• Washington Post

She Was a GOP Congresswoman. Her Son Is a Transgender Activis

Photo for The Washington Post by Shuran Huang
Former congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and her son Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen.

Clarification: This article has been revised to clarify that the defense bill that Rep. John Rutherford supported would prohibit the military’s federal health-care plan from covering gender-affirming care among trans people in the military, but would not ban the treatments themselves.

***

WASHINGTON – “All of these headlines, they’ve bothered me greatly,” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says.

She is 71, short, with a big voice. A former congresswoman, a Republican.

“They, they, they affect me emotionally. And I don’t think …”

She is looking out at the street in front of Le Bon Café, on Capitol Hill, where a compact SUV is trying to complete a feat of parallel parking.

” … that, that car’s not going to make it …”

Her 37-year-old son, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, is sitting in the blue bistro chair next to her. He’s stocky and slightly bearded, wearing a navy button-down with little trees under an oat-colored cardigan. He can’t contain his laughter.

The car comically backs in and out, in and out.

“I mean, this is not -” Ileana began her quip with a straight face, but she’s giggling now, too. “You gotta measure it. Not enough room.”

But the headlines. And the laws.

“But it’s just never-ending, the onslaught of bills and the press conferences and the hateful words. It impacts me emotionally.”

She’s talking about the animosity toward transgender people – and criticizing it more harshly than you might expect from a woman who, as recently as the Trump administration, was a Republican member of Congress. On the other hand, Rodrigo is transgender. He came out as trans to his parents when he was in college, in 2007, a piece of news that came as “a shock” to Ileana. But she and her husband had embraced their son’s identity, and they have since encouraged other parents to do the same – a sharp contrast to the dominant view in her party, which is openly fighting the mainstream acceptance of transgender people.

Ileana and Rodrigo both have been working the other side of that battle in their own Washington ways.

He is the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, an influential advocacy group that lobbies the Biden administration on issues related to transgender Americans. (“Being trans is on my business card,” he jokes.)

She has been trying to change minds in closed-door conversations with Republican officials. (She declined to get into details, saying she didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by naming names.)

“What do you want for your child, do you want your child to be happy?” Ileana says she asks them. “And if this is how your child is happy, and he’s not harming anyone, is leading a productive life – what is the harm in love and acceptance and thinking that every person that you see, that’s somebody’s family?”

She has a place around the corner from the cafe, from when she was in Congress; Rodrigo now lives there with his husband, and Ileana – a lobbyist for Akin Gump who lives part-time in Miami – stays there, too, when she’s in town. She still knows a lot of people on the Hill. Earlier, she had spotted a familiar face hurrying along on the cobblestone sidewalk.

“Rutherford!” Ileana had called out from her seat.

A mustached man in a suit had turned toward his name.

“Good to see you my friend!” she said.

“Give me a hug, girl!” he replied. They kissed cheeks, with the congressman theatrically enunciating, “Mwah!” She cooed: “I miss you, I miss you!” and Rodrigo had risen from his chair.

“My son, Rigo,” Ileana said.

“Hiii, nice to meet you,” said Rodrigo.

“Hey! How are you? Nice to meet you,” the congressman smiled before hurrying along.

“He’s a Florida Republican member,” Ileana told her son as the man headed off toward the Capitol campus.

“Ohhh.”

“John Rutherford.”

These days, being a Republican lawmaker means there’s a decent chance you’ve voted for an anti-transgender rights bill in the recent past. As of May, GOP state legislators have introduced more than 400 anti-trans bills, many of which have become law in at least 21 states. In Washington, Democratic control of the Senate and the White House makes support for such bills merely culture-war nectar for conservative hard-liners, for the time being. Still, House Republicans in March passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act, which would, among other provisions, condition federal funds on schools providing for parental consent to allow children to change their names on school forms or use locker rooms and bathrooms that align with their gender identity. In April, they passed the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, which defines sex “solely” on “reproductive biology and genetics at birth” and restricts the ability of transgender girls and women to compete on their teams.

Rutherford voted for both of those bills.

A few weeks after his chance encounter with Ileana outside the cafe, The Washington Post found the Florida Republican in the Rayburn building, a floor above Ileana’s old office.

“My stand on the LGBTQ community,” Rutherford said, “has always been, I don’t think anybody should be discriminated against because of who they love and want to associate with.”

But.

“I can love the sinner, hate the sin, because I think it’s wrong. I think it’s a sin. Years ago, it was even considered a mental illness.”

Two days later, he would vote for a defense bill that bans the military’s health-care plan from covering gender-affirming care for trans service members.

***

“One on one, they’re more compassionate, understanding, and they get the family dynamics,” Ileana says of her Republican colleagues. “But then when you get this herd mentality, it’s very difficult to cut through all the fog.”

When she came to Washington in 1989 as the first Cuban elected to Congress, few people in national politics knew what being transgender meant. In those days, some of the headlines were about HIV/AIDS, and same-sex marriage was just becoming a political wedge issue. In 1996, Ileana voted – along with 118 Democrats – to send the Defense of Marriage Act to Bill Clinton’s desk, which he signed.

Around 2001, chatter spread at Rodrigo’s high school that he liked both men and women. Of his feelings around gender, he recalls: “The only way I can really describe it is like being in a fog.” The rumor prompted a family sit-down in the living room. When Rodrigo acknowledged that it was true, he says, his parents treated it “as no big deal, which is the best-case scenario.”

