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Ileana's Son: From Amanda to Rodrigo

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Rodrigo Lehtinen grew up in a household grounded in Republican politics.

His mother, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was the first Cuban-American elected to Congress and has served in the House for the last 25 years. His father, Dexter Lehtinen, is the former US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida who oversaw the prosecution of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. His grandfather, Enrique Ros, was an old-time Cuban-American hardliner and author who railed against Castro until his death last year at the age of 89.

"I came from a family where politics was very much talked about openly, calmly with respect on a regular basis," he said. "So engaging that type of conversation about political issues or things that might be controversial is not foreign in my family."

As he sits for his first television interview, however, Rodrigo admitted the exposure feels a bit uncomfortable.

"I'm generally a private person," he said. "I know that may not be expected because my mom's a politician and she's very much in the public eye, but I'm just generally a more introverted person."

Nevertheless the 28-year-old Rodrigo is willing to share a fact that has not been widely publicized. Rodrigo hasn't always been Rodrigo. For most of his life he was Amanda, an outgoing and funny child who went to Palmer Trinity High School. Amanda was in the drama club, the rock climbing team, and founded the school's chapter of Amnesty International.

Amanda had come out to her parents as gay in high school but it wasn't until she was in college that Amanda made the decision to begin living her life as a transgender man.

"I think coming out as transgender is really about coming out as your authentic self, coming out as the person you always knew you were but no one else may have known," he said. "And now you are sharing that honesty with other people for the first time."

For Amanda that moment of honesty with her parents came in the form of a letter she wrote to them in 2007 while she was home from college. In it she explained what it means to be transgender. He even included a few pamphlets. From now on, the letter explained, he would be known as Rodrigo.

"I wanted to give them a chance to get used to the idea before we spoke," Rodrigo recalled.

And when they did sit down, he said, "My family was actually really supportive."

"We know Rigo as our child, whether it's Amanda or now as Rodrigo, he's our son, we're proud of him," Ros-Lehtinen said recently.

Both Ileana and her husband, Dexter, said their only concern was for Rodrigo's well-being.

"As parents we wanted to make sure Rigo understood we were totally fine with it," Ros-Lehtinen said, but added, "we wanted to make sure he was safe. Our society is sometimes not inviting and not caring enough and there is no mystery that LGBT kids when they are younger are bullied."

Rodrigo said he was lucky he has not faced such attacks.

Rodrigo's father, Dexter, is a former Army Ranger who was wounded in Vietnam. He said that experience shaped his views on matters such as sexual orientation.

"I remember back to my days in Vietnam, that's an era I tend to measure a lot of things against," Dexter said. "And I just didn't care what the person's orientation was when you put them on point. The test for putting someone on point in a patrol is whether they were reliable and perform."

Dexter said he applies a similar, non-wartime standard to Rodrigo.

"The real test of somebody is whether they can become self-sufficient and not a drag on society but a contributor to society," Dexter said. "And that's what he's always done."

After graduating from Brown University, Rodrigo went to work for the LGBT Task Force as an organizer in Los Angeles. More recently he started a job as a fundraiser for GLAAD, a longtime champion of LGBT rights.

"It's really an inspiring time to then be involved in the transgender movement because it does feel that it's coming into its own in a big way," said Rodrigo.

Never has the transgender community been more in the public spotlight. A Time magazine cover recently featured Laverne Cox, the transgender actress who stars in the series Orange is the New Black. Another television series, Transparent, is inspired by the real life story of a family learning their father is transitioning. And former Navy Seal Christopher Beck is now Kristin Beck author of the book Warrior Princess and the subject of a recent CNN documentary Lady Valor.

Next month the Miami Dade County Commission will vote on making it illegal to discriminate against a person for being transgender.

"Now is really the time where our movement is starting to coalesce, where you can actually call it a movement," he said. "I don't think you could have called it a movement ten or twenty years ago. Then it was really just a group of people trying to do things. Now things are much more coordinated, institutionalized."

As the first transgender child of a member of Congress, Rodrigo knows he has the ability to raise awareness. His mother credits him with opening her eyes to certain things.

"We're very happy that our son is happy with who he is," she said. "And that's a blessing to us."

In 1994, Ros-Lehtinen voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. Years later she broke with her party and was the only Republican to vote to repeal DOMA. She is also the only Republican among the 112 members in the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

"I have full confidence she would have come to these pro-LGBT opinions whether I happen to be transgender or not," Rodrigo said. "I think she's genuinely a good person, she may be Republican and I may not be, but she cares about people enough and the tide of history is going so much in that direction."

A Miami Herald story in 2010 was the first to note that Ileana had a transgender son, suggesting Rigo's influence helped her to become the first Republican in Congress to support gay marriage.

Ros-Lehtinen has always credited both her kids – Amanda/Rodrigo and Patricia – for helping change her view.

"They think of it as a Neanderthal way of thinking not to accept someone because of their sexual orientation," Ros-Lehtinen told The Miami Herald in 2003. "My kids just say, `So and so is gay.' Its like, `He likes chocolate ice cream.' It's a total mind shift among generations. . . . As new generations rise up, a lot of taboos will be laid to rest."

Rodrigo said when it did become publicly known he was transgender he was surprised by the reaction.

"It was surreal," he said. "But the reaction was generally positive. People really came out of the woodwork, people I hadn't talked to in years proactively approached me, emailed me, came out to me, thank you for sharing. It was even more positive than I would have dreamed of."

Even among Republican friends of his mother, Rodrigo said the reaction was positive.

"The Republican Party is generally thought of as not being supportive of LGBT rights, but what was interesting (was) there were so many Republican people I know, whether they were family friends of mine, whether they were friends I met through my mother's campaigns when I was growing up, people who identify as conservative as Republican who vote by those values," he said. "And they are saying, `You know what, I support you and I support these rights and this is an eye opening experience.'"

And although he lives in Los Angeles, he said he actually feels more at home in Miami.

"I know that's surprising, the stereotype often is Cuban Americans would be more conservative," he said, "but this is another one of those areas where I got really surprised in 2010 in my public coming out. Because I had feared that maybe that would be the case, that the backlash might be stronger. But again the actual response I got from people so ran contrary to that to my great relief. I was very happy to have been wrong about that."

Ros-Lehtinen said most people don't mention Rodrigo to her. She suspects it might be because people think she's embarrassed at having a transgender child. "I'm not," she said.

"He's a very happy soul," she said. "He's very much at peace with himself."

Ros-Lehtinen offers some simple advice to parents who have a trans son or daughter.

"Don't freak out, stay calm and don't be afraid," she said. "Love your child because that person is your child whether it's the person you wanted him or her to be or not. That's my advice to parents, never, never reject your child. That's unconditional love no matter what."


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