Election 2024

Trans lives are at risk. Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen says this is how to protect them.

National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Rodrigo Heng-Lehiten
National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Rodrigo Heng-Lehiten. Photo illustration by Kyle Neal.

On January 10, 2024, Ohio transgender youth were abandoned on a “damning day” by the state’s House of Representatives. Republicans had overridden a vetoed bill denying them medically necessary health care and banning their participation in school sports consistent with their gender identity. For Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, it was just another day in the battle for trans equality.

But the newly appointed executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) shows no signs of raising the white flag. A merger expected to finalize this summer with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF) will create a powerhouse organization even better equipped to overcome the 450-plus anti-trans bills introduced across the country and the growing anti-trans sentiment among the far right. 

The newly formed Advocates for Trans Equality (A4TE) will need to leverage every strategy in its playbook for the battles ahead, from bolstering engagement for a not-so-energizing presidential election to amplifying local contests that will shape state legislatures and school boards. 

“We will be able to combine forces and be twice as strong to produce results for trans people,” Heng-Lehtinen tells LGBTQ Nation. “NCTE and TLDEF have been around for about 20 years and have done excellent work to fight for trans rights. But that work will be even more powerful if we put it together under the same roof. We’ll be able to have twice the staff, twice the budget, and twice the influence. We’re just going to be able to pack a much greater punch.”

National Center for Transgender Equality rally
“We will be able to combine forces and be twice as strong to produce results for trans people,” says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen of the forthcoming merger to create Advocates for Trans Equality. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Heng-Lehtinen’s strategic approach targets both elected officials and the general public. Collaborations with other organizations like the Trans Formations Project, which maintains a thorough database of anti-trans legislation, aim to mobilize constituents to reach out to their legislators in protest of anti-trans bills. Under Heng-Lehtinen, the organization also testifies before legislators. In December 2022, NCTE implored the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to vote against anti-trans bills, citing its Remembrance Report, which honored trans individuals whose lives had been lost to violence, the cumulative impact of anti-trans extremists, and the barriers to health care access. 

“And then there’s also changing hearts and minds of the public,” says Heng-Lehtinen. ”I mean, the root of these attacks against transgender people is that the public still doesn’t really understand what it means to be transgender in the first place.”

Heng-Lehtinen wants to convey the totality of the trans experience and showcase why queer people deserve the same rights and access as every American. But it’s an uphill battle. A recent survey by YouGov found that “no more than six in 10 Americans line up on the same side of any of 40 policies that either expand or restrict rights and protection for transgender people.” 

Changing that percentage is a critical component of the endgame “so that everyday people in the public can realize that trans people are not the boogeyman under the bed,” says Heng-Lehtinen. “We are just your friends, families, and neighbors trying to get up in the morning and go to work every day.”

In 2023, nearly 90 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation passed, with the number proposed totaling 600. Both queer people and allies are anxious over new laws restricting gender-affirming care and bathroom access. Some argue that the right-wing strategy behind these laws mirrors the unprecedented attacks on reproductive health care seen with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and sweeping state bans on abortions.

Following the path of a life in service

Former U.S. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her trans son Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen.
Former U.S. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her son Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen at home in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 2023. Photo by Shuran Huang for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Heng-Lehtinen understands firsthand the complexities between the attitudes of everyday Americans and elected officials toeing party lines. A Cuban-American transgender man, he is the son of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who served as a Republican congresswoman from Florida for nearly three decades from 1989 to 2019. 

The first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, Ros-Lehtinen told the New York Times in 2016, “Allowing students to use the bathroom of their authentic selves is a step forward in stopping the stigma around transgender individuals. Unnecessary laws only make transgender youth feel unaccepted, and can lead to depression or even worse, suicide.”

Following in his parents’ footsteps of public service (his father, Dexter Lehtinen, is a Vietnam War veteran and former state senator and U.S. attorney for South Florida), Heng-Lehtinen has been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ advocacy, having previously served as a field organizer for the National LGBTQ Task Force. He’s also worked with Gender Justice LA, the Transgender Law Center, GLAAD, and Freedom for All Americans.

Heng-Lehtinen was 21 years old when he came out as transgender, leaving a letter on his parents’ bed. Although he told the Times “a fog lifted” when he began wearing men’s clothes, he was still terrified of the potential outcome. He remembers thinking, “I am about to lose everyone I love.”

