Dressed in confidence

4 MIN READ

Growing up, Penelope says she could never completely relate to her three brothers. As a transgender woman, she spent the majority of her youth hiding who she really was underneath clothes that didn’t express her true self.

It wasn’t until she connected with Ottawa’s Kind Space, a local centre currently working on a special project with United Way Ottawa to support LGBTQ+ youth, that she said she began to feel confident, comfortable and much more hopeful for the future.

“My mom was telling me a few weeks ago how she always wanted a daughter,” she said, “and I replied, ‘well, I’m here, I’m just really late.’”

A photo of Penelope in a library standing in front of a rainbow flag wearing a blue beret.

After coming out two years ago, Penelope says her family and a few friends accepted her identity. At her high school, on the other hand, she says some didn’t react the same way.

“I wouldn’t say I was the popular kid, but people knew who I was. A good chunk of them didn’t want anything to do with me after I came out,” she says, recalling a time when a group tried to threaten and intimidate her in the hallway.

Though Penelope says she loves dresses and wearing feminine clothes, there were some challenges that she had to overcome when she first began to express herself through clothing.

“The first time I wore leggings at school, people were staring and me [and] there was a teacher who told me I was making other women feel uncomfortable,” she says. But at her Grade 12 prom and graduation, she says she felt so pretty in the dress and 7-inch platform heels that she wore, despite these remarks.

The impact gender-affirming clothing has on mental health

During the beginning of Penelope’s transition, she says it was rough because she didn’t know what local resources were available for support. That’s when she looked online and came across Kind Space, which provides events and programming to connect and celebrate LGBTQ+ folk in Ottawa.

Every Wednesday and Friday night, there are social gatherings to support and celebrate people of all gender identities and sexual orientations. After going to Kind Space’s Friday night ‘Café Q’, Penelope says she met many people who were very accepting.

On July 21, 2019, Kind Space held a launch party to begin Affirm Project, a one-year research project supported by United Way Ottawa which matches trans and gender diverse youth with gender-affirming clothing.

By pairing transitioning youth with clothes that match their true identity, the project aims to determine the need and impact of clothing in building self-confidence and reducing anxiety, depression and gender dysphoria.

“In my opinion, clothes are part of your identity,” Penelope says, highlighting the importance of clothing for an LGBTQ+ individual. “It’s supposed to make you feel good about yourself [and] build confidence.”

Penelope next to the ‘Wall of Happy’, pointing at a photo of her in her new clothes, thanks to Affirm Project.
Penelope next to the ‘Wall of Happy’, pointing at a photo of her in her new clothes, thanks to Affirm Project.
Penelope with a collection of clothes that will be featured at the next Affirm Project clothing swap.
Penelope with a collection of clothes that will be featured at the next Affirm Project clothing swap.

At the launch party, Penelope describes a massive clothing swap where about 30 people attended. Everyone picked out clothes they connected with, and she describes how there was an energetic, positive and vibrant energy in the room.

“I would change into something very nice and then I would go out and everyone would just start gawking. I’d be very thankful that I am surrounded by all these fantastic people,” she says, adding that Kind Space feels like a family. “I’ve felt a lot happier and confident since the clothing swap.”

When a new wardrobe leads to confidence, and a job

Wearing clothing that matches her authentic identity will have some other outcomes alongside self-confidence, according to Penelope. Employment is another factor she believes will be influenced by Affirm Project.

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“I can definitely say that the clothing I got from Affirm will help me get a job,” she says, adding that this newfound confidence will play a role in doing so.

As the project has started to spread its wings recently, Penelope says she’s excited for the next clothing swap and hopes the project will eventually have Ottawa-wide recognition. With her improved confidence, Penelope hopes to one day run an educational workshop all about the LGBTQ+ community.

While doing so, she’ll be able to confidently wear the dresses she adores while surrounded by the supportive network at Kind Space. She says she’s already seen a big improvement in the way she chooses to dress now compared to when she first started exploring her identity in high school.

“Kind Space—it says it right in the name. People here are just so kind,” Penelope says, adding that her 30-minute bike ride to their location is well worth it. “They make me feel happy about myself. They make me feel like I want to continue as fast as I can, and not stop.”

A photo of Penelope sitting on a couch talking with a friend.

United Way Ottawa is proud to support programs that help LGBTQ+ children, youth and families on their path to pride. We advocate and support social justice initiatives within our city that support diversity, inclusion and belonging, while combating homophobia, transphobia, discrimination, and other issues that prevent LGBTQ+ people from reaching their full potential.

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