Family in 'Becoming Us' aims to bring insight to transgender issues

Transgender mom and her son let viewers in on their family's journey in ABC Family's #Becoming Us

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 docu-series "Becoming Us," which premieres Monday. The 10-episode 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 Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black" and Amazon's "Transparent," "Sense8," also on Netflix, debuted this week and features a prominent transgender character and is co-created by Lana Wachowski, herself a transgender woman.

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. The entire Lehwald-Crawford families hope their show will start conversations and be a catalyst for understanding transgender people.

As Carly put it, the show is meant to erode "the mystique and the taboo of being transgender."

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. Eight months after the initial thought, and making sure Carly was on board, Suzy reached out to TV networks.

But Carly never expected the show to come to fruition.

"It's one of those parental things where you've got a 15-year-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."

Twitter: @TrevelleAnderson

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