South Florida congresswomen travel different paths to become House leaders on gay issues
By STEVE ROTHAUS
Two very different South Florida congresswomen — one a conservative Roman Catholic Republican born in Havana, the other a liberal Jewish Democrat originally from New York — will be honored Sunday in Miami for their passionate stands in support of gay rights.
U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, each will receive a Voice for Equality Award from Equality Florida, the state’s leading gay-rights organization.
“Equality is a core value for both of these women,” said Nadine Smith, Equality Florida’s executive director. “They have people close to them who have opened their eyes to these issues. These women understand what discrimination is like. There’s a great deal of sexism at the root of homophobia. They know what it’s like not adhering to gender stereotypes.”
Both politicians arrived in the same place by traveling different paths.
Ros-Lehtinen served in the Florida House from 1982-86, followed by a term in the state Senate. After Claude Pepper’s death in 1989, she succeeded him in the U.S. House — the first Cuban American and first Hispanic woman in Congress.
In 1984, Ileana Ros wed fellow Florida House member Dexter Lehtinen, who later served as a U.S. attorney for South Florida.
Ros-Lehtinen, 57, has said she didn’t teach their children, Amanda and Patricia, about gay rights — she learned from them.
“They think of it as a Neanderthal way of thinking not to accept someone because of their sexual orientation,” Ros-Lehtinen told The Miami Herald in 2003. “My kids just say, ‘So and so is gay.’ It’s like, ‘He likes chocolate ice cream.’ It’s a total mind shift among generations… As new generations raise up, a lot of taboos will be laid to rest.”
Back then, older daughter Amanda, 17, said “it’s no big deal” that some of her high-school friends are gay.
“At some point you realize some people like people of the same sex,” said Amanda, then a junior at Palmer Trinity School in Southwest Dade.
By 2003, Ros-Lehtinen had already co-sponsored or supported a federal hate-crimes bill, a bill that protects gays from federal employment discrimination and laws that increased funding for HIV/AIDS prevention. She’s a vice-chair (and only Republican member) of the Congressional LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] Equality Caucus.
Ros-Lehtinen, who May 7 will also receive a SAVE Dade Champions of Equality award, is a lead GOP House sponsor for repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
“She has really inspired others within the Republican Party to understand that equality has to be a core value,” Smith said. “She’s helped to bring us to the moment [last October] when Republicans and Democrats voted for the hate crimes bill. Her support hasn’t been simply quiet and behind the scenes. She’s made it safer for pro-equality Republicans to speak up.”
When Ros-Lehtinen took up the cause a decade ago, she didn’t know that daughter Amanda would later go away to Brown University in Providence, R.I., and come out as a transgender man.
Now living openly as Rodrigo Lehtinen, the former Amanda has become an outspoken activist for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. Last year, he went to work as a field organizer in Los Angeles for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, one of the nation’s largest gay-rights groups.
Rodrigo Lehtinen appeared in an online video last year speaking out against the eventual repeal of Maine’s gay-marriage law:
“I love working on this campaign, because it’s just really, at the end of the day, it’s about empowering people and teaching everyone the skills they need to advocate for their own rights, in whatever way it comes up and in any battle they have in their own lives.”
Rodrigo’s parents say they fully support him.
“Our love is unconditional,” the Lehtinens told The Herald. “Our children have the right to live any way they wish. All of our children will always be integral members of our family.”
Wasserman Schultz, 43, served eight years in the Florida House, four in the state Senate and became a congresswoman in 2005.
“She’s with us, an absolute champion when it comes to equality, first as a legislator in Florida,” Smith said. “She’s brought that fighting spirit to Washington, D.C. She was with us on hate crimes, ENDA [Employment Non-Discrimination Act], marriage equality. She’s a founding member of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.”
One of the U.S. House’s most liberal members, Wasserman Schultz and husband Steve Schultz have 10-year-old twins, son Jake and daughter Rebecca, and a 6-year-old daughter, Shelby.
“I’ve raised my children from the earliest stages in their lives to understand what being gay meant,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Being gay is as normal as being straight is. This is how I have raised my children and I’m very proud of them. They understand that when it comes to family, there are different definitions of what family is and what normal is.”
Recently, Jake said to his mother that he didn’t understand why it is illegal for gay people to adopt in Florida. “Why does anybody care about this?” the boy said.
“I was really proud,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It was something my generation had to learn and adjust to. A lot of people had to learn and make adjustments to gay rights. I am determined to be a mom who raises her children never to make an adjustment.”
And what if her children turn out to be gay or transgender? “Then they’re gay or transgender,” she said. “I love my children with all of my heart. I live the values I instill.”
IF YOU GO
What: Equality Florida Voice for Equality Awards
Where: River Lounge at Epic Hotel, 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, Miami
When: 5-7 p.m. Sunday
For more information, see www.eqfl.org/miamigala, e-mail email@example.com or call Stratton Pollitzer at 954-682-6094