"This family would make a great TV show!"
That's what Evanston, Illinois, teen Ben Lehwald told his mother a couple of years ago.
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Clearly, Ben was on to something. "Becoming Us," the show that resulted, follows him as a 16-year-old dealing with the usual challenges of high school and encroaching adulthood — plus the recent news that his father is becoming a woman.
The family went on camera between October and February after Ben's idea reached Ryan Seacrest, who signed on as executive producer of the ABC Family unscripted series airing its second episode Monday at 9 p.m. EDT.
"We're just regular people," says Suzy Crawford, Ben's mother.
The 58-year-old fitness instructor is divorced from Ben's 49-year-old father, an information security analyst now named Carly Lehwald but who, as Charlie, began taking female hormones years before sharing the plan for transition with the family. Suzy continues to work through feelings of betrayal and bitterness even as she and Carly remain a team in parenting Ben.
Ben's half-sister, Sutton Crawford, is now a New Yorker, but she's back in Evanston as she and her mother plan her upcoming wedding, which comes laden with protocol issues. (Should Carly walk the bride down the aisle?)
Finally, Ben's girlfriend, Danielle, also has a father who is transgender (and who, on the first episode, accepted bra-shopping counsel from Carly, with Danielle and Ben tagging along).
Unconventional, maybe, but on "Becoming Us" these folks reveal themselves as authentic and relatable, which makes the series an illuminating glimpse into the world we all occupy, a world Time magazine earlier this year declared was at "the transgender tipping point."
The timing of "Becoming Us" seems perfect, therefore, having arrived just days after Caitlin Jenner's grand unveiling on the Vanity Fair cover and with her own series, "I Am Cait," premiering next month, along with yet another reality show that will star Jazz Jennings, the 14-year-old transgender activist and YouTube star.
No one could have anticipated any of this a decade ago, least of all Carly as she started the transition to become who she had always known she was, and, in the process, turned the family upside down.
Ben, in particular, was left reeling. It wasn't the news as much as when his father delivered it that threw him for a loop: "Right before you're about to start your freshman year of high school. You're just lost. That was how I felt."
So why would Ben choose to let TV viewers witness what most people would insist on keeping private?
"That's why I did it: for people who do it privately," Ben, now 17, replies. "I thought if they saw it from a child's point of view and saw how the child is dealing with it, they'll understand that it happens and they're not alone."
Ben's use of the term "child" is curious. He is no child, but instead every bit a typical teenager — bright, wry-witted, hot-and-cold in temperament, and, of course, prone to clashes with the 'rents. With so much going on, he seemingly was prompted by some hope that admitting a camera crew as an intervening force would yield answers otherwise beyond his family's reach. He needed, not wanted, a reality show.
"On the show, you HAD to deal with the problems," he says.
"It was like going to family therapy on camera," agrees Carly. "That aspect of it wasn't easy."
"But the producers were thoughtful and kind and listened," Suzy says, explaining that the family never felt manipulated.
"Numerous times I said, 'I'm not comfortable doing that,' and it was off the table immediately," recalls Sutton, 30, who as a rising actress found her biggest challenge wasn't being on camera but being herself. "I said 'no' a lot, and they adapted to us so beautifully."
Virtually everyone key in the family's social circle was an eager participant (with the exception of Carly's girlfriend, who declined to take part, and a few of Ben's friends, whose parents refused permission).
"If you get offered a ride on a rocket ship, you don't ask which seat, you just get on," says Sutton, who became Charlie Lehwald's stepdaughter when she was six but during the show discovered "Carly makes a lot more sense to me than Charlie did when I was growing up. I understand Carly. Before, Charlie was hiding her."
On the premiere, Carly had a heart-to-heart with Ben to say she soon would be getting "the bottom surgery. The boy parts are going to be my girl parts."
"The person that made me will not have the thing that made me," Ben glumly responded. "That is weird."
Weird, maybe, and surely an adjustment for all concerned, not the least of them Carly, who sports long blond hair and green fingernails and describes womanhood as "great," but who acknowledges that "living your life for 40 years as a man, then starting to live as a woman, takes a lot of re-socializing. Those little dude parts of me still kick in every now and then."
In fact, when the interview was over, a little dude part kicked in: Carly reflexively held a door for another woman before exiting herself.
"My hope for the show," she had said moments earlier, "is to help normalize being trans. Whether or not you understand what we do or why we do it doesn't matter. We are human beings.
"And I'm not sure if you've heard or not," she added with a mischievous smile. "You can't catch trans. It's not contagious!"
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore
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