Cincinnati Children’s Is Saving Young Transgender Lives

Transgender youth and their families face heavy challenges, from confusion and despair to disinformation and political pressure. Treatment at Cincinnati Children’s helps many of them begin planning for a new future.
Ty Warner Kisor with parents Jennifer Warner and Dana Kisor.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

As a child, Corrie Wallace would recite the same prayer every night: “Dear God, please let me wake up as a girl.” During adolescence, Corrie sank into depression and lethargy, coming to life only when playing video games with a female avatar. Nothing could relieve her gender dysphoria—the intense distress of feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body.

As a college senior, Corrie finally sought help at Cincinnati Children’s Transgender Health Clinic, one of the oldest and most respected gender-affirming treatment centers in the region. Today she’s thriving in her career as a chemical engineer and is engaged to be married in September. “My real, more vibrant personality has come back, making me more successful professionally and more extroverted,” she says. “The Transgender Clinic was pivotal. They were a great resource for letting me know my medical options, helping me get that care, and answering any questions along the way.”

The Transgender Health Clinic has been a godsend for hundreds of transgender youth and their families—including my own—since its founding in July 2013. The term transgender refers to people whose gender identity is different from the sex assigned to them at birth, while transition care is a broad term for health care that includes psychological and medical treatment.

Over the past 10 years, Ohio’s six children’s hospitals have treated an estimated 3,300 patients who were under the age of 18 at the time of their first appointment. “I don’t know if my child would still be here without it,” is a common refrain among parents, referring to a suicide rate among trans kids that’s well above the national average.

The Cincinnati clinic’s 2013 launch seemed like the dawn of a more compassionate era, in which widely available transition care would prevent tragedies such as the high-profile suicide of Leelah Alcorn in Warren County. But today that life-saving treatment is in jeopardy as anti-trans bills flood the Ohio and Kentucky state legislatures, proposing to ban gender-affirming care for minors. The CCHMC clinic stopped providing transition care in Kentucky when the state legislature enacted a ban in late March against treatment for minors. It’s now helping Kentucky patients find gender-affirming care from a provider with an Ohio medical license.

Area families fear Ohio could be next. “Ohio was once a state where slaves could flee to, seeking freedom,” notes Giles Roblyer, the father of a 12-year-old trans boy. “Now we’re facing the prospect of becoming refugees in our own country.”

Transgender people have become the political scapegoat du jour, blamed for everything from inflation to mass shootings. School boards (most recently in the Dayton-area Bellbrook-Sugarcreek district) are removing anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ students. Hate speech runs rampant, with trans people dehumanized as “sinners,” even “demons.” Parents are condemned as “child abusers” and “groomers.”

In late March, the Kentucky legislature voted to override Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a law that prohibits gender-transition care for minors. Two bills have been introduced into the Ohio House (HB 454 and HB 68) that would ban gender-affirming care for minors, including hormone therapy, puberty blockers, and sex-reassignment surgery. Physicians would lose their licenses for providing such care, and hospitals would lose public funding. House Bill 6 would ban transgender women from participating in college and youth sports.

The atmosphere has grown so poisonous that some families are considering moving to another state if Ohio bans transition care. “Everyone I know in the transgender community is looking at maps and thinking, In which state will my kid be safe?” says Roblyer. “We are looking at states where there are no anti-trans laws and where parental rights are not being stripped away.”

Losanta Peebles at her Milford home.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Roblyer hates the thought of leaving a job he loves, as a director and an assistant general counsel for Procter & Gamble, and a city where he has deep roots. His older son is in high school. “What will it cost me to leave the boards I serve on and the charities I support?” he wonders. “I hate the thought of starting over in another state. But in the end I will do what is best for my child.”

High school senior Losanta Peebles of Milford, 17, also would consider relocating if Ohio takes away her right to transition care and hormone therapy. She would be forced to abandon her plans to study culinary arts at Cincinnati State, and she’d be leaving a city she loves so much that her chosen name is derived from Losantiville, the name settlers originally gave Cincinnati. “I haven’t really let all of this affect my self-esteem,” she says. “I know it’s hate speech.”

The politics around transgender healthcare are so toxic that officials at CCHMC, who have improved and saved hundreds of lives in the transgender community over the past 10 years, declined to participate in interviews for this story.

In 2014, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a tractor-trailer on I-71 in Warren County, leaving behind a time-release suicide note that in part blamed her parents for not allowing her to transition. “The life I would have lived isn’t worth living because I’m transgender,” she wrote.