In interviews at the time, Ileana cited both Rodrigo and his sister – along with shifting views in her district – as influences on her evolution on gay rights. She co-sponsored unsuccessful legislation repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2005 and then opposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2006. Two years later, she became a founding member of the House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. In 2011, Ileana became the first Republican to support the Respect for Marriage Act, which would allow same-sex couples to wed.

In an NPR interview last December, after Congress finally passed the Respect for Marriage Act with bipartisan support, Ileana described engaging in a “quiet campaign” by the group Conservatives Against Discrimination to get Republicans on board. “People are coming to understand that they have someone in their own family or someone with whom they work or someone who is – even someone in their church – who may be gay,” she said.

Ileana and Rodrigo hope that social proximity, that personal touch, will eventually persuade Republicans on issues relating to transgender people.

About 1.6 million people in the United States are transgender, according to an estimate by the Williams Institute. Sounds like a large number, but it’s only about half a percent of the population.

“One of the challenges that I think the trans community faces is that there just aren’t that many [of them],” says Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s Republican former secretary of state, who was co-chair, with Ileana, of Conservatives Against Discrimination. “And so,” he says, “you don’t get to benefit as much from the, ‘Oh that’s my co-worker, that’s my aunt, that’s my uncle, that’s my boss.'”

At the moment, progress on the Republican side might not be measurable in acceptance but rather the absence of hostility.

“If you can make it so that they don’t bring up a bill every week or two that is in this area, that’s progress, right?” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), the co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, referring to Ileana’s efforts to dissuade her fellow Republicans from challenging the legitimacy of transgender people. “If they don’t amend every appropriations bill to have this junk, that’s progress.”

Being a pro-trans Republican remains a knotty paradox. The party’s presidential candidates know that bashing the politics of gender identity is a good way to fire up the base. “I’m talking about cutting taxes, people go like that,” Donald Trump said at a Republican event in June, mimicking polite applause. “Talk about transgender, everyone goes crazy.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who is also running for president, recently signed a law making it a trespassing offense for trans adults to enter restrooms that align with their gender – a measure that LGBTQ advocates worry will lead to arrests. This raised an unsettling question for Rodrigo: Was it safe for him to visit the state? “We’ll have the bail money,” Ileana quickly said. “That would be an interesting test case, though.”

“Somehow, she always remains positive and optimistic about it,” Ana Navarro, former Republican strategist and a longtime family friend, said of Ileana. “But I’d be mad as hell at these awfully bigoted people that are, frankly, putting a target on my child’s back.”

Since becoming a lobbyist, Ileana has taken on work that may put her in tension with the cause of transgender rights. In 2020, she registered as a foreign agent for the United Arab Emirates, where being transgender is punishable by a year in prison, according to Human Rights Watch. Earlier this year, she took as a client the conservative network Americano Media, which touts itself as the Spanish-language twin of Fox News and runs analysis and opinion pieces that criticize transgender activism. The federal disclosure notes the lobbying issues as “relationship building.” Apart from her professional work, she donated $1,000 each this cycle to the reelection campaigns of Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) – former colleagues who have been outspoken against transgender women playing in women’s sports. “Sorry, they’re males,” Foxx, who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said during an April hearing.

When The Post contacted Ileana to ask about whether she thinks those ties run counter to her advocacy for transgender people, the ex-congresswoman said she was traveling and unavailable for an interview. And she did not respond to a list of questions on the subject sent via email.

Rodrigo also declined to answer questions about these ties over email. In an earlier interview, he said there was little friction between him and his mother on transgender rights besides disagreements about the fine print of some policies.

“But those are details,” he said. Fundamentally, he thinks Ileana is unwaveringly on the side of transgender people. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to secure trans rights,” Rodrigo said, “and she’s so bought in on that and the kind of violence that we face.”

***

One rainy morning in late June, Ileana came back home from a breakfast meeting at the Republican Capitol Hill Club. The Ohio House of Representatives was scheduled to vote that day on a bill that would restrict health care for trans minors and prevent some trans athletes from participating in women’s sports.

She said that she’d texted three lawmakers to see if she could get them to change their vote.

“That was a no-go.”

Rodrigo tilted his head, replied with resignation: “Oh. Yeeeah.”

The bill passed, 64-28.

It’s hard to change minds, no matter how personal the connection. Being in the same party, or even the same family, is no guarantee that two people will end up on the same page.

“I don’t know if you remember this,” Rodrigo said, turning to Ileana. “There was like, a few months, where I got a job on campus that I didn’t tell my parents about, in order to save up money, in case they kicked me out.”

Her eyebrows pinched together. “Oh, Rigo!”

“Well, and thankfully you didn’t, right? Thank you, thank you.”

“Ay, Dios mío!” Unfathomable, to her.

They had known he was working on the side, but not why.

“Y estabas ahorrando el dinero?” she asked. The money – was he saving it?

“Yeah! Yeah, and so I had opened a bank account that you all didn’t know about, that was Citizens Bank.”

He’d also scoped out a local LGBTQ-friendly clinic. Thought about how he’d pay tuition, his bills. “The fundamentals for living,” he called it, “if they rejected me.”

“Well, I commend you for being so organized! El alquiler, la salud.”

“Like a prevention strategy,” he said.

They’re both cracking up again. How dire, how sad it all looked in the rear view.

“Que triste,” said Ileana. “I mean, we’re laughing, pero que triste.”