U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Washington Blade this week that she and her husband were “honored” to appear in a public service announcement with their transgender son.
“Dexter and I were honored to film the SAVE PSA with Rigo in order to increase acceptance of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, in our South Florida community and our nation,” said the Cuban-born Republican on Wednesday in an emailed statement, referring to the South Florida LGBT advocacy group that produced the PSA.
The “Family is Everything” PSA features Ros-Lehtinen, Dexter Lehtinen and Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen speaking while sitting at a kitchen table with coffee mugs. SAVE posted it online last month.
“Our son is transgender,” says Ros-Lehtinen in the PSA. “We loved him as Amanda and now as Rodrigo.”
Ros-Lehtinen, Lehtinen and Heng-Lehtinen also appear in a Spanish version of the PSA.
“Like some others, my gender identity has changed since I was born,” says Heng-Lehtinen, who works for GLAAD.
Ros-Lehtinen spoke about her son on Wednesday during a reception at U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro’s home that Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer, Miami Herald reporter Steve Rothaus and others who were on a Jewish Federations of North America trip attended. The Florida Republican, who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, was in Israel with a congressional delegation that also traveled to Cyprus.
“Many parents are at first shocked that their child has come out to them as transgender,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Blade. “Although many questions exist, the first step for any parent is to embrace their child and remind them of the love that surrounds them.”
“During Rigo’s transition, my primary concern was his safety and him knowing that he had two loving and supportive parents,” added Ros-Lehtinen. “Rigo is living as his authentic self and we hope this message will encourage families to accept their children for who they are.”
Ros-Lehtinen, Lehtinen and Heng-Lehtinen spoke at a May 16 press conference in Miami at which SAVE officially debuted the PSA.
The press conference took place a week after the Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against North Carolina over House Bill 2, which bans trans people from using public restrooms consistent with their gender identity and prohibits local municipalities from enacting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination measures. The Obama administration on May 13 directed public schools to allow trans students to use bathrooms and other facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.
Ros-Lehtinen made no mention of HB 2 in her statement to the Blade. She told the New York Times before SAVE debuted the PSA that she supports the White House’s public schools directive.
“Allowing students to use the bathroom of their authentic selves is a step forward in stopping the stigma around transgender individuals,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “Unnecessary laws only make transgender youth feel unaccepted, and can lead to depression or even worse, suicide.”
Cuban-born Republican criticizes ‘Castro apologists’
Ros-Lehtinen, 63, was born in Havana.
She and her family fled to the U.S. after Fidel Castro came to power in the 1959 Cuban revolution. Ros-Lehtinen is a vocal critic of the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the Cuba that Obama announced on Dec. 17, 2014.
Ros-Lehtinen spoke with the Blade less than a month after Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raúl Castro who directs Cuba’s National Center of Sexual Education, led marches in Havana and in the Cuban city of Matanzas that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Trans actress Candis Cayne marched alongside Mariela Castro in Havana. Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida, a gay Cuban American who has relatives in Matanzas, also traveled to Cuba to take part in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations.
“Everyday Cubans continue to flee an island which is marked by repression of those who think differently than the regime does,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Blade. “These facts are a testament to how ‘inclusive’ the Communist regime is as opposed to the perception of Castro apologists.”
Ros-Lehtinen did not mention Wolfson, Almeida or Cayne by name. The Florida Republican did point out to the Blade that Fidel Castro sent thousands of gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production.
Fidel Castro apologized for the camps, known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, in 2010 during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.
Supporters of Mariela Castro, who is Fidel Castro’s niece, note she supports marriage rights for same-sex couples and pushed the Cuban government to offer free-sex reassignment surgeries under the country’s national health care system. Mariela Castro, who is also a member of the Cuban Parliament, in 2013 voted against a proposal to add sexual orientation to the Communist island’s labor law because it did not include gender identity.
Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada, two independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates who now live in Miami, met with Ros-Lehtinen in her Capitol Hill office in 2013. Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights President Nelson Gandulla — who told the Blade in a previous interview that a police officer harassed him at his home before Obama and his family arrived on the Communist island in March — and other independent activists in the country continue to criticize Mariela Castro and her father’s government over human rights and other issues.
“Everyday Cubans continue to flee an island which is marked by repression of those who think differently than they do, which is a testament to how ‘inclusive’ people think the Castros are,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Blade. “Instead of venerating programs which seek to divert the world’s attention from the true reality in Cuba; we should shine a bright spotlight on the lack of freedom, democracy and human rights that are the hallmarks of the tyrants ruling the island.”