Her death continues to haunt the U.S. transgender community, particularly in Cincinnati. “If trans youth are denied the right to transition, there are going to be a lot more suicides,” predicts Carol Moyer Wallace, Corrie’s mother.

Dan Peebles, Losanta’s father, winces when he sees casual transphobic comments from acquaintances on social media. He recoiled when Losanta was taunted at Kings Island on a day when she simply wanted to ride the Diamondback with her dad. “What some people don’t get is that for us it’s very simple,” he says. “We are just trying to keep our child alive. They have expressed to us that they would almost rather be dead than to be a man.”

Ty Warner Kisor at his family’s First Farm Inn bed-and-breakfast.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

As a 19-year-old struggling to come out to his parents, Ty Warner Kisor, now 28, often thought about Alcorn, worrying that he too would die before his true identity became known and embraced by his loved ones. “I thought about that beautiful girl, lying in the ground, and I wondered if I would be buried under the wrong name when I died,” he says.

Ty now feels secure in his masculinity and bolstered by the loving advocacy of his parents, Jennifer Warner and Dana Kisor. Yes, there are challenges; he often doesn’t feel comfortable using the men’s bathroom. “It depends on the day,” he says.

The family has no plans to leave their farm in Petersburg, Kentucky, where they welcome guests at the First Farm Inn bed-and-breakfast. “We feel that we need to stay here in Kentucky and speak up,” says Ty. “But I understand that some families need to make a different decision. It’s the younger kids I really worry about. If I had been a teen when this Kentucky law passed, that could have been dangerous for me.”

In the heart-wrenching conclusion to her suicide note, Alcorn wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated with like humans with valid feelings and human rights.” For some years after her death, it seemed as if her dream was coming true—that public acceptance was growing, reducing the likelihood of future tragedies. And yet now a media host such as Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles can call for the eradication of “transgenderism” with near impunity. During his speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in March, Knowles told the crowd, “For the good of society…transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely—the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.”

Why the sudden, ferocious backlash during the past couple of years and the flurry of anti-trans bills nationwide? Trans people make a more convenient target these days because nearly everyone has a family member or friend who is gay or lesbian. “The battle against gay marriage was lost,” says Roblyer. “But very few people know someone who is trans. They’re a vulnerable population who can be ‘othered’ really easily.”

In addition to fighting anti-trans legislation, families are battling misinformation and propaganda. This is a culture, after all, in which specious rumors can flourish; witness the recent urban legend about high schools allowing students to use litter boxes if they identify as cats.

One of the most common myths is that a diagnosis of gender dysphoria is easily attained and that hormone therapy or puberty blockers are doled out in rapid-fire style like candy from a Pez dispenser. In reality, the process can take 18 months or longer, involving extensive counseling followed by an often lengthy wait for an appointment at CCHMC’s Transgender Health Clinic. “People who want to control trans parents think that kids are walking into doctors’ offices, declaring, I am trans, give me pills,” says Roblyer. “For our family, it’s been a long journey with incremental steps.”

The course of treatment is highly individualistic; some patients and parents don’t choose medical therapies at all. In order to begin transition care, however, all transgender people have one thing in common: They must be diagnosed with gender dysphoria lasting at least six months and resulting in “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,” according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Before Roblyer’s son even knew the word “transgender,” he asked his friends to call him George. He insisted on wearing boys’ underwear and playing with boys’ toys. “For a long time we thought, He’s a tomboy,” Roblyer recalls. “He didn’t know what a transgender person is. He thought he was the only one on Earth.”

In kindergarten, he approached his parents with the simple declaration: “God made a mistake. He sent me to earth as a girl, but I am really a boy.” Later he told his parents, “I don’t want to live past 9”—a remark that Roblyer and his wife, Meredith, came to interpret as meaning that he didn’t want to go through puberty, not that he wanted to die. “All that changed when we went to the Transgender Clinic at Cincinnati Children’s, when we realized what we could do step by step, choice by choice,” says Roblyer. “Like all parents of trans kids, I didn’t expect or ask for this journey. God decided for us.”

Yet a pernicious myth persists that parents or teachers are child abusers who somehow “groom” children to become transgender. The reality is the opposite, these parents say; if and when children confess their feelings to their parents, they’re sometimes met with initial confusion and resistance.

