By Michael Schulder, CNN
I met a fascinating guy at a recent gathering here in Atlanta. He was telling someone how well his son was doing in college.
What made his story interesting was this: His son used to be his daughter.
His daughter shared the fact that she felt attracted to other girls at the very young age of 8, he said. Over time, it became clear she was a lesbian. Her father accepted her sexuality.
Then came his second challenge. His daughter wasn't a lesbian after all. His daughter was his son. She was convinced of it - convinced she was different in a way that no vocabulary quite exists to describe. Her father accepted that, after a long process of counseling.
Now the girl he raised, his transgender son, is at college, studying psychology.
And he is a proud father.
That was my introduction to the CNN Dialogue Series on the LGBT community, co-hosted with Emory University's James Weldon Johnson Institute, and it came before the panelists even took the stage.
The evening would get even more interesting.
Coming way out
The panel's moderator was HLN anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell. I hadn't read her book. I didn't know she was a lesbian. She was a married alcoholic who finally confronted her alcoholism and her sexuality 16 years ago. "Once I came out, I came way out," she says.
From her 12-step alcoholic recovery program she learned something that’s relevant to everyone: "You’re only as sick as your secrets."
As I listened, I took notes on my iPad. I tried to type the word transgender. The iPad spell-check kept steering me to the word transgenic. I had to look that up. It means a genetically modified plant. Lesbian, gay and bisexual were not spell-corrected. Only transgender.
Which pretty much captures why a gathering of the LGBT community can feel like LGB - and T, too.
Still fighting for the T
Panelist Donna Rose is the mother of a 26-year-old son. She used to be her son's father. "When I was growing up," she says, "I didn’t even know words to apply for what I felt."
Donna is an information technology project manager. And she now consults with corporations to prevent workplace discrimination against transgender employees.
When I called her after the conference, she made it clear that the vocabulary still doesn’t exist to describe transgender. In fact, she prefers the umbrella term "trans people" because there are fierce debates within this community about who is trans and who is not.
What is not disputed is that they have a long way to go to achieve the level of acceptance that the gay and lesbian communities have achieved.
"We haven’t had our moment," says Donna.
And, she adds, referring to the T in LGBT, "I'm very sensitive to being left out of the party."
"Dukes of Hazzard"
CNN columnist LZ Granderson told the audience when he was growing up he never missed an episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard."
"How silly," he thought, "for a black man to be rooting for a Confederate flag." But sexuality trumped politics for LZ. "I was into Luke Duke. I thought Luke Duke was hot."
Ever since, he says, he seems to choose boyfriends who look like Luke Duke. "Guy I’m dating now: Luke Duke."
Granderson married a woman he describes as gorgeous. "Fine" is the way Granderson puts it. "Beyonce-fine." They have a son together. It took Granderson time to accept that he was not meant to be married to a woman.
One critical moment was when a magazine cover featured a gay African-American basketball player. Until then, he says, "I thought I was the only gay black guy playing basketball."
Integration: It's who you know
Robin Brand of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which uses its resources to get more members of the LGBT community elected to political office, gave us
something to remember about the connection between openness and acceptance.
She points out that every state that has any type of relationship recognition law, whether it involves domestic partners, or civil unions, or same-sex marriage, has first had an openly LGBT member in the state legislature.
Brand also points to polls which suggest people who know someone who is openly gay are more likely to be supportive of their rights. Robin Brand is certain: Openness begets integration begets acceptance.
The greatest insight for me as a parent came from the champion athlete on the panel.
Johnny Weir is a 27-year-old figure skater from a small town in Pennsylvania,– a three-time U.S. national champion.
His appearance was flamboyant– - oh, nix that word. Weir has a better way to express that characteristic. In his words: He is a man who loves to wear "fabulous costumes." (On this particular evening he was dressed in form-fitting black pants and black patent leather shoes with no socks. And, by the way, he likes the Pope's shoes.)
Weir's style has always raised questions about his sexuality among others, including a couple of Canadian sports commentators who once said skating officials should give him a gender test. "I had to kind of defend the fact that I had a penis," said Weir. "It was definitely hurtful on a personal level, because I love my penis."
As a kid in school, "I would always run to my next class. Never walk. I was scared who would mess with me."
But that never clouded his outlook on life. Which is where the parenting lesson came in.
From the time he was born - "I came out of my mother wearing a rainbow," he says.– "I have only known love and acceptance" from his family.
So many gay teens have not been able to handle the torment and the bullying despite having supportive parents. Developing resilience in a child is not entirely within a parent's control. But Weir says that, for him, the family support made all the difference. As he puts it: "I've always lived in a love bubble."
Most of us thought Johnny Weir was the only champion athlete on the panel.
But when I called 52-year-old Donna Rose for a follow-up interview, she was at the gym.
And she wasn’t there for her health.
"I'm training for the Olympics," she told me.
The sport? Freestyle wrestling.
When Donna was a young man, back in high school, she was a wrestler. After a 30-year hiatus, she got back into the sport. She beat enough women half her age to place sixth in the last U.S. nationals.
As for the obvious questions - the International Olympic Committee has specific criteria for someone like Donna to qualify as a female athlete. She has met those guidelines. She has had the necessary surgeries. And she has been on hormone therapy for two years. She's a woman. And she’s determined to pin the competition.
Call it the LGBT community.
But like the rest of us, no matter what community we're in, each person has his or her own surprises.