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Wardrobe Update: Clothing Exchange Caters To Transgender Youth

Tristan Vaught (left) and Nancy Dawson are the co-founders of clothing exchange Transform. Seventeen-year-old client Elliot Reed (far right) was the first customer when the space opened.
Tristan Vaught (left) and Nancy Dawson are the co-founders of clothing exchange Transform. Seventeen-year-old client Elliot Reed (far right) was the first customer when the space opened.

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 make-up business.

Seventeen-year-old Elliot Reed 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.
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