But his mother became one of Heng-Lehtienen’s fiercest allies. The family appeared in two public service announcements (one in English, another in Spanish) defending transgender rights. 

Heng-Lehtinen joined NCTE as deputy executive director in 2019, and as newly appointed executive director, faces strong anti-LGBTQ+ headwinds. Heng-Lehtinen rallied to oversee the valuable 2022 US Transgender Survey, a massive undertaking produced in partnership with the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition, National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and TransLatin@ Coalition. This survey was previously conducted in 2015, with much of the information from that time being out of date. With the release of the 2022 survey, people now have access to a survey of more than 90,000 American trans people, the most comprehensive dataset to date.

He is also steadfast in his commitment to continue NCTE’s work on policy reform and the soon-to-merge organizations’ approach to combating anti-trans legislation. They aim to be vocal on every level of government by mobilizing constituents and writing supporting testimony.

By telling more trans stories, including those of triumph rather than tragedy, Heng-Lehtinen hopes to establish a greater sense of humanity and combat the vitriolic perception promoted by the far right, like grooming conspiracies and drag bans

Heng-Lehtinen details how anti-trans legislation inhibits basic human rights and fosters an increasingly hostile climate. He emphasizes especially dangerous proposed legislation that blocks trans people from updating government documents.

“States are increasingly blocking or at least trying to block transgender residents’ ability to update our driver’s licenses and state IDs,” says Heng-Lehtinen, referencing bills like Kansas’s S.B. 180, which blocks trans people from changing their birth certificates.

“That is hugely dangerous for us because think about all the times that you show ID. You might show ID when you do something simple like walk into a bar. You might show ID when you’re applying for a new apartment or a loan,” says Heng-Lehtinen. “And at all of those junctures, if your ID doesn’t list your accurate gender, it essentially outs you as transgender to a total stranger who then might discriminate against you or retaliate against you. You might be rejected from that new apartment or for that loan just because your ID is mismatched.”

Why LGBTQ+ solidarity is more important than ever

Activists from the National Center for Transgender Equality, partner organizations and their supporters hold a rally.
Activists from the National Center for Transgender Equality, partner organizations, and their supporters hold a ‘We Will Not Be Erased’ rally in front of the White House on October 22, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The current spotlight on transgender rights falls in close proximity to backlash to other LGBTQ+ advancements. During the Obama administration, there was immense pushback against the 2011 repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military ban against gay and lesbian service members and the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage.

Groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Alliance Defending Freedom have significantly bolstered politicians and pundits who opposed inclusive policies. Now they’re on the playing field and more dangerous than ever as part of a massive coalition to promote Project 2025, the far-right master plan that aims to demolish queer rights and undermine American democracy. Revealed to the public last year, this 900-page document contains detailed information on electoral strategies and is backed by dozens of conservative organizations. It contains a detailed play-by-play of what policies plan advocates want to implement, including a total ban on abortion, the abolition of same-sex marriage, and a total restriction on gender-affirming health care.

“It is not a coincidence that most of these anti-trans bills are specifically targeting anti-trans youth,” says Heng-Lehtinen. “And that is because the groups that are behind this are actually anti-LGBT organizations. The same groups that fought us on marriage equality are the ones that are fighting us on these trans youth issues now.”

“These are groups that are ideologically opposed to LGBTQ+ people across the board, whether you are trans or not. They don’t want us to be able to get married. They don’t want any of us to be able to adopt kids. They don’t want any of us to be able to participate in public life, even non-trans LGB people.”

Essentially, the transgender community is merely the most recent moral panic for groups like Moms for Liberty to obsess over. 

“They made a calculated decision that if they go after trans kids, they can go after all of us,” says Heng-Lehtinen. “If they can exploit the public’s lack of familiarity with trans kids, they can start making the public uncomfortable again with LGBTQ+ people in general and start getting the public more freaked out and more anti-LGBT so that they can turn back all of these things like marriage equality, adoption rights, and family formation.”

Beyond bathroom bills, there is state legislation like Florida’s S.B. 1780, which, if passed, would make accusing someone of transphobia, homophobia, racism, or sexism defamation and punishable by fine. Bills in Georgia have been dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” in light of their comprehensive bans on LGBTQ+ discussions in the classroom. Other bills aim to forcibly out trans students to their parents, and some even want to completely end the legal recognition of trans people.

