Transgender Son of Republican Lawmaker Talks LGBTQ Activism

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen.

Last month, Akron’s Gay Community Endowment Fund held their annual meeting. The event featured a keynote speech by Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, Director of Public Education at Freedom For All Americans, a national  activism organization. Heng-Lehtinen, an Ivy League graduate and son of a Republican congresswoman, spoke about his experiences in political activism and what he finds is most effective in bringing hearts and minds around to support LGBTQ rights.

Could you share a little about yourself, your background, what you studied in college and what you do now?

I’m a transgender guy and I’m Cuban-American, which I always joke is very typical because I’m from Miami, Fla., so it’s expected. I went to Brown University and studied Latin American studies, which on the surface has nothing to do with what I do now. But I always tell people in college, if they’re expecting to do anything other than the things that are clearly-tracked like like lawyer and doctor, don’t worry about what you major in college, because really, it’s just about, do you have critical thinking skills, writing skills, things like that. Now I work at Freedom For All Americans, which is the national campaign for nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people. Like I mentioned in the speech, there’s 32 states still, where people can be evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs for either their sexual orientation, or gender identity or both. And Ohio is one of those, statewide. So, I work and help support the campaigns in the other 32 states to remedy that.

How did you get started doing activism?

My family is very political, although of a different stripe. My family is very Republican. It’s not just my mother, it’s my entire family. I am the only one who’s not Republican and I am not just a Democrat but left of the . We’re certainly not on the same page, but what it does mean is I was raised to participate politically. Even if we have different views about how to change the world, we’re still in agreement that the world needs changing. My family was very intentional about always talking with me and my little sister about what was happening in the news. We would debate things over the dinner table. They would take us to go voting with them as kids. So, I do come from a very politically engaged family. That meant that advocacy was in the mix for me when I would think about what I wanted to be when I grow up.

More concretely, when I got out of college, I was really fortunate to get a fellowship. There’s a group called the National LGBTQ Task Force and they do a summer program. It’s like a 101 for activism. You do three months, really hardcore, day in and day out work, where they show you the ropes. I recommend that program to other people all the time. I think you can get a lot out of it. Even if you don’t stay in LGBT work specifically, because you learn about how to recruit volunteers, how the campaigns work, all the nuts and bolts. I feel really lucky I was able to do a program like that. That’s what set me up. And it is paid. It doesn’t pay a lot, needs to be paid more. But it is enough that you could get by, so it’s not another unpaid internship. I think we need more programs like that in the movement.

Even coming from a politically-involved family, would you say your experiences with being trans were a part of your interest in activism?

Yeah, definitely a part of it. Because I think being trans means that your world is political whether you want it to be or not. Even if you’re not already involved in activism, once you come out as trans, it can feel like you have a target on your back. I think that really energizes a lot of people. It makes a lot of us, who maybe weren’t political before, realize that this is something that we have to get involved in, whether we really want to or not. I think in an ideal world, it wouldn’t be. People wouldn’t have to be feel targeted like that. But realistically, in the world we live in, that is what the climate is like, especially now with the Trump administration and the kind of signals that that administration is sending from the presidential pulpit, you could say. I’ve seen a lot of trans people get even more involved than they ever expected because of that.

Being trans means that your world is political whether you want it to be or not.

 

In your keynote speech, you mentioned that your mother is a Republican congresswoman. Since the Republican Party generally opposes LGBTQ rights, how have you and your family handled that?

I’m really lucky that my mom has never been scared to buck the Republican party. She is a Republican and she really identifies with it. It’s not just a banner that she ran under, it’s something she really cares about. But it doesn’t mean that she’s a party drone, going with whatever they say. Thankfully, she’s always been brave enough to vocally disagree when she does.

Even putting aside LGBT rights, there’s also been her being outspoken on climate change. She’s one of the only Republicans on the climate change caucus in congress, saying, “Hey climate change is real and we need to do something about it.” For her in particular it matters, because we’re down here in Miami, Fla., which is projected to be literally underwater within 100 years because of climate change. So, she’s bucked the party on climate change, on LGBT rights, on immigration, she’s always been very pro-immigrant.

Thankfully, she was never hesitant about speaking out. She’s always been vocal. She’s had to pull the party along. She jokes that if we can’t get into the 21st century in the Republican Party, can we at least get into the 1970s? She jokes like, “Come on, at least be okay with gay stuff.” I feel okay repeating that because that’s all public that she’s bucked the party and all this.

I think it takes people like her, being vocal and unintimidated about saying, hey, being a conservative and being pro-transgender rights are not in contradiction. Because lots of Republicans are actually much more in favor than those of us who are not Republican might think. The latest poll says that 61 percent of Republicans nationwide support transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination protections. 61 percent! Everyday Republicans are actually much more supportive than the leadership is. It’s really the party leadership that is fostering that climate of hostility. I think more and more Republicans need to speak out and be unafraid. They’ll find that they have more support than they might think.

Being a conservative and being pro-transgender rights are not in contradiction.

 

Recently, a Republican congressman from Virginia was also taking that lead on LGBTQ rights. Do you think the Republican leadership will eventually come around, like the Democrats did about a decade ago?

