Chris and Jessica Cicchinelli never thought they’d find themselves at the transgender clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
It was scary, but they found it a place that was safe and helpful as they accepted their child was a girl.
So the CEO of Pure Romance and his wife are putting their personal money, love and his business savvy into a new endeavor to make sure every family like them has the help they need.
This weekend the Cicchinellis are launching Living with Change: The LC Foundation, a foundation that will train teachers and other educators and provide financial support to the Adolescent and Transition Medicine Clinic at Children’s.
“As a family we’ve gone through it,” Chris Cicchinelli said. “We didn’t have a lot of information. We needed answers, and there was no book. Now we can give people a guide.”
The president and CEO of Pure Romance describes himself as an alpha male, the kind of guy who played three sports in high school and went to college on a football scholarship. So when he found out his first child was going to be a boy, he dreamed of playing catch and going to his son’s games.
But from an early age LC told the Cicchinellis, “I’m a girl, not a boy.”
It’s just a phase, the Cicchinellis told themselves.
LC was creative and passionate, but quiet and reclusive, too.
The moment of acceptance came two years ago, when LC was 8. The family was on vacation in Florida and LC refused to go to dinner unless she could wear a dress.
“I was so frustrated, I said, ‘We’ll go the mall, you’ll get a dress and you’re going to wear it to dinner,'” Chris Cicchinelli said.
In the girls’ department, LC picked out a teal skirt and white top.
And when she came out of the dressing room, twirling and happy, Chris Cicchinelli said he knew it was time to support LC’s decision.
“That’s when LC was born,” he said.
Back at home, they wanted to see a doctor immediately. But it took seven weeks to get into the transgender clinic.
The Cicchinellis call the clinic their guiding light, but they saw that it had more demand than resources.
The idea for the foundation came last summer.
“My mom, my family, taught us that we’re brought into this world to leave it a better place than you found it,” Chris Cicchinelli said.
The foundation – possibly the first of its kind in the country – comes in the region that was home to Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who committed suicide in 2015. In a note left behind, she wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something.”
That note captured the hearts of millions around the globe and was followed by a national discussion over issues such as which restrooms transgender people should use.
The Cicchinellis have hired Councilman Chris Seelbach, the city’s first openly gay councilman and a leader in the LGBTQ community, to run the foundation. He has led city reforms that have catapulted Cincinnati onto the top of the Human Rights Index.
And now he wants to grow that acceptance.
“They realized their experience is the exception for trans kids,” Seelbach said. “Either they don’t have parents who are accepting or the parents don’t have the means to pay for services.”
- Read: How Cincinnati has led the nation in transgender children’s health
- Watch: Raising Zay, a family’s journey with a transgender child
Since Alcorn’s death in 2015, the number of people seeking help from the clinic has tripled, to nearly 1,000 a year.
The clinic, in a wing of Children’s, is staffed by Dr. Lee Ann Conard, a nurse practitioner and a social worker. They do outreach when they can, but training cuts into time for care.
Conard said the Cicchinellis and Seelbach are coming at the exact right moment.
“This is going to make Cincinnati a more understanding and thoughtful place,” Conard said. “When people don’t understand they are afraid. More information makes it more welcoming and easier, especially for kids.”
Jessica Cicchinelli said LC has had loving support, but she knows that’s not always the case. She wanted to help others.
“We had to do something,” she said. “We want this for other families. We want them to know it’s there and not be scared and to know there is help.”
The foundation may be a nonprofit, but in Cicchinelli fashion, it will be run like a business.
They started the foundation with $500,000 of their own money, but expect to match that with donations by June.They’ve pledged $2 million to the transgender clinic.
The staff will train educators, but as a way to raise money, they’ll also help businesses train their staffs and help them develop a plan to be listed on the Human Rights Index in exchange for sponsorships.
Certainly, Chris Cicchinelli knows business. The son of Pure Romance founder Patty Brisben, he has helped grow the company into the nation’s largest direct seller of relationship enhancement products, from $3 million in annual revenue to $250 million since 2001. He spends 250 days a year on the road training the consultants – 30,000 of them – on marketing, inventory and entrepreneurship. Under Cicchinelli’s leadership the company expanded internationally to South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Cincinnati Public Schools is already in on the project, inviting the foundation to do training in schools. The training will focus on what it means to be transgender and how to create safe spaces.
“When a kid comes out as transgender in school, most of the time the school freaks out thinking about what bathrooms the child will use, what pronouns to use,” Seelbach said. “We want to train people before a trans child comes in so they know who to deal with it.”
But the goal is to reach people beyond Cincinnati’s borders.
“We want to be in rural Kentucky, the places where it’s hard to get a meeting,” Seelbach said. “That’s where we’re needed the most.”