Stay­ing true to ‘Us’

A son and his par­ents band to­gether to bring trans­gen­der is­sues out in the open in ABC Fam­ily’s new re­al­ity show

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY TRE’VELL AN­DER­SON

When 49-year-old Carly Le­hwald be­gan paint­ing her fin­ger­nails, grow­ing out her hair and shav­ing her arms and legs, her son, Ben, didn’t re­ally pick up on the hints. “I al­ways thought it was my dad be­ing weird,” said Ben, 17. But when Ben’s fa­ther, who was known as Char­lie, re­vealed her trans­gen­der iden­tity, it all made sense.

“Char­lie, he had a lot of re­served emo­tions,” Ben said. “Once Carly came about, I to­tally un­der­stood. I to­tally got to see [who] Char­lie re­ally was, if that makes sense. I now see more of her true self.”

Ben and Carly are the cen­ter of the new ABC Fam­ily’s docu-se­ries “Be­com­ing Us,” which pre­mieres Mon­day. The 10episode show fol­lows the Evanston, Ill., fam­ily (which also in­cludes Ben’s mom and Carly’s ex-wife, Suzy Craw­ford, and her daugh­ter from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship, Sut­ton Craw­ford) as they ad­just to Carly’s tran­si­tion.

The ABC Fam­ily se­ries sur­faces at a time of ris­ing visibility for the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially in tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming, where its sub­jects are now be­ing hu­man­ized rather than marginal­ized or ig­nored. In ad­di­tion to re­cent pi­o­neers like Netf lix’s “Or­ange Is the New Black” and Ama­zon’s “Trans­par­ent,” “Sense8,” also on Netf lix, de­buted this week and fea­tures a prom­i­nent trans­gen­der char­ac­ter.

But it has been Olympian and “Kar­dashi­ans” re­al­ity star Cait­lyn Jen­ner who has brought the trans­gen­der ex­pe­ri­ence to the fore­front of Amer­i­can cul­ture. Jen­ner’s two-hour prime-time in­ter­view about gen­der iden­tity ear­lier this spring scored huge rat­ings for ABC, while this week’s re­lease of Van­ity Fair’s cover fea­tur­ing Jen­ner in a one-piece swim­suit lighted up so­cial me­dia. Later this sum­mer, E! will air the docu-se­ries “I am Cait,” which will chron­i­cle Jen­ner’s jour­ney.

Though the Le­hwalds would not di­rectly com­ment on Jen­ner’s tran­si­tion, Carly praised the “real place of free­dom” that comes with fully ac­cept­ing your­self.

As Carly put it, the show is meant to erode “the mys­tique and the taboo of be­ing trans­gen-

der.”

But as the se­ries am­ply demon­strates, deal­ing with Carly’s tran­si­tion — now nine years in the mak­ing — wasn’t easy. Ben, who was first in­formed the sum­mer be­fore en­ter­ing ninth grade, seemed to have the hard­est time, his mom said.

“I was blind­sided by the whole thing,” said Ben, now a se­nior at Evanston Town­ship High School. “It was hard to keep my head above the wa­ter. For a while, I held a lot of my emo­tions in, try­ing to get rid of the thoughts in my head. I couldn’t take it.”

While Suzy helped get her son into coun­sel­ing, she too strug­gled with the rev­e­la­tion.

“It was a good three or four months where I had to make some real se­ri­ous ad­just­ments and process lots of things that were com­ing at me,” she said. “The loss of my hus­band, loss of my mar­riage, be­ing con­cerned with my son.”

It was in the quest to un­der­stand Carly’s tran­si­tion that Suzy and Ben came up with the idea for the show.

“We were jok­ing around that wouldn’t it be kind of funny for a show about a kid with two moms,” Suzy said. “Then, Ben looked at me and said, ‘I think that is a re­ally good idea.’ ”

Ben thought a show of their lives would be a way to “cre­ate a plat­form for kids that have fam­ily mem­bers that are trans,” he said.

But Carly never ex­pected the show to come to fruition.

“It’s one of those parental things where you’ve got a 15year-old with a re­ally big idea,” said Carly about the ini­tial pro­posal. “I wasn’t skep­ti­cal, but I was kind of cav­a­lier, think­ing it’ll never hap­pen.”

Then the idea came to Ryan Seacrest, who now serves as the show’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. Shot pri­mar­ily from Ben’s van­tage point, the se­ries, which be­gan shoot­ing in Oc­to­ber, in­tro­duces the fam­ily as Carly makes plans to fi­nal­ize her tran­si­tion with sex­ual re­as­sign­ment surgery. The se­ries also ex­plores the re­la­tion­ship with for­mer girl­friend Danielle, who has a trans­gen­der par­ent as well. Also in the se­ries is Sut­ton, Ben’s sis­ter who lives in New York City, who de­bates Carly’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in her up­com­ing wed­ding.

Carly hopes that the show will help in nor­mal­iz­ing be­ing a trans­gen­der per­son.

“The only rea­son I wanted to do this was to be of ser­vice to my com­mu­nity and peo­ple who have chil­dren or par­ents that are tran­si­tion­ing,” she said. “We are nor­mal peo­ple. We’re not freaks, not to be laughed at, pointed at, stared at.”

Jean White­side ABC Fam­ily

SUZY CRAW­FORD, left, and Ben and Carly Le­hwald deal with Carly’s de­ci­sion to tran­si­tion to a woman in “Be­com­ing Us.”

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