronic tags and wardrobe are] basically untrackable,” Zhang said. “We want to gather data so we know what’s going in and out of the wardrobe, but we also understand that people want to keep their anonymity. We do everything we can to make sure that there’s no record at all of who has been using the wardrobe.”
The closet is a resource for anyone, including, and perhaps especially, those uncomfortable with the idea of being known to need clothing, whether due to undergoing a gender transition or economic limitations, Zhang said.
“The closet is more advertised towards the trans community, but my dream for it [is] a resource for anyone who needs clothing for any reason at all,” Zhang said.
Pasqualini added in an email to The Sun that they would love for the closet to “become a more accessible space.” They wrote that due to the constraints of the clothing racks, those using mobility aids may find clothing difficult to access. As they continue working on the space, they hope to keep accessibility in mind.
While plenty of clothing lines the shelves, there are simply not enough people perusing, according to the Life Transitions team.
Alex Bentley ’25 said that while the closet is a valuable resource for transgender students like him, he feels that he is “in a minority of people who know about it.”
Zhang said that their biggest problem is “just getting the word out.” They added that students should not feel ashamed about needing access to free clothing.
Johnson agreed that recognition is vital for creating a long-lasting resource, and explained that higher demand for the closet would lead to more space for clothing donations.
All the members of the QGrads team remain hopeful that with the now permanent location in the LGBT Resource Center, more people will be able to discover the bounty of clothing and acceptance that the Life Transitions Closet has to offer.
“We wanted to reach… folks who are going through transitions of any form in their life,” Singh said. “The only constant in life is change.”
Parker Piccolo Hill ’25 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].