Absolutely! I think it’s just a matter of time. Like you said, Democrats were not always supportive, either. About four days ago, I was in Atlanta, supporting some activists on the ground there for their statewide campaign. A lobbyist, who is not Republican herself, but has worked with Republicans, because it’s Georgia, it’s a deep-red state. She has a long history of working with Republicans there and on LGBT issues. She said, “I’m old enough to remember when not even Democrats were with us.” She said, “I’m old enough to remember when no one in office would take a meeting with us, just because we were an LGBT organization. It didn’t matter if they were Republican or Democratic.” She said,”It’s almost mind blogging now that we can go into a state legislature and assume that 95 of the Democrats are with us. And now we’re only frustrated about the Republicans.”

Our community has survived quite a lot and we got through it.

I think that really puts things in perspective where now, we’re in a political moment where we’re thinking what are we going to do with the Trump administration and with Republican majorities. But it’s not the first time we’ve come up against a problem like this. We’re actually in a much better position than we have been historically. I don’t want to sugarcoat it, this is challenging. But speaking with LGBT elders, it’s heartening to get that reality check. Our community has survived quite a lot and we got through it. We have a lot of power behind us and it’s only a matter of time before the Republican party starts thinking, you know what, 61 percent of people are good with this, most people don’t want to see a focus here, let’s drop the bathroom thing, let’s get with the 21st century. I think it’s only a matter of time.

Going back to that figure, you said it was 61 percent of regular Republican voters? 

Exactly. It’s 70 percent of the public overall and within that, when you break it up into just the Republicans, it’s 61 percent. This is on transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination. It also has a breakdown of specifically, bathroom bans. That’s really fascinating because we saw that just in two or three years, since the last study was done, public opposition to bathroom bans has gone up. Meaning more people are saying, “This is nonsense, I don’t want my legislature regulating who goes to the bathroom where.” That’s pretty phenomenal progress in just a few years’ time. It underscores that people are ready, but we need to keep being vocal and keep showing that we’re just everyday people just trying to use the bathroom and move on with our lives. People will inevitably be with us.

Why do you think the Republican leadership has been so oppositional to what the majority believes, even of their party?

It’s complicated but I think there are two big things. One is that legislators are inherently conservative. Not conservative as in politically, but as in risk-averse. They do not want to do something that they think is going to be rocking the boat. Legislators feel that they only have so much space to go against the grain. And they’re going to take that space up using things that are their top priorities. So, if you’re a regular legislator in a state and your leadership is saying we’re going to pursue this bathroom ban, you go okay, this is not the mountain that I want to go down on. That’s where showing the public opinion on our side is really impactful. Because it shows that going against bathroom bans isn’t as risky as it might be made out to be. So, that’s one thing, is that legislators are really just people like anyone else and are scared of taking risks.

The other thing is that we’re up against a pretty deep donor base. The opposition does a really good job of raising money. The Koch brothers and other mega donors like that are running our democracy, in a certain way, really undermining what it means to be a democracy. So, I think some of these issues that are really about campaign finance reform and direct democracy are, in a way, LGBT issues, which is an intersectional way to look at it. To the extent that legislators feel that they have to be responsive to interests other than their own voters, that’s going to hurt everyday people, including LGBT people who are mixed up in this bathroom ban controversy. But it’s not just us, it’s this issue of legislators feeling indebted to people other than their voters.

These issues that are really about campaign finance reform and direct democracy are, in a way, LGBT issues.

But I do always want to temper this stuff by saying it’s not hopeless. And it’s not the first time we’ve been up against something like this. I’m always a little hesitant about being too emphatic about this kind of stuff because I don’t want people to feel immobilized or hopeless. Because our movement has overcome bigger things before. But I do think it’s good to be realistic about what we’re up against and then make decisions to combat that. So, the decision would be showing that public support is on our side so they’re not as scared of taking the risk. And the solution is raising our own money and making sure that we have what we need to get in the media and combat it right back.

What do you think the average LGBTQ person could do right now towards those ends?

One of the best things that all of us can do is write to our legislators. I know that sounds cliche but it really is true. I work on a campaign in New Hampshire. There, we have legislator after legislator saying, “I had no idea that people in my district cared about this.” And they were being sincere. They truly didn’t realize that there were families in their district who would be impacted by this.

So, changing the face of this issue, so that it’s not about this big scary monster that the opposition wants to portray us as. Instead it’s about their own voters, their own people and families in their area. That really does go a long way. Again, legislators are, at the end of the day, just people. Yes, they’re people in a very unusual job, a different job than you or I do. But they’re still just human beings. Having that personal contact can take this issue from being abstract to being a real, flesh and blood issue.

Former congressional staffers have said that calling your legislators is more effective than writing a letter. Do you agree with that?

Yeah, that’s a great point. They say that a call is the best thing you can do. A handwritten letter is the next best. And then email is last. The reason is because emails are very quick to send off and its not always 100 percent clear if that person really does live in their district. Let’s say in New Hampshire, they might be thinking, “Is this someone in California who’s just sitting on a laptop writing me?” They want to know that it’s a real person actually impacted here. A phone call really does show commitment, it shows that you’re really taking more time out than an email and that you’re a real person, you’re not some kind of automated system. Phone calls, absolutely, are really impactful.

