Bruce Jenner’s announcement that he is transgender has grasped the attention of the nation. But for some in the chattering class, the real news seemed to be that Bruce Jenner identifies as a Republican.
Jenner’s journey will be personal—but it will also be political. He has the power to open up dialogue and understanding for all of us to the challenges transgender Americans face. He also says he wants to help change minds even within the GOP.
As a former United States Senator from Minnesota, and a Republican, I appreciate that Jenner has his work cut out for him. But I also believe he will find himself far from alone in the Republican Party.
I speak from personal experience. One of my most trusted colleagues during my career in public service is a transgender woman, Susan Kimberly. I knew of Susan before her transition, when she served on the St. Paul City Council. After her transition, Susan returned to public service and she served as my Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff while I was Mayor of St. Paul.
Susan is a force of nature, a policy wonk, and possesses a brilliant, analytical mind. She was among the smartest and most capable individuals in City Hall. And I knew when I ran for U.S. Senate that I needed her on my team. Susan joined our campaign, and when I was elected to serve in the United States Senate, Susan was the natural choice to run my offices in the State of Minnesota. She ended her career in the private sector as chief executive of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. And yes, Susan, like Bruce Jenner, is a Republican.
The Republican Party is at its best when it focuses on individuals—the skills and talents that each person brings to the workplace, to their community, to their family. Like any employer, I wanted the best and most qualified people working with me. Susan’s gender identity was never a factor in her performance. All that mattered to me and to our constituents was that she was the smartest and most capable person to do the job. Susan Kimberly was one of the best, and I’m proud that we served the people of Minnesota together for more than a decade.
But for those folks who are surprised at the idea that transgender people can be Republicans, I asked Susan to share her thoughts with me after Jenner’s interview.
She said, “It drives me crazy when people say ‘I’m a Democrat because I care about people.’ Conservatives and Republicans care just as much about people as Democrats. We just disagree on how to tackle the issues.” She reminded me, “Trans people come in every flavor… Republican, Democrat, Socialist, you name it. We’re just people.”
There’s no doubt that we have a long way to go to protect LGBT Americans from discrimination. In 32 states, it is perfectly legal for transgender people to be fired from their jobs and kicked out of their homes. Transgender Americans can be denied access to business services in 34 states simply because of who they are.
By and large, most Americans respect people who work hard and help make their community a better place. Conservatives overwhelmingly support the principle of the Golden Rule: that we should treat each other as we would want to be treated. You may also be surprised that among GOP voters, more than 70 percent support workplace protections for transgender people.
The debate and legal battle continues on same-sex marriage, but basic protections for every American in employment, housing, business services, and credit should be unassailable. Unfortunately, they have lagged in a majority of states for LGBT Americans. It is my hope that, in the next Congress, Republicans and Democrats join together to add LGBT individuals to our nation’s anti-discrimination protections.
I’ll be working closely with my former colleagues to share my experience working with Susan. And for those of us who have close relationships with transgender Americans, it is our job to share these experiences broadly, helping to open hearts and minds to the extraordinary talents of all Americans and their unique capacity to contribute to our country. Bruce Jenner deserves our gratitude for adding his voice to the public dialogue as a proud transgender person and as a proud Republican.
Note: Bruce Jenner's current name and a male pronoun is used in this post, as he has not requested a new name or pronoun be used.