GOP congresswoman, transgender son press for equal protections

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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen son Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen is a transgender man. He is featured with his mother and father in an ad campaign unveiled last week by the gay rights organization SAVE. File-Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers issued a unified call for tougher measures against Iran and Syria at House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington on Friday, October 14, 2011. Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the committee, says the U.S. needs a realistic policy to dealing with the two countries.

(CNN) — As North Carolina Republicans square off with the federal government over the state’s contentious “bathroom bill,” a prominent GOP lawmaker on Capitol Hill is launching a very personal appeal against divisive new legislation targeting the transgender community.

“All these folks are saying we’re worried about our kids going to bathrooms — no, we were the ones worried about Rodrigo having some acts of violence against him because because people were not accepting,” Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told CNN’s Jake Tapper during an interview that aired Wednesday on “The Lead.”

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen is the congresswoman’s son. A transgender man, he now features with his mother and father in an ad campaign unveiled last week by the gay rights organization SAVE.

“Our son is transgender,” Ros-Lehtinen says in the video. “We loved him as Amanda and now as Rodrigo.”

The ads, filmed months ago, were not part of a scripted pushback against the North Carolina law, she told CNN. HB2, which is currently being challenged by the Justice Department, bans people from entering bathrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates.

The timing “was purely by chance,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “But I’m glad it came out at this time because this is not about bathroom stalls and who goes where. This is about family acceptance, this is about talking to your child about being accepted and loved.”

For Heng-Lehtinen, who now manages donor services for GLAAD, the process of revealing his gender identity to his parents was fraught — he delivered the news in a letter years ago, gathered his things and prepared to leave home.

“I was terrified to tell them,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate that I come from a loving home. My parents were always very clear with my siblings and I that their love was unconditional. And yet, our society is still so hostile toward transgender people that I was still terrified to tell them. I had packed a bag, ready to live outside the home. I didn’t know if I would be welcome back.”

He was. There was never any question, his mother said.

“It’s a shock,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It takes some getting used to, I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”

The congresswoman, who in 1989 broke barriers by becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve in Congress, is now trying to make the case for equal protection to her fellow lawmakers. The conversations, she told CNN, are similar to the early days of the gay rights movement.

Back then, Ros-Lehtinen said: “Many people said, ‘Well, I don’t know anyone who’s gay.’ It turns out that in their very own family they had someone with that sexual identity. Now we have gender identity and it’s a growth process — it’s education and it takes some getting used to.”

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