Sometimes folks are intimidated. They think they’re going to have to have some kind of political debate with the staffer who picks up the phone. That’s totally not the case. In fact, all you have to do is be a person. The fact you’re a real constituent is the biggest asset you have. There’s no need to feel that you need the talking points or to be an expert in the slightest. In fact, the more natural and human you are, the better.

What’s the biggest issue facing trans people right now and what can people do to address it?

It’s tough. Because there’s so many issues that our community’s tied up in. I think one of the root causes of a lot of them is that everyday folks don’t have an accurate picture of who we are. Meaning a lot of people don’t really realize what being transgender means. They have these misconceptions, they don’t think that it’s totally real, there’s still some kind of perception that maybe it’s a phase. I think that is what gets at a lot of the other issues that we face, including on things like healthcare, and so on. I think just being as visible as you feel comfortable being, reaching out to your legislators and sharing media that features transgender stories, all of those things that show that we’re people, dispel some of the stereotypes and give people a more accurate idea of what being trans really is.

Speaking of stories, during your speech, you mentioned that in trans activism, it’s effective for cis people who are close to trans people to tell their stories about us. Some might find it disappointing, that cis people’s experiences are centered on trans issues instead of trans people’s. What are your thoughts on that?

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It is tough to find that cisgender people will often listen to other cisgender people more than they will listen to us, even though we’re the ones most directly impacted. On the other hand, I don’t think that that means that we have to not tell our stories. A lot of the time, on campaigns, we find that people will look at that research and say, “Oh, that means we should only highlight cis people.” I don’t interpret the data that way. I think what it means is we do need to keep sharing trans stories so that the public eventually comes to the point of coming around. I don’t think we should look at those results, those survey findings, and cede the ground, fold our hands and be like, “Oh well, that’s it, we’re packing up.” I think it just means that there’s a need. It underscores that the public does not yet fully know what it means to be trans. And they need to be introduced to us.

The only way we’re going to overcome that problem is for them to meet real trans people and see that we’re flesh and blood.

The only way we’re going to overcome that problem is for them to meet real trans people and see that we’re flesh and blood. So, it’s good for us to know that that’s what the research says so we know what we’re up against. It’s always good to have context and data. We still charge forward. I share that data often to let cis people know that they have a role in this too. So they don’t just go, “I’m checking out now.” I want them to know there is a place for them in the movement. But I don’t want that to exclude trans people from it at all. I think there’s room for all of those stories and that we may be hitting different audiences. We may have a different role to play, but we all have a role to play. And all of our stories are relevant here.

You said you don’t want people to feel discouraged, but understandably, many LGBTQ people do feel we’re in a dark time in American right now. What do you think?

Yeah, I think this is really tough. I think it means that our visions have to be even more long term and bold than we may have thought before. Our community has been under attack for a long time. Even though things might have been thought of as better under the Obama administration, last year was still a record year for murders of transgender people and specifically trans women of color. I think the extent to which some of us may have felt much more comfortable under previous political climates, that’s not everyone’s experiences. There are people for whom, they never had the luxury of feeling comfortable or complacent.

Now, with the election of Trump and with the kind of bullying, frankly, that he’s been doing from the position of power, it is sending some really dangerous signals and I think we need to mobilize. I think this is a wake up call for those of us who were feeling more comfortable or maybe more complacent, that this is the time to organize more than any.

This is the time to organize more than any

Historically, it is completely typical for a social movement to make progress and then face backlash. Having this kind of backlash right now doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re losing. It might actually be, historically, a sign that we’re making progress and that the opposition is scared of the progress we are making. I always caution that it wasn’t always comfortable for all of us. For some of us, it’s just a continuation of status quo. For others of us, it actually is more dangerous. And it’s really just time, more than ever, to mobilize. We’ve been here before as a community and we’ve made progress through it. So, I think we’ll still come out at the end but we do need to be ready to really fight and think long term.

What advice do you have for young LGBTQ people who would like to get involved with the kind of activism work that you do?

My advice would be to volunteer at your local organizations. In the kind of hiring that has happened at the organizations I worked at, it’s always been more about experience than credentials. The organizations I worked at have often hired people who volunteered or were part of campaigns before, because it means that we know a lot better what they’re going to be like. As opposed to, sometimes people feel that they need a college degree and a master’s degree and they need all these credentials before they can break in. But when it comes to activism, there’s not a whole lot of degrees that directly apply to the work. There’s things that kind of get you there, like writing skills. But you can’t major in activism, you can’t get a master’s degree in community organizing. So, I encourage people to prioritize getting that experience and building those connections. If there’s an organization that you love the kind of work they’re doing, show up there and volunteer. Regardless of the kind of work you’re doing–whether you’re doing data entry or helping clean up after an event–just building those connections and being out there and showing that you’re willing to work hard, goes an incredibly long way. And then you never know who they know that’s going to be hiring, two weeks from now.

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