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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.
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