In ‘Becoming Us,' a Transgender Parent's Journey, Told Through the Eyes of Teenage Son

"Becoming Us" follows the Lehwald-Crawford family as Charlie becomes Carly.

June 06, 2015, 2:06 AM

— -- Since Caitlyn Jenner’s stunning debut this week on the cover of “Vanity Fair” practically broke the Internet, glimpses of her new life continue to be groundbreaking for the visibility of transgender people.

But while the world watched Caitlyn Jenner’s transition and how the Jenner-Kardashian family grappled with the change, there was another family living outside of Chicago going through something very similar.

The Lehwald-Crawford family from Evanston, Illinois, includes son Ben, 17, his mother Suzy and his father, once Charlie, now Carly.

“We're normal people. ... Famous people don't just do these things,” Ben said in an interview with “Nightline.” “Everyday people go through things. ... We're a functional but dysfunctional family.”

The family’s story is told through Ben’s eyes in an ABC Family docu-series called “Becoming Us” that premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC Family. The Walt Disney Co. is the parent company of ABC, ABC Family and ABC News.

PHOTO: Ben talks with Carly during ABC Family's docu-series, "Becoming Us."
Ben talks with Carly during ABC Family's docu-series, "Becoming Us."
Jean Whiteside/ABC Family

Filled with humor, heart and heartache, “Becoming Us” follows Ben’s journey as he struggles with his parents’ divorce and his father’s transition to living as a woman.

Ben’s painful reactions to his conversations with Carly are not sugar-coated in the show. In one emotional scene, Carly tells Ben he’s going to have “bottom surgery,” meaning sexual reassignment surgery. Ben, feeling hurt, tells Carly it feels like “my dad is gone.”

“It was just like a slap in the face,” Ben told “Nightline” of that conversation. “It was like, ‘What?’ ... When you hear your dad say he’s getting bottom surgery, it’s like, ‘OK, huh, I’m-- Let me deal with that for a second.’”

After that conversation, cameras captured the growing tension between parent and son. Ben avoided Carly for days. At one point, Ben’s friend, Ayton, took him up to the roof of a hotel, just to scream at the open air as a way to help Ben deal with his emotions.

“[The screaming] it hurt, but it felt really good afterwards,” Ben said. “It was anger, depression, happiness, sadness. It was, like, everything really.”

In a nearly unbelievable real-life twist, “Becoming Us” also follows Ben’s former high-school girlfriend, Danielle Molnar, whose dad is also transitioning to live as a woman. Danielle’s father, who used to go by Dan, now is Sallydan.

“I met Ben, and Ben also has a transgender father, which, it's kind of like, ‘What?’” Danielle said. “We did not set this up for the TV show!”

PHOTO: Danielle Molnar is shown here with Sallydan during the ABC Family docu-series, "Becoming Us."
Danielle Molnar is shown here with Sallydan during the ABC Family docu-series, "Becoming Us."
PHOTO:  Sallydan is seen here applying make-up during the ABC Family docu-series, "Becoming Us."
Sallydan is seen here applying make-up during the ABC Family docu-series, "Becoming Us."

In the docu-series, Danielle and Ben’s common experience allows them to lean on each other for support. There are moments of levity, like when they decide to have Ben’s dad help Danielle’s dad go bra shopping. Ben thought the whole experience was incredibly awkward, but Sallydan embraced it.

“Letting cameras follow me to go bra shopping was wild. It was wild,” Sallydan told “Nightline.” “Just going bra shopping in itself was something that I've been wanting to do for a long time.”

“It was just fun to kinda help him break through that fear and just realize that this is-- This is just OK,” Carly added.

Bra shopping with his father is a far cry from the father-son activities Ben grew up with.

“We played sports together,” Carly said. “I coached Little Leagues. I mean, I was the big sports person.”

Carly and Ben’s mother, Suzy, got married in their 20s, and in raising Ben together, Suzy said Carly was a good father. For a while, Carly tried to live as a man and a husband.

“I was really trying to make a life for myself as a man. I really was,” Carly said. “That was what I was trying to do.”

Later, during marriage counseling sessions, Suzy discovered Charlie was cross-dressing.

“I was willing to go with it ... to keep things, you know, keep working on things,” Suzy said. “But then I did find some pills once… which turned out to be hormones. And I said, ‘What are these?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I was just experimenting with that for fun.’”

Carly hid her hormone medication from Suzy, she said, out of “shame and fear.”

“I had a lot going on,” she said. “I had a family, had a home, a, you know, career… I just didn't know how to manage it.”

Ben was 13 years old when Carly revealed that she was transgender.

