Sixteen-year-old high school junior Ben Lehwald is a typical teenager in a lot of ways: he divides most of his time between texting and video games, he “hates” school, and he’s gaga over his girlfriend, Danielle. But he’s also adjusting to something markedly different from most of his Evanston, Illinois, peers; his father is transgender, and cameras are following Ben’s family as they navigate the patriarch’s transition from Charlie to Carly for ABC Spark’s Becoming Us (Mondays at 10 ET/7 PT). We sat down with Carly and Ben—whose girlfriend, incidentally, also has a transgender parent—to chat about the show, adjusting to their new reality, and what work still needs to be done.
How did this show come to be?
Ben: Well, initially it was my idea. I had just kind of joked around with it and we put it on a shelf for about six months. Then we pitched it to family friends and the ball just started rolling from there.
Ben, you found out at the same time that your parents were splitting up and that Carly was going to transition. What was that like?
Ben: I didn’t necessarily know the term [transgender] yet, but I did meet someone at a press conference in Florida that we all went to as a family who was trans. Charlie [at the time] was very into that and I never really understood it. But, the time that I was really first told, I was kind of floored and I was just like, “Wow, so that’s what that is, OK. I gotcha.”
With filming a TV show and adjusting to your new reality, how do you find time or ways to behave like a “typical teenager”?
Ben: You know, I’m always going to be a typical teenager. I knew when [filming] was going to be done that I was still going to be me and I’m really trying to just stay true to me. Just trying to be who I am.
Since finding out about Carly, how have your friends and girlfriend been helping you process and adjust?
Ben: They’ve been super great. Especially Danielle, because she’s also dealing with the same situation. It was really good to have someone who could relate.
Speaking of Danielle’s father (who appears in the series and chooses to be addressed as Daniel for now), let’s talk about Carly’s bra shopping with Daniel. We thought it was amazing to see how Daniel beamed with confidence. Tell us about that experience.
Carly: That was a very early-on scene and it was the first time doing the show where I felt like “This is cool. This is like an opportunity to be of service.”
Is there anyone that’s helped or guided you over the years in your transition?
Carly: I had a store in Andersonville [Illinois] called Turley Road and for whatever reason, when I went in that store it was like I discovered myself. I really felt a sense of style there.
Has anyone surprised you in your circle of friends, your family or colleagues, in terms of their level of support?
Carly: Yes, my father was a huge surprise. He’s a real conservative Southern guy. He was the last person I thought would be supportive and he was the first person to be supportive in my own family, so that was like “Wow!”
Carly, in the first episode you talk about what it was like to live according to what was expected of a male—”a man,” “a coach.” Is gender identity something you struggled with from a young age? Tell us about that journey.
Carly: You know, no, I’m not sure I would say that it was something that I struggled with because it was just something I denied. I knew early on that there were definitely some rings about me that were different and I would go through phases where I would want to wear my sister’s clothes and I would wear them in secret, but it was really something that I just kept away. And as I got older, it was kind of a progression —it just kept showing up. And then when I got to be in my 30s, 40s, when a friend transitioned, there became definition around what that meant and that’s when my eyes really opened up.
We were really struck when you said that instead of losing you as his dad, Ben would actually be getting more of you than ever before. Can you tell us how it’s been living your authentic life?
Carly: While I would like to see Ben more physically in person, what I meant by that was just getting more of me, emotionally. And I guess for me that’s really profound because I’ve heard it from a few people now that it’s like I’m a different person. There’s not that constant state of distraction. And it’s hard to describe but it is like I’m a different person. You get me. You get me. And I like that.
In light of Caitlyn Jenner’s recent announcement and your show premiering, do you think there’s a movement for greater acceptance and better understanding of being transgender? In what ways is there still work to do?
Ben: We’ve got a lot of work to do. I don’t think that we need patience, I really just think we need to start working.
Carly: The Caitlyn Jenner piece created a big wave that we’ve been able to ride on top of. I think she’s got her own story, I think it’s probably a great story, but as far as work to do, yeah. Bottom line, we need to think beyond the need for legislation. It’s really about the need to shift our attitudes and change the way we treat people. You don’t have to agree with what other people do but you have to respect other people. That’s just a core fundamental value, period.
Ben: That’s just life.
What advice would you give to a family embarking on this same journey?
Carly: If it’s a child transitioning, love your child. Letting somebody go and throwing them out of your house because you have some fundamental idea of what life should be like is just not acceptable. And if it’s an adult [transitioning], try to find some space in your heart to let them in, as they are, and let them have their journey, the best they can. I was told early on when I first started this, like nine years ago: the best transition is the longest transition. That was something that stuck with me. It gave me a sort of direction throughout.
Ben: I would say to be around loving and supportive people, be in touch with yourself and your emotions, don’t really hold anything in. Of course, there are some things that you can hold in if you want to but it’s best not to because you can reach a tipping point and you just don’t want to reach that point. Just be really in touch with yourself and love people to the point where you can just be accepting.