A simple Facebook post brought Tristan Vaught and Nancy Dawson together. The post asked if gender reveal parties should be reserved for transgender kids when they come out and need new clothes.
The question sparked a conversation leading Vaught and Dawson to eventually start a charity that provides clothes to transgender kids and teens at no cost. It's called Transform, and it's in the back room of Dawson's Cincinnati bridal makeup business.
Elliot Reed, 17, was the first customer when the space opened this fall. He says his mom read about Transform on Instagram and encouraged him to go. He was nervous but says everybody greeted him with happiness and joy.
"It made me feel so accepted and validated," Reed says.
Acquiring a whole new wardrobe can be fun, but sizing can be a problem. Transform's stylist, 16-year-old Ella Dastillung, helped Reed navigate through that issue.
"One of the big things is hiding my hips because I'm quite a curvy guy," Reed says.
He walked out with three shopping bags of clothing on his first visit and recently came back for more.
Vaught, who identifies as genderqueer, has helped set up clothing exchanges on college campuses and also works with transgender youth at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Vaught has been getting calls nationwide from people who want to start similar clothing exchanges.
"What I've found working with support groups and some of the youth is that individuals in transition and parents want to support, but they are stuck," Vaught says. "They just bought clothes for that entire school year. They're already strapped for cash. What do they do to support their kid? This way they can come in and get a new outfit."
Vaught gets emotional when seeing the joy on client's faces as they find the right clothing.
Authenticity is healthy
For teens, having the ability to tell the world who they are and how that aligns with their gender identity is hugely important, says Sarah Pickle, a medical doctor at the University of Cincinnati. "For young teens and adults, for social acceptance, for improvement in self-confidence and mood, and also to allow for that connection, for an individual to say, 'Here's who I am, here's how I'm going to express that to the world.' "
Most of Pickle's patients are trans or gender diverse, and she says clothing conversations come up all the time. For instance, with trans women or individuals undergoing hormone therapy there are questions about bras.
"They don't know the first thing about buying some of the most sensitive clothing, and you can imagine going into a clothing store where you don't know if you'll be safe to have that type of personal experience," she says. "It could really be daunting."
Pickle says living an authentic life translates into living a healthy life.
Co-founder Dawson has a transgender daughter and can't believe the community support for Transform. Boxes and boxes of donated clothes are stacked up in the basement of her business. Before clients come in they are asked to fill out a questionnaire with sizes and style, so Transform can pull the appropriate clothes and have them ready when customers come in.
Beyond the clothing exchange, Dawson says it's bringing trans teens together and laying the groundwork for parent support groups.
She tells the story of a teen who drove three hours to Transform.
"That girl had never met another trans person before," Dawson says. "She lived in a small town and was looking forward to getting to know some other people in the community."
Soon Transform will need its own storefront. The co-founders envision it as a LGBTQ safe space hangout. They also want to help start other brick and mortar and online trans clothing exchanges.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a clothing exchange in Cincinnati that's attracting shoppers from three hours away. What makes this charity so special is less the merchandise but the clientele - transgender kids and teens. In this safe space, they can pick out clothing that matches their gender identity for free. Ann Thompson from member station WVXU reports.
ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Seventeen-year-old Elliot Reed is just beginning to develop his style.
ELLIOT REED: For me, like, one of the big things is hiding my hips because I'm quite a curvy guy.
THOMPSON: The transgender high school senior came to this new Cincinnati clothing exchange called Transform to add to his wardrobe. Stylist Ella Dastillung holds up a bright-red flannel shirt.
ELLA DASTILLUNG: Do you want, like, more flannels, do you think, or anything like this, or no?
REED: No. Sadly, it's too much color.
THOMPSON: Reed prefers earthy tones. He was Transform's first customer and walked out with plenty of green in his three bags of clothing.
REED: It made me feel so accepted and, like, validated.
THOMPSON: That acceptance is a goal of Transform's co-founders. Nancy Dawson has a transgender daughter who came out at age 10. She had been thinking about the clothing need for children and teens for some time. Transform is in the back room of her bridal makeup business, and she's quickly running out of space.
NANCY DAWSON: We put it out on Facebook, and within - what? - the first week, we were just inundated.
THOMPSON: Sixty to 80 bins filled with donated clothes are stacked up in a small basement. One transgender man was so excited, he donated $200 worth of new clothing to Transform for his birthday. Co-founder Tristan Vaught helped organize clothing exchanges at universities and says younger teens needed a place to find new wardrobes, too.
TRISTAN VAUGHT: And what I've found working with support group and some of the youth is that individuals would transition and parents want to support, but they're stuck. They just bought clothes for that entire school year. They're already strapped for cash. What do they do to support their kid? And this way, they can come in and get a new outfit.
THOMPSON: Especially for teens, the ability to tell the world who they are and how that aligns with their gender identity is hugely important, says University of Cincinnati Medical Doctor Sarah Pickle.
SARAH PICKLE: For young teens and for adults, for social acceptance, for improvement in self-confidence and mood, and also to allow for that connection - for an individual to say, here's who I am, and here's how I'm going to express that to the world.
THOMPSON: Most of Pickle's patients are trans or gender diverse, and she says clothing conversations come up all the time. For instance, with trans women or individuals undergoing hormone therapy, there are questions about bras.
PICKLE: They don't know the first thing about buying some of the most sensitive clothing. And you could imagine going into a clothing store where you don't know if you're safe to have that personal experience could be really daunting.
THOMPSON: Pickle says living an authentic life translates into living a healthy life. Transform co-founder Vaught, who identifies as genderqueer, gets emotional when seeing the joy on clients' faces as they find the right clothing.
VAUGHT: I'm really good at compartmentalizing my emotions, but for some reason, doing this particular work, it's hard for me not to just break down in tears every time.
THOMPSON: In the same way that Vaught is giving back by opening Transform, Elliot Reed, the teen who prefers green to red flannel, says he wants to give back, too.
REED: I've told them many times that I want to volunteer.
THOMPSON: Transform co-founders Vaught and Dawson hope to move the clothing exchange into its own storefront, which can be an LGBTQ hangout. In the future, they envision more brick-and-mortar and online exchanges.
For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE RUNWAY'S "SIGNATURE STYLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.