Ale Campillo’s favorite shoes — before they lost them to mold during a tragic summer flood — were a pair of suede wedges. Chunky, dandelion-yellow, with two thick straps and a bright, gold buckle around the ankle. The shoes were a statement piece; Ale wore them when they wanted to stunt. While walking around New Haven — on their way to class, on low-lit dance floors, and on the set of the first photoshoot in which they wore a dress — the heels made them feel like themself. They made them feel beautiful: powerful and feminine in the same stride.
One day, at a party, a friend shouted from across the room, “Hey, those were my shoes!”
Ale, a genderqueer Yale student with movie-star features who modeled a “Yale Feminista” hat while they told me about the shoes, wasn’t surprised. They didn’t get the heels online, in the Urban Outfitters bin, or at a mall. They knew the heels had a previous life when they found them, tucked among a collection of clothing, in Closet A86.
Ale found Closet A86 — a tiny room in Yale’s Office for LGBTQ Resources — on accident. “I essentially stumbled into the closet, quite literally and physically,” they said. “I asked someone on staff — I said, ‘Hey, what’s that random shed thing by the bathroom?’ And they were like, ‘Oh, this is the closet with a Q.’”
The closet with a Q is tucked into a long hallway at the heart of a greige building on the corner of Prospect and Sachem. If it belonged to a janitor, it would be just wide enough for a couple of buckets and just tall enough for a few mops. The Qloset’s steel doors are cold, austere, and industrial. The only distinguishing feature is a plastic Air-Force-blue sign that reads:
Like Ale, the first time I visited the Qloset was by mistake. I chose the wrong door while searching for the bathroom, and a motion-sensor light flickered on, shining a halo around a hot pink metallic sneaker nestled in a pile of jeans. Before me was a collection of wonders: pastel bikinis, psychedelic bandanas, gray blazers of myriad cuts and sizes, stacks of khaki, racks of denim, one Adidas sweatsuit, fake pearls, a pair of earrings in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, floral miniskirts, sports bras, lace bras, army-green underwire, button-ups, button-downs, bangles, sequins, velvet, a vintage purple blazer with gold buttons in the shape of tiny snakes, ties, bowties, elastic suspenders, a pairless combat boot lying prone on its side, and one of my ex’s sweaters. The hallway was narrow, and the doors nearly reached the opposite wall; I was entirely on my own with a personal wardrobe of treasures.
The Qloset was an idea for a few years before it became a place. In the spring of 2015, Nico Aramayo, then a Yale sophomore who had just begun to transition, faced an unexpected problem. “Nobody tells you this,” they said, speaking to me on the phone in their breezy voice, which has deepened nearly an octave over the past five years, “but one of the most expensive and frustrating parts of transitioning is that you have to replace your whole wardrobe.” In response to their frustration, Nico decided to start a free clothing swap, where people exploring their gender expression could leave behind clothing that no longer fit their vision for themselves, and pick up some that did.
More than new clothing, though, Nico longed for community. “I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m the only trans person on campus,’” they said. And they were right. By the second clothing swap, there were enough swappers to necessitate long-term storage for all the donations. The clothing lived in large, rolling suitcases, wheeled out of students’ apartments and into a large room once per semester to be displayed and exchanged. This system worked for a couple years. But then, when the Office for LGBTQ Resources moved into a new building with extra closet space, the suitcases were unpacked, the dresses were put on hangers, and A86 was christened the Qloset.
The Qloset has amassed so much clothing from so few people in the five years it’s been open that patrons know their Qloset “ancestors” by name. The trans students who came before them, with whom they share a stylistic impulse, are memorialized in the flannel and fleece that they’ve left behind. There’s a shirt that Nico donated at the outset of the project that has been worn by at least three Qloset customers. It always makes it back to the shelves.
JP Kenney, who served as Qloset coordinator for 2019, facilitated all of this, doing the folding and hanging and pressing that kept the project running. JP took leadership of the Qloset after a year-long withdrawal from Yale. During their year away, they became an expert in folding polychromatic clothing while working at the Vineyard Vines store in Georgetown. The afternoon I sat down to talk with them, they wore pressed khakis and precisely-applied lipstick in matching shades of crimson. JP, who was around for the suitcase swaps, remembers the first thing they claimed: a rainbow-gradient tank top adorned with palm trees. “I wore it with gray camouflage sweatpants,” they remember. “It was a look. I don’t know what kind of a legible look it was; it was just fun.”
But clothing is more than just fun for the trans community. “The reason that clothing is so important is that that’s what we’re read through. It’s how other people interpret us,” JP said. And, as one of the few gendered presentations that is easy to choose and easy to change, clothing provides a way for trans people to figure out what fits. “You can take it off, you can go back to what you were in, but you’re still able to try out these new forms of expression,” they said.
Experimenting with new forms of expression, especially if those new forms of expression come in the form of suede wedges, has been instrumental for Ale as they’ve found their footing in a new gender. “It’s been really helpful for me to kind of come into my own shoes, and understand what it means to be a nonbinary or genderqueer person through fashion,” they said.
Outside of the Qloset, that kind of understanding can come at a steep cost—financially, and often emotionally, too. The first time Ale went to buy a dress — a baby-blue off-the-shoulder frock from Abercrombie & Fitch — they felt shockingly out of place. “I think it’s a really kind of intimidating thing to go up to the cashier and be like, ‘Hi, I would like this dress and these heels,’” they said. They made elaborate plans with female friends, who would bring clothes that Ale had tried on up to the register for them. But in the Qloset, they found a new way to build a wardrobe — one that afforded them the privacy of a seldom-used hallway, the excitement of an unconstrained budget, and the joy of choice.
When I asked Ale about the moment at the party when their friend recognized the dandelion heels, they smiled. It was the kind of moment, I marveled, that Nico had envisioned when they set out to create the Qloset: the same clothes that triggered gender dysphoria for one person turning into moments of euphoria for another. “We hugged,” Ale said, “They were so happy that someone else could find a home in that article of clothing in a different way than they could.”