When David Seligman and his wife discovered their then-18-year-old child’s prescription sex-change hormones during a family vacation, Seligman’s first reaction was numbness and disbelief.
“I was in shock, and very aggressive,” he admits. The YPO member and former CEO of Best Doctors was not, in his retelling, receptive. As his child, whose given name was Diego, began to cry, Seligman allowed him to keep the medication, on one condition: Diego had to seek help.
“I had an angle to manipulate her into returning to [being] Diego,” he continues. “So, I set her up with one of the top transgender experts in psychiatry, and my mission was to prove that she was wrong, and I wanted to try and ‘fix’ her.”
It was a profound turning point not only for Diego — now Delilah — but for Seligman, as well. Through family therapy sessions and his child’s transition from male to female, his personal life underwent dramatic change and with it, so did his perspective on what being a husband, father and leader can — and should — be.
Seligman isn’t alone in how his daughter’s journey impacted his own. He’s one of a handful of YPO members whose approach to life and leadership has been shaped, transformed or reinforced through their experiences with their transgender children.
For Doug and Patti Levy, their daughter’s decision to transition felt abrupt. Their child, now Max, had come out as gay in middle school. It wasn’t until he was 21, however, that he discussed his gender assignment with them.
“Max called from college and said, ‘I’m trans, and I’m going to start testosterone,’” says Patti Levy, a lawyer by training and an active volunteer for local Milwaukee nonprofits. “It was out of the blue for us.”
I have a much stronger feeling that people need to be who they want to be. ”
— YPO member Doug Levy on how having a transgender child has impacted his outlook on life and leadership share
When Max first came out, they immediately embraced it. But when he announced his desire to change genders, says Doug Levy, a YPO member and former president of Guaranty Bank, “we did not see it coming.”
First, he and his wife conveyed their unequivocal love and support for Max. Then, they asked him to slow down: see a therapist to be sure of his decision to proceed with hormone therapy.
Despite the family’s love and acceptance, it took time for them to think of their child as a male, and to call him Max.
“We had to come to grips with the fact that we had a loss,” says Patti Levy. “It didn’t mean we loved Max any less. But it was a loss of a daughter, and what we had had with her, what we expected, what we thought and what we had planned on.”
When Ron Levene and his wife, Meg, learned that their child, who was assigned female at birth, was transgender, they, similarly, had questions and concerns. Their son, now Paeton, had struggled with mental health challenges and was at a wilderness therapy program when he wrote them a letter to share his news.
It’s changed how I look at life and how I look at people,” he said. “It’s convinced me that it’s about, who is the human being? Who is this person at their core? ”
— YPO member Ron Levene on how having a transgender child has impacted his outlook on life and leadership share
Levene, a YPO member who previously built his family auto parts company into a regional player, said he and his wife sought advice.
“We’re pretty open and accepting people anyway,” says Levene, “but a therapist advised us to look at the gender identity issue, acknowledge it, accept it, then step aside.” Indeed, they had long conversations with their son and refocused on his mental health, ensuring he had support through a residential high school program.
Yet even with a supportive family, friends and good care for their son, the months and years after Paeton came out as transgender were challenging. A self-described YPO Forum “junkie,” it was Levene’s forum-mates who helped him find a deeper acceptance than he’d known before.
“I would not have gotten through it without my forum,” he says. “My forum-mates were with me through this whole journey and were hugely supportive. They let me be open, let me be honest, let me cry, let me scream. It’s a cornerstone of what helped me all the way.”
Seligman, meanwhile, had to change himself before he could truly accept his daughter’s gender change. After his child’s revelation, other things compounded his spiral: He and his wife divorced, his drinking became problematic, and his board ousted him from his company, insisting that he seek help. It was at that point that a fellow YPO member came to his aid and connected him with an emerging modality of treatment: psychedelic-assisted therapy.
The experience, he says, was transformative. “I started doing things that I thought were not me: I called my daughter and apologized. I sat down with her and held her, and she cried in my arms. I called my ex-wife and I apologized to her. My mom had already passed but I sent her love and appreciation.”
He continues, “Things just started to shift. At that point I decided to integrate ways and start building patterns to be my best self, my true self.”
Now, he’s focused on spending time with his family, mending his relationship with his daughter, and practicing integrity in every aspect of his life. “In a beautiful way,” says Seligman, “it was Delilah who was a catalyst for me to look inside myself and to initiate my transformation.”
The paths of the Seligmans, Levys, Levenes and their respective children are unique to each family. But for all of them, their experiences with having a transgender child have impacted their values and beliefs about business, leadership and how to live.
For the Levys, seeing how much happier their son is since transitioning has reinforced their core values. Not only is Max smiling more, they say, but he’s taking more chances in life. He’s happier with himself and seems more at ease.
“It is unbelievable what a change this has been for Max and how beneficial it has been for him,” says Doug Levy. “So, I have a much stronger feeling that people need to be who they want to be.”
His and Patti’s feelings about what they want to do next have evolved, too. Both would like to be more involved in supporting the LGBTQIA+ community and related organizations. “It’s easy to be involved in supporting a museum or the symphony, says Patti Levy. “But the people who get involved in the LGBTQIA+ community usually have direct ties or reasons that lead them there.”
Doug says his business skills and experience could help the types of organizations that helped his son, if not, potentially, also policies and laws that support transgender rights.
Levene, who now works as an adviser to small companies, also believes that his sense of acceptance has grown through his experience with Paeton.
“It’s changed how I look at life and how I look at people,” he says. “It’s convinced me that it’s about, who is the human being? Who is this person at their core? Do they exhibit the values and the characteristics that I want in my organization?”
Seligman’s personal transformation, meanwhile, has entirely remade his approach to leadership and business. In describing his approach to work before Delilah came out, he says, he relied on arrogance and manipulation to achieve his goals.
He is now creating a new company in the ketamine and psychedelic-assisted therapy space to help those suffering from depression, anxiety, addiction and trauma. “I’m building an organization where everything is transparent and visible and where profits are shared with everybody,” he says. “We need a different way of leadership and of capitalism; the one that we have today promotes a lot of self-interest.”
His vision now includes being a role model and teaching others how to have the competence to build organizations that are healthier and stronger and successful in a different way.
“I know there’s a different way, one where leaders can build strong companies while maintaining a balance of inner peace, joy, gratitude and deep purposeful satisfaction from serving others,” says Seligman.