Corrie Wallace says she wanted to be Wonder Woman as a kindergartener playing superheroes in the schoolyard. “Even at that age, I kept it to myself,” she recalls. “I knew people wouldn’t like it.”

During adolescence Corrie became more withdrawn and unmotivated, retreating into the world of video games. When other players taunted her for her tendency to choose a female avatar, Corrie played up the role of the heterosexual male: “I would rather look at a girl character than a guy character.”

“I got good grades, but I wasn’t interested in doing anything but the bare minimum,” she says. “I had no passion for growing and developing.”

Corrie enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Cincinnati, but that didn’t bring about the fresh start she’d hoped for. Even after she began exploring the possibility of transitioning, she endured months of waffling and indecision. “After I had first started researching, I thought there was no way transitioning would make me happy, and I tried to find other ways to get over my gender dysphoria,” she says. “But I’d been dealing with it since childhood, so there was no way I was just going to will it away.”

She even cut her hair short and worked out rigorously at the gym in an attempt to look more masculine—measures that only made her more miserable. Over Thanksgiving break during her senior year of high school, Corrie struggled to find the right time and the right words to tell her mother. “I tried to build up the courage to say something to my mom, but I couldn’t get the words out,” she recalls. “I knew it would flip her world upside down.”

Carol noticed. “Is something wrong?” she asked. “Yeah,” Corrie replied, “but you aren’t going to like it.”

A month after that conversation, Corrie started therapy. It would be another six months before she received a recommendation to start hormone therapy. “People think you sign up one day to be transgender,” she says. “That’s not how it works. I was very persistent and consistent with my therapist.”

For the next several months mother and daughter texted frequently. “That made it so much easier,” Corrie says. “I could type out very explicitly what I was feeling, and I didn’t have to see her reaction and try to protect her.”

A devout Catholic, Carol was at first shaken by the revelation that the child she’d raised as a boy named Cory had grown into a young woman named Corrie. She wasn’t sure she could sit by her daughter’s side when she underwent sex reassignment surgery in 2018.

But her parish priest reassured her that supporting Corrie was the right thing to do. Carol’s emotional response migrated from shock to concern to her present-day advocacy. “My biggest fear was for her safety,” she says. “And I worried she would be alone all her life.”

Dan Peebles recalls the fear and uncertainty he experienced as Losanta transitioned. “We raised both of our children to be men,” he says. “And for a time we had to grieve the old personality. It’s almost like we have had three kids. But Losanta needs to live outwardly the way she feels inwardly, and the world will have to deal with it.”

Losanta Peebles with parents Dan and Pam.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Losanta nods approvingly, adding, “It’s not like I woke up one day and decided to be trans so people could hate me.”

Pam Peebles now supports her daughter wholeheartedly, but couldn’t help warning her initially, “This is the worst demographic you could choose. People will discriminate against you. They could even be violent. There can be such a lack of empathy for something you haven’t really had to think about.” She even cautioned, “Do you know how hard it is to be female? We face so many inequities in this life.”

Even longtime LGBTQ+ allies can’t help having conflicted feelings when their children come out to them as transgender. “I supported my child 100 percent when they came out, but a small part of me couldn’t help feeling, But I’m your mom, and I’m worried,” says the Rev. Alice Connor, an Episcopal priest and author who’s the mother of a trans child.

Ohio families, including those interviewed here, have mobilized through forums such as the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Parents of Transgender Youth Facebook page. Again and again, they pack committee meeting rooms at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, spilling into the hallways, to provide opponent testimony or simply to bear witness. They’re outraged that the state, under the Orwellian banner of “parental rights,” is attempting to take away their right to parent as they see fit.

“What happened to the political party of laissez-faire?” asks Warner. “What I don’t understand is how these legislators think they know more than the medical professionals. What is next? Will they dictate that people can’t have their diabetes medication?”

Roblyer agrees, saying, “This is a complete abrogation by those who believe in the principles of limited government, which I happen to share.”

Last year, Armand Antonmaria, M.D., director of the Ethics Center at CCHMC, testified before an Ohio House committee about the dangers of HB 454. “It would threaten the mental health of adolescents with gender dysphoria,” he said. “It would also place Ohio’s health care providers in the untenable position of either violating their ethical duties to their patients or losing their licenses.”

