Living with Change: New foundation offers more support for transgender youth and their families

Couple pledges $2M for Center of Excellence

CINCINNATI -- Pure Romance CEO Chris Cicchinelli had just gotten home from a business trip when he walked right into a family crisis.

His wife, Jessica, said something was wrong with their 8-year-old, Luke. Their boy shut himself off in his room and wouldn’t talk to anyone. Cicchinelli was frustrated.

“I walked up and said, ‘What is your problem?’” he recalled.

The problem, Luke said, was his parents wouldn’t listen. He had been telling them for years he felt more like a girl than a boy. He was fed up. He didn’t want to go out to dinner with his grandma that night. He didn’t want to wear his boy clothes.

“Fine,” Cicchinelli remembers telling his son. “Get in the car. We’re getting girl clothes.”

Cicchinelli drove to Macy’s, walked Luke into the girls’ clothing department and told him: “Pick out anything.”

Luke took a blue skirt and white top into a fitting room.

“I remember the moment that Luke walked out of that dressing room wearing that,” Cicchinelli said. “All of a sudden, this person walks out of this dressing room and starts twirling with the biggest smile.”

Cicchinelli’s boy looked at him, eyes wide, and said, “Dad, what do you think?”

That was it. That’s when Cicchinelli realized his son wasn’t going through a phase. A blue skirt and white top from Macy’s had transformed him from angry and sullen to talkative and joyful. The Cicchinellis quickly realized the change went far beyond wardrobe.

“She was leading the conversation at the dinner table,” Jessica Cicchinelli said. “We couldn’t get her to stop talking. She literally came out of her shell and was an entirely different child.”

Notice that shift? That trip to Macy’s happened about two years ago. In that time, the Cicchinellis’ first-born went from being “him” to “her,” from being their son, Luke, to being their daughter, LC.

LC is now 10 years old and is among the 965 children receiving treatment at the Transgender Health Clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The care has been outstanding, her parents said. But the clinic has only one doctor, one nurse and one social worker. And the number of patients has tripled in the past two years.

That’s why the Cicchinellis are launching their Living with Change Foundation, a partnership with Cincinnati Children’s designed to enhance resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and their families.

The Cicchinellis have pledged $2 million to create a Center of Excellence for LGBT Health in Cincinnati and increase services and care at Cincinnati Children’s.

“Everybody has been wonderful. But with more and more children coming, that’s eventually going to break down,” Jessica Cicchinelli said. “That’s our number one thing: to get more care here in the city.”

The need is urgent

The Living with Change, or LC, Foundation will celebrate its launch with an event at the Queen City Club on Saturday, Jan. 27. The Cicchinellis have hired Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach as the foundation’s executive director along with three other staff members:

• Tristan Vaught, an activist and educator who was founding director of the LGBTQ+ Center at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, will be director of training.

• Karen Aerts, a veteran educator and health and wellness consultant, will be the corporate training lead.

• And Jack Albers, a 2015 Xavier University graduate and Cincinnati native, will be the administrative director.

Seelbach, the first openly gay candidate to win a seat on Cincinnati’s city council, understands the pain that young people experience when they feel different from what their parents expect.

“I came out when I was 18, the day after my high school graduation,” he said. “I (hardly ever talked) to my parents for 11 years.” 

Seelbach’s parents are now “100 percent LGBT supportive,” he said, “but it took them a long, long time.”

Living with Change, which is 501(c) 3 status-pending, is unlike any other in the U.S. because of its focus on the medical needs of transgender youth and on training and education for schools, camps and corporations, he said.

“We have the opportunity to truly save kids’ lives and get them access to the medical care they need and to make schools and camps and workplaces safe,” Seelbach said. “This is taking it to a level that no one else has done in this entire country.”

Chris Seelbach

Living with Change will partner with Cincinnati Public Schools to train principals and teachers and eventually bring education about transgender youth into classrooms. The foundation is starting with 56 principals.

The need is urgent.

Studies have found that transgender youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth, Chris Cicchinelli noted. And a staggering 40 percent of all transgender people try to kill themselves at some point during their lifetimes.

Cicchinelli said he wants other families to understand what he and his wife learned from their first-born: It isn’t about “letting” a transgender child dress or behave a certain way.

