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Trans beauty clinic NYC
Via @transbeautyclinic Instagram

Inside New York City’s Trans Beauty Clinic

Make-up artists Birgitte Philippides-Delaney and Todd Harris reflect on five years of their beauty sanctuary for transgender people in the West Village

Every month, usually on a Sunday morning, a group congregates at a community Church in the West Village in New York City. Dozens of trans men, women, and non-binary people come together to catch up with one another and learn beauty and grooming tips. From contouring for trans women, to how to fix a wig right, to shading your beard to add definition for trans men, the goal is not to make trans people more “passable”, but simply to fulfil their makeover requests and expand their beauty knowledge.

The group is run by Birgitte Philippides-Delaney and Todd Harris, two both make-up artists and groomers working in the fashion industry. Birgitte has been working in fashion for 27 years, with the likes of British Vogue and GQ. Todd meanwhile, has done the make-up for countless magazine covers, most recently Elizabeth Warren for Rolling Stone. At Trans Beauty Clinic, they take the skills they’ve learned through this work and impart it onto others – for free. They also use their industry connections to invite guest artists and to come in and teach.

Here, we catch up with Birgitte and Todd about who comes to Trans Beauty Clinic, what it gives them, and how it has evolved in the five years since it was founded.

When and how did the Trans Beauty Clinic start? 

Birgitte Philippides-Delaney: I started it in October 2015. I walked into the LGBT Center in the West Village, my neighbourhood, and it turned out to be trans night where they were having events. I spoke to the director there and said, ‘I want to start this trans make-up class’. She said: ‘You got to get the word out on Facebook because that’s where the trans community is and they have groups and everything’. It had gone for two months when I met Todd at a charity gala we were working on and told him about it. I said, ‘Hey, do you want to come by the next one in December?’ not realising he would be the future co-founder with me and really taking it to a whole other level.

Back then, I had actually started it with a friend who happens to be trans, who’s also a make-up artist, but we found out that it was a little bit too close to home for her to be doing it regularly. And so ironically, Todd, who’s not trans, wound up being the perfect partner in crime with Trans Beauty Clinic. We’ve had people say, ‘Why isn’t the trans community doing this for the trans community?’ But sometimes it’s hard for you to do things for your own community when you’re going through the same things yourself.

Todd Harris: For me, the reason that it hits such a core is that I’ve always been into philanthropy but, as a gay man, the charities in the LGBTQ+ community are sometimes really focused on gay men and lesbian women and the trans portion of that is so marginalised, while there’s so little funding and so little help available. Working on this really filled that need a need to give back to my own community with the skill set that I have.

Is it still held at the LGBT Centre? 

Todd Harris: We’ve had multiple spaces. The first two clinics were at the LGBT Center. After that, we moved to a place called Sylvia’s Place, which is an emergency drop-in shelter for trans people in crisis but more geared towards younger people, teens. We did it there two or three times and what we found in that space was that people who are in serious crisis are kind of just in survival mode – they understandably weren’t able to open up enough to absorb what we were giving them. So then we moved to the Church of the Village which is in the West Village, which is where we still hold Trans Beauty Clinic now.

Birgitte Philippides-Delaney: The space is a church from the 1800s that had the original PFLAG meeting in the 1960s. It’s radically inclusive and it’s a really wonderful home for us. Something that Todd and I feel very strongly about is that we are very careful with the spaces that we do our clinics in, because we receive offers from all over the place but we have to make sure that we can create a safe space where it’s contained. Where not tons of people are coming by or barging in the door. It has to be quiet and people need to feel like they’re protected because they let their guard down and we try to give them two hours where they can feel like they want to. Some people are coming in for the first time and they are scared, it’s a very vulnerable situation for them and we have to take that seriously.

The other reason why the church is a great space is because it’s opposite the LGBT Center which is in the centre of historical gay life in New York City, and so many people feel safe on West 13th Street where the location is. It’s a street that many people who are trans are already familiar with. We’ve had trans people call us from Harlem and say, ‘Can anybody come and meet us up here and bring us down to the clinic?’ and we’re unfortunately not able to do that. But it just also reminds us how scary it can be for some people who are coming to an event like this; they don’t even feel safe on the subway. So creating a safe space in a familiar neighbourhood is important. 

How many people come to a clinic? 

Todd Harris: It ranges. We’ve had 10 people. The last one was like 55 people. There’s a lot of planning that needs to go into each clinic! We do have full careers, so we have to balance both.

