Prizm News / January 1, 2019 / By Bob Vitale
Chris and Jessica Cicchinelli know the journey isn’t
easy for transgender kids and their families. But they’re making it better.
By Bob Vitale
Photos by Staley Munroe
Chris Cicchinelli sat in his car outside the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He had finally accepted his child’s longtime insistence that she was a girl, not a boy. He had finally let her pick out girl’s clothes. But at the door of the place that offers care for transgender kids and support for their families, he was nervous and afraid.
“I did not want to go in, did not want to go in,” he says. “You go through this, ‘What am I doing here?’ As a parent, you don’t want to believe your child is going to have to deal with these things for the rest of their life. I was 50-50 on going in. I was scared. You don’t want to believe in the beginning.”
“Thank goodness I did that day,” he says, recalling that moment three years ago when his daughter, LC, began treatment at the hospital’s Transgender Health Clinic and Cicchinelli and his wife, Jessica, began the journey with her.
And in the year since Chris and Jessica Cicchinelli started Living With Change, a foundation that offers support for trans kids and training to make schools, workplaces and other organizations more understanding and supportive, they’ve made it their mission to help all of Southwest Ohio learn with them.
The couple started Living With Change with $500,000 last January, and in June, they donated $2 million so Children’s can train more doctors and nurses to care for trans kids. Chris Cicchinelli is the CEO of Cincinnati-based Pure Romance, a $200 million company that sells beauty products, lingerie and adult products.
“I go out and teach people to live their truth. I go and teach people all the time how to find the best version of themselves,” he says. “Here I was not doing that for my own child for a little bit of time. Here I was, ‘You’re a boy, not a girl. You’re a boy, not a girl.’ It made me think: I’m educated, I run a business, I understand how the human psyche thinks; can you imagine a child at home with a parent that doesn’t?”
“I knew one thing,” Cicchinelli says. “I had a big microphone.”
The Cicchinellis have big plans as well for the foundation.
In its first year, Living With Change has helped educate Cincinnati school principals about the issues faced by transgender children and ways in which schools can support them. It has created support groups for children and families.
Their long-term goals include a Center for Excellence at Cincinnati Children’s that would bring to the Midwest more resources, more professionals and better outcomes for transgender youth and their families.
The foundation has done wonders in further raising the visibility of trans youth and their needs in a region that already had been galvanized following the 2014 suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn.
“It’s going to be a slow, gradual process, but I think Cincinnati is now setting the tone for other parts of the country,” says 18-year-old Zane Stapleton, who came out as trans at age 11 to teachers who called him confused and classmates who questioned whether transgender was even a thing.
Dozens of transgender children and teens served as grand marshals of the 2018 Cincinnati Pride parade. Cicchinelli has spoken about trans issues with business executives and elected officials. The latter are in a group that’s sorely in need of education, he says, and their ignorance has confirmed for Cicchinelli the value of the foundation’s work.
While good things are happening in Southwest Ohio, some high-profile blowback for the transgender community has come from the region as well.
In May, Republican state Reps. Paul Zeltwanger of Mason and Thomas Brinkman of Cincinnati introduced a bill in the Ohio House that would give parents total authority over whether transgender children could receive counseling or care. The bill also would require teachers to notify parents when children show signs of gender dysphoria that the lawmakers haven’t defined.
In June, however, parents who did support their transgender child were overruled by Warren County Judge Joseph Kirby, who denied a legal name-change for their teenager.
“It appalls me, how some of them talk,” Cicchinelli says of lawmakers he has met. “‘I’d like to apologize.’ ‘I feel really bad for you and your kid.’ ‘I can’t believe this social media out there has turned your child transgender.’ I’ve sat with a high official here (in Cincinnati) who goes to Columbus and represents this part of Ohio. To say something that stupid to me was just an insult.”
Invited to identify the lawmaker he’s talking about, Cicchinelli responds: “The name of the person is idiot.”
“The real fight is ignorance,” he continues. “That’s my biggest issue today. After one year, it’s turned from an emotional project to a very strategic project. How do we play in a system that doesn’t like difference? How do we play in a system in which bigotry and hate has been cultivated from the top officials that sit in the White House?”
But the revelation hasn’t discouraged him. It has him thinking even bigger, about ways to provide care for more people. He has realized that trans adults suffer from a lack of support and good medical care, too, and he’s thinking of ways to address those needs as well. He’s looking into more partnerships and more outreach.
Kelli Kurtz, who serves on an advisory council for the foundation’s training programs, says she and others initially thought their task would be to convince school officials of the need to educate their staffs. Instead, Living With Change has been inundated with training requests.
Kurtz’s daughter, Allison, offers an explanation. Two years ago, when she came out as transgender, she left a Catholic school that wasn’t supportive and enrolled at West Chester’s Lakota West High School, which is.
She sees even more acceptance today from teachers and classmates. “People are starting to be willing to learn,” she says.
Cicchinelli uses a phrase repeatedly when talking about discussions that he says are necessary in schools and workplaces: “We have to get uncomfortable to get comfortable.” He’s been asked often why he and his wife chose to share their daughter’s story and their family’s journey so publicly. He’s been asked why a wealthy couple who can afford everything their child needs wants so badly to help other children and families, too.
“This is a discussion we have to have,” he says. “We have to have start having the discussion so people get educated.”
There’s another reason, too. It’s because the Cicchinellis have seen an amazing change in their daughter, LC, since she began treatment at Cincinnati Children’s.
“This was a child who was flunking out of second grade. She was trying to self-discover who she was and then trying to learn (in school). It kills me inside to think of the pain and the conflict. I can only imagine the emotion she was going through.”
This year, LC is in fifth grade. Her latest report card: all As, and a B-plus in math.
“I’m glad we were able to let her decide who she was without saying, ‘This is who you have to be.’ I’m glad that she was strong enough to do it. She’s becoming more confident each and every day. You can just see it. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to see the level of strength and certainty and conviction.”
Kelli Kurtz is glad, too.
“I couldn’t be more grateful to Chris and Jessica for taking their family’s story and really seeing the greater calling of making the world a better place for transgender kids.”
Bob Vitale is the editor of Prizm. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter or Instagram @Bob_Vitale.
FIND OUT MORE
Visit livingwithchange.org to learn more about the Living With Change foundation, to sign up for community education sessions, and to register for children’s and family support groups.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s transgender health clinic serves young people ages 5-24. Clinic specialists offer medical and psychosocial support for patients and their families. To learn more about the clinic, its programs and treatment options, click here.