NCTE is playing a crucial role in promoting legislation that pushes back against these assaults on trans rights. Beyond playing defense, Heng-Lehtinen wants more people to consider what the gold standard should look like.

Health care would be protected so that everyone can access the [care] that they need, regardless of their gender, and that it would be covered by insurance. In IDs, it’s about the policy being modern, easy, and cheap so that no one faces barriers to that and everybody can get an accurate ID.”

He also emphasizes that this hypothetical state of affairs would protect transgender youth.

“We need a lot of protections for the privacy of trans kids, and at the very least, we shouldn’t have forced outings, where when a kid comes out as trans and is not yet — meaning when a kid comes out as trans at school, maybe to fellow students or to a teacher they trust and is not yet out to their family — the school should not be outing that child to their family if it is not safe and if it’s going to risk the child being subject to abuse or rejection.”

Standing at the precipice of the 2024 presidential election

President Joe Biden speaks during a rally hosted by the Democratic National Committee at Richard Montgomery High School on August 25, 2022, in Rockville, Maryland.
President Joe Biden speaks during a rally hosted by the Democratic National Committee at Richard Montgomery High School on August 25, 2022, in Rockville, Maryland. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Heng-Lehtinen emphasizes the harm that would come if Donald Trump were to be elected president in 2024.

“The lead-up of [Trump] trying to become president is going to increase the harassment of trans people because he fosters such a hostile environment. If he were to be elected, it would be a disaster for transgender Americans and LGBTQ+ people in general.”

“We may still need to make more progress under President Biden, but we know that we have made progress already,” says Heng-Lehtinen. “And if we keep him in the White House, we’ll be able to do a lot more.”

“If we all turn out to vote, we can actually swing an election with that one to three percentage points.”

National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen

He underlines the need for the average person to get out and vote, not just in the presidential election but locally as well. If enough of the trans base votes, it could be just enough to sway a tight election.

“A lot of elections these days are determined by only one to three percentage points. That is a relatively small number of voters swinging an election in either direction. Transgender people may be a small population, but those of us who are trans, plus all the people who care about us — if we all turn out to vote— we can actually swing an election with that one to three percentage points.”

The actions trans people can take aren’t just limited to the voting booth. Heng-Lehtinen pushes for other actions, too, like writing to public officials.

“I know it’s cheesy, but it has a big effect because state and local elected officials don’t get that much constituent contact. These elected officials work for you, not the other way around, “ says Heng-Lehtinen. “A lot of the bread-and-butter stuff that we care about is decided on a state and local level, but many people never bother to contact their state and local elected officials.”

He also emphasizes the need for trans people to snowball outward with their extended network to not only vote but also get those around them to vote, too.

“When you take action, ask five of your friends. Or let’s say when you’re going to go vote in elections — make a friend date out of it.”

Strength in numbers

National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen
“This is another one of those moments where all of us are under attack, but some of us much more than others, and we need everybody to fight back,” says National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen. Photo courtesy of NCTE.

Heng-Lehtinen is a firm believer in the unity of the LGBTQ+ community and says queer people of all stripes need to work together. If our shared history proves one thing, it’s that we succeed when there’s unity among our ranks, not division.

“Our LGBTQ+ community has always had the greatest victories when we’ve joined together arm in arm. For example, in the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, lesbians stood up and did incredible support, mobilization, and caretaking of mostly gay men who were dying. I mean, so many gay men survived or, at the very least, were supported in their final days because of lesbians stepping up to the plate. We win when we do that and recognize that we are in this together. And this is another one of those moments where all of us are under attack, but some of us much more than others, and we need everybody to fight back.”

“Our LGBTQ+ community has always had the greatest victories when we’ve joined together arm in arm.”

National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen

Just as important is trans joy, he argues. With the news cycle locked down on the negatives associated with trans people, it’s easy to lose sight of all the positives. The joy felt from hearing the correct pronouns for the first time, of feeling like you’re in the right body for once, of finding a community where you belong — all of this represents trans joy.

“It’s remarkable. Trans joy is a real thing,” says Heng-Lehtinen. “We’re out here, and we are thriving despite the barriers we’re encountering. So we need to tell that story so that people understand that being trans can be a beautiful and positive thing.”

Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 866-488-7386 or text “start” to 678-678. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

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