Six young people, ages 12 through 17, sitting on a pair of leather sofas at the Cliff Dwellers Club on Michigan Avenue, talking about their day: Chazzie, Daniel, Gia, Stella, Nicole and Landon.
Regular kids, in most regards — maybe a little more poised than typical middle- and high-schoolers. Each shakes hands firmly, making eye contact. They come from across the country, Massachusetts to Texas, and had just visited one of the largest corporations in Illinois.
“We met the CEO,” said Stella. “That was pretty cool.”
“It was really fun,” said Chazzie. “Because they gave a lot of food.”
They’d better; they sure have enough. The company was Conagra Brands, the $8 billion packaged food giant headquartered in Chicago, and the kids are part of the GenderCool Project, a non-profit group working to show transgender youth for what they are most of the time: not victims of bullying, not suicides, not individuals whose bathroom habits are fair game for public critique, but unique individuals filled with enthusiasm and creativity.
The effort was begun early this year by two Chicago-area women, Jen Grosshandler and Gearah Goldstein, in reaction to the Trump administration decision to trash school guidelines for transgender students.
“If we don’t tell their stories, then people will think that anyone who identifies as transgender is not right,” said Grosshandler. “It’s not true.”
Their appearance was the day before Thursday’s National Coming Out Day.
“I came out to my parents at 7,” said Daniel. “I always knew that I was trans and I was meant to be a boy. I was just in a girl’s body.”
“I transitioned when I was 13, in seventh grade,” said Nicole. “I don’t think there was a defining moment. Whenever people ask me, ‘When did you know?’ I ask them, “When did you know, that you were a boy or a girl?’ My body didn’t match to who I know I am.”
Two details in Nicole’s life are worth mentioning: first, her father rejected her after she came out. “I haven’t seen him in four years,” she said. A reminder that while these children have loving parents and live in accepting communities, not everyone does.
“It is and can be difficult for a lot of us,” said Landon. “But having the support of those in our lives allows us to thrive and succeed just as much as anyone else can.”
And second, the world is changing with extraordinary rapidity regarding transgender youth. Nicole’s father rejected her, but the Boston Bruins hockey team embraced her, allowing the budding entertainer to sing the National Anthem at their Hockey is for Everyone Night in February.
They were a hit at Conagra, too.
“I was extremely impressed by them,” said Khalilah Lyons, the company’s manager of diversity and inclusion. “They were beautiful, bright, bold, courageous and very open individuals.”
Lyons makes an important point. Inclusion isn’t just ethical; it’s also good business.
“We’re creating an inclusive culture, making sure people feel like they belong and they can bring their authentic selves to work,” she said. “It needs to be part of everything we do here at Conagra. It’s definitely good for business, and provides a competitive advantage when we’re creating a space for our talent to be fully engaged.”
Everyone drags a burden of preconceptions around with them, and the visit caused me to re-evaluate my unexamined notions about both transgender people and giant companies. I had expected smears of mascara, sequins, feather boas — something far more arch and theatrical than the understated GenderCool kids, who I wouldn’t give a second glance if they passed me at the mall. And Conagra I somehow associated with combines, coveralls and burlap bags of hybrid seed.
“We are purely a packaged food company, completely focused on brands,” said Daniel Hare, a communications specialist at Conagra, noting they’re wrangling brands such as Healthy Choice, Hunt’s, Slim Jim, Reddi-wip, Frontera, Bertolli and P.F. Chang’s.
Despite their polish, there was only so much quizzing about their lives that they could take. After about half an hour I recognized a certain shift remembered from my own two boys — attention had waned, impatience set in. Time to free them. The six sprang up to admire the view from the Cliff Dweller’s Club, consult their phones, and head to the bathrooms, which were put to use without rattling the foundations of the 101-year-old club.
“Look at them,” said Grosshandler. “They’re just kids.”