Birgitte Philippides-Delaney: Over the last few months, we’ve had more people attend our clinics than we’ve ever had in the last four and a half years. And what we’ve realised is that now, finally, all these different trans support groups are talking about Trans Beauty Clinic and recommending us so now we’ve had to move to a larger space within the church. We also, besides doing the clinics, have been helping people for four and a half years via Facebook, whether we answer their questions there or help direct them into the right place if we can’t help them personally. We also do online tutorials through Facebook

“Everyone deals with their transition differently. But for us, the object of Trans Beauty Clinic was really to provide a space where we can share our skillset, and really boost trans people’s self-esteem and let them find themselves” – Todd Harris

What would you say the main goal of Trans Beauty Clinic is? 

Todd Harris: Everyone deals with their transition differently. But for us, the object of Trans Beauty Clinic was really to provide a space where we can share our skillset, and really boost trans people’s self-esteem and let them find themselves. People come to us at all different levels of transition. We have people who come who’ve been fully transitioned for you know, 10 or 15 years who are in their 50s. Then we have people who haven’t even started hormones yet. What we try to do is give them a safe space where we can work on how they want to present themselves to the world.

We’re really out there to help people. You know, there are other programs and I won’t name them, but they charge people to come in or make them buy make-up to have a lesson. That’s not what we’re about. We really are completely grassroots and we just want people to feel more confident, to be able to get jobs, to show the world who they are. And I think some people think that what we’re trying to do is mould them into what society wants. And that’s not true. If someone wants to come to us and have a mohawk and that’s who they are, we’ll help them do that. If they want black eyes, we will help them do that... but do it the right way!

Birgitte Philippides-Delaney: What has happened is some of the people who have transitioned many years ago still come and they’re helping the other people in the clinics who are just getting started. So it’s just a beautiful community that’s been formed. Like a family, basically. 

Who are some of the special guests you’ve had come in over the years?

Todd Harris: Everyone who works with us is a professional – we bring in celebrity hairstylists and make-up artists to teach people and create a buzz as well. We’re having someone named Quinn Murphy soon, who is a celebrity make-up artist that has worked on the Oscars.

Birgitte Philippides-Delaney: We had Bobbie Pinz who’s a Broadway wig designer. 

Todd Harris: The important thing is that we’re just always trying to keep it fresh for them. Because the two of us worked in the industry for so long, we do have a large amount of contacts. We’re blessed that we can often get given foundation, concealers, hair gel, and buzzers, curling irons, all of these different products that we can give out. The majority of people who come are in positions of low income or no income and trying to survive. For us to be able to give them those products to put that brave face on and make them feel like themselves is such an important part of what we do.

Birgitte Philippides-Delaney: In the beginning, many people came to our clinic and said, ‘we can’t afford a lipstick’. But now they have full kits and they’re now able to take that off the table in terms of a barrier for them to do what they need to do. We’ve had so many generous donors. We’ve had brands donate, private people donate, make-up artists donate. We even had Susan Sarandon donate and she also came to a clinic to personally give the product out and talk to the attendees, which was very meaningful for them. 

How have you seen Trans Beauty Clinic change people’s lives? 

Birgitte Philippides-Delaney: We’re very proud of some of the people who have been coming for years and the progress they’ve made in their lives. And some have said that Trans Beauty Clinic has played a vital role for them in their transition. For example, one of our guests, Tiffany, she was referred to us by somebody else. She didn’t know what she was doing with hair and make-up but she learned a lot of lessons and she just kept on coming. After six months, I bumped into her on the street right before the clinic and I said, ‘Are you coming?’ And she said no. I asked her why and she said, ‘I have a job. I have a job at CVS!’ She got out of the shelter system, moved in with her girlfriend, got a job, and she’s just in a much better place. And if Trans Beauty Clinic helped in any small way, it has all been worth it. 

Finally, this is a great grassroots project for helping trans people – but how else do you think the beauty industry can do better by the trans community? 

Todd Harris: Visibility is a huge portion of it. There’s a huge stigma in the world towards trans people. The more you see trans models in campaigns and out there, it really does change things because the less people are scared of it or don’t understand it. More visibility also gives trans people something to look up to. It’s very far and few between that you see visible trans people in any industry, sports or acting, say, let alone models. I know that more visibility in campaigns and the industry itself would make a huge difference to the people we work with because it would give them more role models.