U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s transgender son helps her evolve on LGBT issues

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Rodrigo Lehtinen tends to be a private person, which is challenging in light of his political pedigree.

Lehtinen’s mother is Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American elected to Congress. Ros-Lehtinen has served in the House for a quarter century.

His father is Dexter Lehtinen, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, who led the high-profile prosecution of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

Rodrigo’s grandfather is Enrique Ros, the Cuban-American author who was a vocal anti-Castro hardliner until passing at the age of 89 last year.

“I came from a family where politics was very much talked about openly, calmly with respect on a regular basis,” Rodrigo Lehtinen told CBS4 reporter Jim DeFede in his first television interview. “So engaging that type of conversation about political issues or things that might be controversial is not foreign in my family.”

“I’m generally a private person,” he added. “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.”

Despite his nervousness, the 28-year-old Rodrigo is sharing a fact about himself not widely known. For most of his life, Rodrigo had been Amanda.

Amanda came out to her parents as gay in high school, but by the time she went to college discovered she was a transgender man.

“I think coming out as transgender is really about coming out as your authentic self,” Rodrigo told DeFede. “Coming out as the person you always knew you were but no one else may have known … And now you are sharing that honesty with other people for the first time.”

The moment of self-realization came during the writing of a letter to her parents in 2007 while home from college. She explained what transgender was, and included some brochures.

After this, Amanda’s letter said, he would go by Rodrigo.

“I wanted to give them a chance to get used to the idea before we spoke,” he said.

Once they were able to speak in person, Rodrigo said his family was “actually really supportive.”

“We know Rigo as our child, whether it’s Amanda or now as Rodrigo,” Ros-Lehtinen said recently. “He’s our son, we’re proud of him.”

Both Ileana and Dexter say Rodrigo’s well-being is their only concern.

“As parents, we wanted to make sure Rigo understood we were totally fine with it, we wanted to make sure he was safe,” said Ros-Lehtinen, “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 acknowledges that he has not experienced such attacks.

Ros-Lehtinen voted in 1994 to support the Defense of Marriage Act, which set the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Later, she broke with the GOP as the only Republican voting to repeal DOMA. Now she is the sole Republican in the 112 members of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

“I have full confidence she would have come to these pro-LGBT opinions,” Rodrigo told DeFede, “whether I happen to be transgender or not.”

Ros-Lehtinen frequently credits both her children – Rigo and Patricia – for helping her change views.

“They think of it as a Neanderthal way of thinking not to accept someone because of their sexual orientation,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a 2003 interview in the Miami Herald. “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.”.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.