Roblyer made an impassioned appeal before a House committee in November 2022, arguing for equal treatment for parents of transgender youth in making medical decisions for their children. “This bill suggests that I can’t give informed parental consent to gender-affirming care because my child can’t fully understand the risks and he may eventually regret the decision,” he testified. “But under Ohio law, any father can and often does give his consent for any number of risky, experimental, and irreversible surgical procedures for his minor child, such as major and dangerous invasive surgeries for cosmetic breast implants, butt lifts, labiaplasty, and nose jobs, liposuction, stomach stapling, and disfiguring piercings and tattoos on any part of the minor’s body, including the face and neck. The law permits this, even though we know minors often regret these decisions once they are adults.”

Taking a course of puberty blockers for up to two to three years has been clinically proven as a safe and fully reversible treatment, Roblyer noted in his testimony. “But if this bill passes, the father living next door to me will be able to have his child with precocious puberty take years of puberty blockers to minimize mental health issues, but Ohio law will ban me from deciding to have my trans child take the exact same course of medicine to minimize mental health issues.”

Roblyer concluded his testimony by debunking the notion that he’d been duped into believing that his child is trans. “With all due respect, I give advice to the leaders of an $83 billion corporation on complex legal issues including fraud and risk. As part of my job, I read and analyze the medical clinical studies supporting P&G’s products. I’ve been a proud, patriotic, high-achieving American for 48 years. I have not been fooled. I have not been groomed. I know who my child is. I know the studies, I know the risks, I know the benefits, and I will make the choice.”

Three anti-trans bills died in committee last year in the Ohio House, but no one is complacent that will happen again this year. “Given the domino effect of bills in other states, it’s hard to know what will happen here,” says Connor.

Neither is anyone confident the legislative onslaught will stop with minors. As one mother posted recently on the parent Facebook page, “Even if your child doesn’t play sports, you must fight. Even if your child is over 18 and you think they won’t be impacted by the health care ban, we still need you to lend your voice. All of these bills and policies impact our kids directly or indirectly because we know every time a piece of anti-trans legislation pops up, it negatively impacts the mental health of LGBTQIA people and their families. And each piece of anti-trans legislation or policy that passes opens a clear path for the next anti-trans bill and creates momentum to keep the hate going.”

There is, however, at least one reason to remain hopeful—the courage and resilience of transgender kids themselves. For her part, Losanta strives to remain optimistic as she contemplates her life after high school. “I am kind of bargaining that Ohio is going to go the right way,” she says. “What’s going backward is a small group of people who want to regress to another millennium. My own journey is going forward.”

Corrie’s journey is going forward, as well. She had her gender confirmation surgery in 2018; her mother, a nurse, worked in tandem with the Transgender Health Clinic to help Corrie select a Philadelphia surgeon. “After the surgery, I felt a new sense of calm from the realization that no one can take this milestone away from me,” Corrie recalls. “No politician could undo it at that point. I was so happy and relieved that I could take a shower without having to deal with that dysphoria every time.”

Her greatest regret is not transitioning until the age of 21. “Going through puberty is not something you can undo,” she says. “I wish I could talk to my 12-year-old self. If I’d been able to transition earlier, I would have had more fun in high school. I missed out on my fun girlfriend time.”

Corrie Wallace with fiancé Andrew Whitford.

Photograph courtesy Corrie Wallace

Hormones and puberty blockers could have prevented some of the irreversible changes that can contribute to dysphoria: height and skeletal changes, such as broader shoulders; facial hair; facial structure changes such as a more prominent jaw; and limited breast development. “I am larger overall, meaning larger feet and hands, which tend to be perceived as more masculine and make it harder to find fitting clothes,” she says. “I also did not get to have much hip growth so my overall shape is not quite as feminine as I would have wanted. This causes me almost daily dysphoria, sadly, though it’s mostly manageable nowadays.”

Corrie met Andrew Whitford in 2018 through online video gaming, and they decided to meet in person when she was vacationing in Washington, D.C. “I had this fear for years that anyone who knew I had transitioned would be uninterested in me,” she says.

When she told Whitford about her gender identity, she added, “This probably changes everything.” “It doesn’t, I still see you as you,” he replied, leaning over to kiss her.

The couple is now making plans for a September wedding. “I knew I wanted to be married,” says Corrie. “I had pictured myself in a wedding dress. But it happened much sooner than I thought. I feel so lucky to have gone through this really challenging life experience and to have found a relationship where appearances come second to the love we share.”

Facebook Comments