“It’s who they are,” he said. “This is them. And I didn’t understand that.”

1,000 kids by March

Dr. Lee Ann Conard, the director of Cincinnati Children’s Transgender Clinic, understood the need years ago.

After she began seeing the occasional family, she proposed the idea of starting the clinic. It launched in July 2013.

“The idea that other families in the waiting room could meet other families was a good thing,” she said, because it helped them understand they weren’t alone.

Conard thought the clinic might end up treating 100 children in 2015, but the death of Leelah Alcorn a few days after Christmas in 2014 changed everything.

“After Leelah’s death, people started talking about it more,” Conard said. “We started seeing more and more families that, maybe, were just putting it aside thinking, ‘Oh, let’s just wait and see. We’re going through a phase.’”

The clinic sees families from throughout the Tri-State and from as far away as West Virginia, deep into Kentucky and Tennessee and even some families from southern Illinois, Conard said.

“We’re on schedule to have had 1,000 kids come through by March,” she said. “We’re basically seeing the tip of the iceberg. We are seeing families where both parents are supportive or both caregivers are supportive, depending on who they live with.”

Dr. Lee Ann Conard

Conard said she believes there are many more children who could use the clinic’s help but are instead being taken to conversion therapy or are being ignored or are too afraid to talk with their families about how they feel.

She expects Living with Change will result in more children and families seeking care.

“I think that’s good because it helps families understand where they are and kind of normalizes this as a normal developmental thing in their lives,” she said. “Also it allows us to catch kids earlier and help decrease suicide risk.”

The suicide statistics are what made Jessica Cicchinelli take notice.

Long before the blue skirt and the white top, she was watching a talk show on TV where the topic was gender dysphoria. She researched the condition and found the statistics that transgender children were so much more like to try to kill themselves.

“That is what got to me,” she said. “I called Chris and said, ‘I don’t want this to be my future.’ In that moment is when I thought, I just want my child to be happy and comfortable, whoever she is. I don’t want her ever to feel like I don’t accept her and that suicide is the answer.”

‘You cannot fix stupid’

Chris and Jessica Cicchinelli know this isn’t a conversation that everyone will want to have. 

But Pure Romance sells relationship enhancement products for the bedroom, and Chris Cicchinelli has built the business his mother started by knowing how to start conversations that make people uncomfortable.

“I take this from my mom, and I take this from this business,” he said, sitting beside his wife in a Pure Romance meeting room at the company’s downtown Cincinnati headquarters. “In the world we live in today, you cannot fix stupid. But you can, in fact, educate. And education is power.”

The journey for the Cicchinelli family hasn’t been easy. The transformation from sullen Luke to joyful LC has taken time, patience and treatment.

But Jessica and Chris Cicchinelli see the change in their child, they want to help everyone understand.

“You go for eight years and don’t get a hug from your child,” Chris Cicchinelli said. Not a real hug, anyway, just kind of a gesture.

“Now this child, when I come home, is running and just wants to give big hugs,” he said.

“To say that she’s happy and she’s doing wonderful is just an understatement,” Jessica Cicchinelli added. “She’s happy and wonderful times a thousand.”

LC is more engaged in school, and her grades are better. She has closer friendships and is more social. And, while she has some tough moments, she is completely comfortable answering her classmates’ questions about why she dresses the way she does.

“She’s the one that took us on this path,” her mom added. “She’s the one that fought for this and said, ‘No, this is who I am, and I need you to listen to me.’ She’s so strong. I mean, to have the guts to walk into school in a girl outfit and say, ‘this is me.’ She is the strongest person I know.”

Chris Cicchinelli thinks of his daughter as “fierce.” It’s those qualities that inspired him and his wife to start the foundation named for her.

“There are people that are not as strong as LC, and there are people who are scared to be them,” Chris Cicchinelli said. “So we’ve got to be that voice. Or we’ve got to give them a place where they can at least figure that out.”

If the Cicchinellis have their way, the foundation will be that voice and that place. And it will help children and families that are struggling to find the strength and support they need to be who they know they are meant to be.

Jessica and Chris Cicchinelli say their daughter, LC, is the strongest person they know.

More information about the Living with Change Foundation is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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