“It was like my dad died, really,” Ben said. “And that was really hard because it was, like, seeing my dad as a new stranger that I've known for so long.”

PHOTO: Carly is seen here during an episode of ABC Family's docu-series, "Becoming Us."
Carly is seen here during an episode of ABC Family's docu-series, "Becoming Us."

With her husband’s transition, Suzy said Ben lost his male role model just as her son was becoming a man, and it made her furious.

“Really furious,” Suzy said. “Enraged, I think would be a good term. ... I wanted Carly to wait.”

But for Carly, she couldn’t wait any longer.

“I feel a great sense of responsibility for the hurt that I've caused,” she said. “You know, and I own that. That's mine. But that doesn't change the fact that I have to live my life.”

When asked if she knew 20 years ago what she knows now, would she have gotten married, Carly said, “probably not.”

“If what exists today existed 25 years ago or 30 years ago, no,” she said, adding that she would have transitioned back then if she understood what she feels today, and if she had felt it was a socially acceptable possibility.

There was also the prickly issue of what Ben should call Carly. As far as Suzy was concerned, calling Carly “mom” wasn’t going to happen.

“I earned that,” Suzy said. “I earned that title in many ways.”

So Ben now calls his father “Carly” instead of “Dad.”

“It was really hard,” Ben said. “It's, like, ‘OK, I'm letting you do what you want to do, just help me out a little bit.’”

Amid the emotional roller coaster, Ben had the crazy idea to pitch their story as a TV show as a way to help people, he said.

“For people dealing with it in their family or [if] their parents are becoming trans, it's like they don't really have anywhere to go and nothing to look up to,” he said.

Like Ben, Danielle convinced her parents to do the TV show to promote understanding and tolerance of transgender people and their families.

“I think that my dad should be able to walk down the street and not get ridiculed for anything,” Danielle said. “My dad's a person. He's a human being. He wants to be loved. He wants to be accepted. It's just-- Anybody would want that.”

While many transgender people get rejected by their families, Sallydan said the relationship she has with her ex-wife and daughter is what helps keep her going.

“Continuing to have my daughter as part of my life is one of the most important things that I have today,” she said. “I think it would have driven me over the edge if my daughter turned me away.”

In the end, Suzy and Carly put their differences aside to co-parent Ben. And in “Becoming Us,” the family puts it all out there, from Carly talking about transitioning to the family’s raw emotions as they try to navigate this uncharted territory together.

“The wreckage, the wake is large that is left,” Suzy said. “All these feelings are really valid.”

“Becoming Us” is an unprecedented topic for family viewing.

“I hope there’s a message of acceptance,” said Ryan Seacrest, who is the executive producer. “I hope there’s a message of understanding that universally we’re all kind of the same, universally we all seek love and want to be part of a family unit.”

The program’s unique and authentic family angle is what many transgender advocates say is powerfully progressive and ultimately so relatable.

“So many stories that we see of transgender people, or have seen in the past, have been separated from the context of our regular lives,” said Jay Brown of the non-profit Human Rights Campaign. “We’re your daughters and sons, your brothers and sisters, and we’re your coworkers and the parents of kids in your daughter or son's classroom.”

Brown hailed “Becoming Us” as a landmark TV moment showing families are “in this together,” but he pointed out that a stigma still exists for the transgender community, which suffers from discrimination, harassment and high suicide rates.

“Clearly, we have a lot more work to do,” he said, “but these moments in the media really create inclusive environments.”

As acceptance increases across the board, but especially among older generations, advocates say people “coming out” as transgender later in life is a growing reality, and what these individuals and their families need is understanding.

“I want kids out there to know that even though your parent could be transitioning, your brother could be transitioning, your sister, or whatever, that they're still who they are,” Danielle said. “Just because they're different gender doesn't make them a different person. ... You got to love them.”

The families in “Becoming Us” say there is a silver lining to what they have been through.

“The joy is my spirit is no longer encased, you know,” Carly said. “My spirit is free. I'm, like, I can just-- I can ‘be.’”

As the family transitions together, what the viewer sees is a bond that ultimately seems unbreakable.

“[Carly] is free, and she's happy. I'm getting more of who she really is because Charlie was-- Charlie wasn't happy in his skin,” Ben said. “It's all about love, and at the end of the day family is family, and that's the bottom line.”

PHOTO: ABC's Juju Chang, front left, is seen here with Carly, front right, Suzy, back left, and Ben, back right, from the ABC Family docu-series, "Becoming Us," during an interview for "Nightline."
ABC's Juju Chang, front left, is seen here with Carly, front right, Suzy, back left, and Ben, back right, from the ABC Family docu-series, "Becoming Us," during an interview for "Nightline."
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