Transgender Rights: Progress and Challenges

with Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen of the National Center for Transgender Equality

In February 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, hailed as landmark legislation that would extend civil rights protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation. At the same time, more than 25 states are considering legislation that will impact rights for transgender Americans.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, incoming Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, joins Tetiana Anderson to discuss progress made and challenges to transgender rights.

Posted on:

May 28, 2021

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: The US House of Representatives recently passed the Equality Act. It's a landmark bill extending civil-rights laws to include specific national protections against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. While progress has been made in advancing transgender equality on the national level, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced into state legislatures that could roll back transgender rights, and joining me to talk about all of this is Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, incoming Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. And, Rodrigo, thank you for being here.

Heng-Lehtinen: Thank you so much for having me.

Anderson: So we've seen progress at the federal level. Some of it's been rolled back at the state level. What are you seeing, exactly?

Heng-Lehtinen: Yeah, it is quite a paradox. We are in a dual reality here, where on the one hand, we are making greater advances for transgender people than ever before and on the other hand, we're facing more attacks than ever. Where we're seeing the greatest advances is in the federal government. We now have President Biden, and his administration is the most pro-equality presidency we've ever had. So that's incredible. As you as you said, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act. We're working on getting that over the finish line soon, and that would really extend the same kind of protections that everyone deserves against discrimination. And it would extend them to transgender people and gay people and bisexual people, too. So we're really excited about that, but like I said, on the other hand, we're facing these attacks in the states. Over 25 states have introduced bills this year squarely attacking transgender people. That's over half the country, and a lot of those attack transgender youth in particular, the most vulnerable in our community. So this is a time of two steps forward, one step back, and we've got to keep fighting.

Anderson: I know that this whole issue is very personal for you. What worried you most when you decided to disclose your identity to your family, and how do they react?

Heng-Lehtinen: Well, I'm a transgender man, so that means I was raised as a girl, but I'm a man. And when I came out to my family, I was terrified. I mean, there is so much stigma and discrimination against transgender people in our society, and unfortunately, a lot of transgender people are rejected by our own families. NCTE, I work, the National Center for Transgender Equality, we conduct the largest and most comprehensive study of transgender people's experiences, and our survey showed that 4 out of 10 transgender people are rejected by our families. That is just heartbreaking, so I felt that in my gut and in my heart when I came out to my family, and you know what? I got lucky. I am so fortunate that my parents and my whole family accepted me, and that's why I work at NCTE today because I think every single transgender person deserves that kind of love and acceptance, just like every human being deserves that love and acceptance from their family.

Anderson: I'm glad you mentioned that's why you work at the center because part of the center's mission is to give voice, and it's a new era there with you at the helm. I'm wondering, where do you take the organization from here? What are your priorities as head?

Heng-Lehtinen: Well, that's right. NCTE was founded in 2003 in a very different time for transgender rights. It wasn't really that long ago, but we were in a very different position when it comes to people's understanding and acceptance of our community. Our founder, Mara Keisling, really started this organization and built every bit of it from the ground up. I'm really fortunate that I've gotten to work alongside her for the last two years, and now this summer, I'll be following in her footsteps, succeeding her as executive director. And I have every intention of continuing all of this important policy work that transgender people need to make it easier, to make it safer, and to make it more accepting to be transgender in the United States today. Narrator: I think for the most part, you know, people are good people. They want to be good neighbors, good friends, good family members. We don't want to discriminate, but how do we best do that when it comes to the transgender community? I mean, do you have any advice to avoid pitfalls when talking about this, when engaging with transgender people that we can really take away and use?

Heng-Lehtinen: You're so right. Most of us want to be good people, and we are good people. It's just being transgender is something that most of us aren't taught about. You know, I'm transgender myself. I did not know about transgender people until I was older, and it took me getting to learn about, getting to meet other transgender people for me to fully understand even what I was going through. So I think it's perfectly natural for people to have questions at first. The most important thing is simply to remember that transgender people are people and everyone is worthy of respect. It's okay to have questions. It's okay to educate yourself. We all are somewhere along that process, and it's just about remembering that at the end of the day, we have a lot of the same hopes and dreams. Transgender people are just trying to wake up in the morning and get to work and put food on the table like anybody else, and we need things like the Equality Act to make that possible so that that discrimination no longer has to stand in our way and instead, we can really show what we are about authentically and come out of the shadows and live openly.

Anderson: And, Rodrigo, if people want to know more about the center's work, what's the website?

Heng-Lehtinen: Oh, thank you for asking., and again, the organization is the National Center for Transgender Equality. So that's

Anderson: Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, thank you so much for being here.

Heng-Lehtinen: Thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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