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A Republican mom and her transgender son open up about unconditional love and acceptance

Former US Republican Rep Ileana Ros Lehtinen trans son Rodrigo Heng Lehtinen portrait Washington DC home
Shuran Huang for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen and his mother, former GOP lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, are out to show, through their experience and optimism, how every trans child's life matters.

When Rodrigo “Rigo” Heng-Lehtinen went to tell his elderly grandfather that he was transgender, Rigo was obviously filled with great trepidation. It’s easy to assume that someone from an older generation would not be able to understand, let alone comprehend, such a deeply personal aspect of his identity.

“After I told him, he looked at me and said, ‘At 83, you learn not to sweat the small stuff,’” Rigo said. He added, with a characteristically big laugh, ”If that’s the small stuff, I wonder what the big stuff is all about.”

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What makes this even more surprising is that Rigo came out in 2007, when trans visibility was virtually nonexistent. Further, he comes from a high-profile political family with roots in the Republican Party. At the time, his mother, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was a GOP U.S. representative from Miami, and his father was a former member of the Florida state legislature, and under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

“That was back in the days when Democrats and Republicans actually got along,” his mother was quick to point out. Partly because of his high-profile parents, and mostly because it never gets easy to tell your family you are trans, Rigo was filled with anxiety as contemplated how best to tell his parents during a drive home to Florida from Brown University in Rhode Island during a break from college.

“I prepared for the moment,” Rigo recalled. “I took a second job at college to build up a small nest egg in case my parents kicked me out of the house. When it came to the moment to tell them, I decided to leave them a note, and then I went to the home of a close friend of mine who was going to let me stay with them if my parents didn’t want to see me.”

In the end, Rigo had nothing to worry about. “My parents called me, told me they loved me, that I was their child, and to come home, and they have been wonderful ever since.”

“Rigo is so devoted to his family,” his mother interjected. “Of course we were going to accept him and love him.”

But they both understand that their story doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s for that reason that Rigo and his mom remain so outspoken — and optimistic. They attempt to provide a source of hope and inspiration to all those trans youth as well as their parents that the lives of trans youth are important and should not be forgotten.

“I’ve been thinking so much about Nex Benedict lately, and how we can’t just forget about this person. Nobody should ever be forgotten,” Ileana pleaded.

Benedict, a 16-year-old trans student of Indigenous heritage from Owasso High School, died on February 8, a day after being involved in a physical altercation at his school. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Oklahoma determined that Benedict’s manner of death was by suicide. Benedict had been bullied because of his gender identity.

“No one should ever be erased. Who knows what this young person could have achieved? It’s like what the English poet John Donne once wrote, ‘Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind,’” Ileana said.

Ileana said that’s why she’s proud of the work her son, Rigo does. Three years ago, he became executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality where he is a national thought leader and strategist working to advance transgender rights on the federal and state levels, including both legislative and regulatory initiatives.

“As a family, we're so gosh darn proud of him,” Rigo’s mother intoned. “And everything that he does every day to try and make families better and help make sure every trans person and every trans youth understands that their life is worthy.”

“I remain optimistic because I am so confident that at the end of the day, most Americans want to do the right thing,” Rigo responded to his mom. “They really do. For most, it gets down to the fact that many don’t understand what it means transgender. And when they get to meet an actual transgender person, they realize that we are not the bogeyman under the bed."

Related: How Knowing a Trans Person Affects Your Attitude on LGBTQ+ Rights

Rigo added that it was important for the general population to understand that transgender people are just like them, folks who get up in the morning and go to work and try to live their best lives. “One of the problems though is that we are a small community, so not many people get the opportunity to meet us. And that makes it very easy for anti-LGBTQ+ ideologues to spread all this misinformation about us.”

Ileana and Rigo cited the fact that just 20 years ago, most people didn't even know what the word transgender meant. And if they'd ever heard anything about a transgender person, it was usually a punch line to a joke or some caricature that they saw on a daytime talk show.

“Now fast-forward to 2024, most people do say, ‘Hey, you know what, I get a little bit of what being transgender means. And I, at the very least, don't think that someone should be discriminated against just because of who they are,’” Rigo stressed. “That's progress. And that's actually very rapid progress; however, when you're sitting amidst all the backlash right now, it's easy to feel like the entire weight of history resting on your shoulders.”

He added, “We are still marching forward, and polling shows that more Americans say that they know someone who's transgender and that we deserve the same rights and protections as everyone else. So yeah, there's a lot of hate out there right now. But that hate is coming from a minority.”

Rigo said that his goal and that of the organization that he leads is to make sure everyone has the same story he has. “My family and our story should not be so rare and special. What success would look like is if our story becomes quite boring and routine, and no one is interested in it because it's so accepted when a transgender person comes out to their family. Everyone deserves to have that kind of love and protection from the people they love.”

“You know when Rigo said he was working another job while going to school, saving money in case we kicked him out, and I was like, there's no way in the world that we would do that,” Ileana recalled. “But that goes on in every kid's mind because what they’re telling their parents can be a very difficult issue for them to deal with.”

Ileana said that what most parents will eventually find out is that having a transgender child is not a crisis. “It's just another episode in your family life. And that's it. Sure, the unknown can freak you out, and you never stop worrying about the health and safety of your child, trans or otherwise.”

She continued, “The most important thing you can do to avoid worst-case scenarios is to show love and acceptance. That’s what we did, and for us, fears of worst-case scenarios never materialized. We want that to be the same for everyone else.”

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.