Big com­pany wel­comes kids — but not ev­ery­one would

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - NEIL STEINBERG nstein­berg@sun­ | @NeilStein­berg

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 be­long to Gen­derCool, a 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 group was formed 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 Thurs­day co­in­cided with 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.”


Gen­derCool Kids mem­bers Daniel (from left), Gia, Lan­don, Nicole, Chazzie and Stella wait in the Merchandise Mart lobby Thurs­day be­fore meet­ing with em­ploy­ees of Con­a­gra Brands. Gen­derCool Kids pro­motes ac­cep­tance of trans­gen­der youth.

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