Miami Dade College partnered with SAVE, South Florida’s foremost advocate for the local LGBTQ community, to host the debut of a new public service announcement that encourages tolerance. The ad’s tag line is “Family is Everything,” and features Congresswoman Ileana-Ros Lehtinen, her husband, former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, and their son Rodigro Heng-Lehtinen, who is transgender.
Heng-Lehtinen and his mother first made history in 2014 when they shared their story with the world in an interview on CBS4 News. Since then, he has been a tireless advocate for equal treatment and respect for the LGBT community.
SAVE’s Director Tony Lima led the event and acknowledged several notable figures present including Miami Dade-County Mayor Carlos A. Jimenez who sat with the Lehtinen family in a strong show of support. Lima introduced MDC President, Eduardo Padrón, who said MDC was extremely proud and pleased to be able to host “the conversation” – a reference to the PSA and the key role communication plays in encouraging tolerance. “Discussing equal rights and acceptance is something that needs to happen every day,” Padron said.
“We welcome everyone, with no exceptions.”
He made the point that as Democracy’s College, MDC has a long record of inclusiveness and diversity. “I think that educational institutions have a very special role to play in making sure that all students have a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership…”
“We welcome everyone, with no exceptions, “ continued Padrón. “We not only welcome them, we nurture them and provide opportunities to succeed and move forward, and that’s what many other organizations in this community and throughout this nation need to do if, in fact, this is going to be America for all.”
A Family’s Journey
The event took an emotional turn when Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen rose to the stage with her husband and son. Rodrigo, called “Rigo” by his parents, explained that it took a long time to work up the courage to tell them about his gender identity. He also wasn’t sure how best to do it. Finally, he decided to write it down. He poured his heart into a letter and left it on his parents’ bed. Unsure of what the reaction would be, he packed a bag and went to a friend’s house.
His parents were initially shocked by the letter, but they immediately called him and told him to come home. They still loved him—family was everything. The parents’ secondary reaction was one of fear. The child they had named Amanda would be living as Rodrigo in an unkind, often hostile world that marginalized transgender people.
Dexter Lehtinen, a man of military bearing and a no-nonsense attitude, was visibly moved as he spoke of his days fighting in Vietnam and how that experience taught him the value of solidarity. Fighting back tears, he drew a parallel between standing solidly with his combat unit and caring for his family. It was clear that he would let no harm come to his son and nothing would dampen his dedication to those he loved.
“We must be a safety net for our children and support them in any way we can so that they can live authentic lives.”
Rodrigo’s coming out has provided a stark and visceral awakening for his mother. She remains devoted to the GOP, but the conservative Congresswoman has moved away from her party’s aggressive stance against the LGBT community. Instead, she has become an enthusiastic advocate for tolerance and understanding.
At the podium, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen expressed her views warmly and with conviction. “By sharing our family’s journey, we hope to get the message out there, especially for families that sometimes don’t know where to turn. That’s where SAVE comes in. When Rigo came out to us we had so many questions but above those we had one concern—his safety. It’s a tough world out there, for everyone, but it’s even more evident now as we hear about bills that only seek to divide and discriminate against the LGBTQ community. It creates a hostile environment. That’s why as family members we must stay united. We must be a safety net for our children and support them in any way we can so that they can live authentic lives.”
SAVE and the Community
“This PSA is the culmination of almost two years of doing work in the community, talking to voters one-on-one with a persuasion model we’ve perfected called ‘deep canvassing,” said Lima.
SAVE’s community outreach program, which includes deep canvassing, was recently proven highly effective by researchers from Stanford and UC Berkeley in a study published in the journal Science. Deep canvassing involves knocking on doors in mostly conservative neighborhoods and initiating frank conversations with voters.
Justin Klecha, SAVE’s Director of Campaigns, explains it. “In our conversations, which last an average of 10-12 minutes, we ask voters to talk through any experience they had of being judged or treated unfairly.” According to Klecha, as the voters relate their experiences and sort through their feelings, SAVE’s canvassers relate their own stories of similar experiences as members of the LGBT community. Asked how difficult it is to get total strangers to share their feelings, Klecha responded, “There’s a surprisingly high level of participation, something like 70 percent.”
This type of conversation highlights a shared experience, opens the door to connection with others and has proven to be effective in changing hearts and minds. Both the outreach program and the PSA are an effort on the part of SAVE to reduce prejudice in the community and to foster a social environment that rejects anti-LGBT legislation such as the laws recently passed in Mississippi and North Carolina. SAVE is also working to encourage the discussion and enactment of pro-equality policies such as the Florida Competitive Work Act.
More to Do
In his remarks, President Padrón noted that although much progress has been made, there was more work to do in the area of inclusiveness and tolerance.
Heng-Lehtinen concurs, “Ultimately, family is family and it’s all about who you are as a person. Our political climate has overly complicated things by saying that it’s about gender identity or sexual orientation—that being LGBT is somehow consequential, when clearly it’s not. I was very fortunate to have been met with this much love and acceptance from my family and you can see how powerful and palpable this is. But what’s heartbreaking is to know that that’s rare. Over 60 percent of transgender people are rejected by their families…more than half of transgender people are run out of their homes for no other reason than just being who they are. That’s a tragedy and that’s why we’re here today.”
Watch and Share SAVE’s Public Service Announcement
Remember Anita Bryant? Watch “The Day it Snowed in Miami,” the Emmy-winning documentary about the 1970’s equal rights statute in Miami and how it galvanized the gay rights movement in Florida and beyond.