Which means that Jennifer Williams, the first openly transgender delegate to attend a Republican National Convention, is used to being in sparse company.
“I actually do believe that the number’s a bit higher,” Williams tells me, when asked about the two-percent figure. “I don’t think it’s necessarily more than 10 percent but since I have been working as an advocate and activist for several years now, I’ve come to know a lot more trans Republicans than I knew existed.”
Williams reached out to me directly after I wrote an opinion piece about transphobia in stand-up comedy in which I referred to Caitlyn Jenner being a transgender Republican as “an identity rife with internal contradictions.” Naturally, Williams, who went to the 2016 RNC in Cleveland as an honorary delegate from New Jersey, took exception.
“I have no contradictions,” Williams wrote on Twitter. “I fight the fight.”
So I called Williams to find out why she fights for acceptance within a party that encoded support for “bathroom bills” and conversion therapy into its official platform—and that elected a president who has since rescinded Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students and banned transgender people from military service.
As it turns out, those are all reasons why Williams remains a Republican: Someone has to try to persuade conservatives to stop going after LGB and especially T people.
“We’re not going to change anything if we don’t talk to people,” she maintains. “We have to engage. We can’t just stay in our little Internet silos and be scared.”
No one can accuse Williams of opportunistically crashing the Republican party: Her conservatism long predates her relatively recent gender transition.
She is to the right on economic issues and immigration. She wants individual freedoms to be expanded and government to be limited. She voted for Ohio governor John Kasich in both the primary and the general election.
She is also the chairperson of the Trenton Republican Committee and has gone ten times to the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, where she had to reintroduce herself as Jennifer to longtime friends in the midst of the party’s attacks on transgender people.
“I’m not going to kid you,” she says of that first year back at CPAC as herself, “I was nervous. I was worried.” When she came out to her friends at CPAC—“I’m sure I looked like I was going to faint in a couple spots,” she recalls—and they supported her, Williams says she realized she was uniquely positioned to do transgender advocacy in the Republican Party.
“That told me that there’s a road for me and that there’s a space for me and I don’t have to leave,” she remembers.
But how do you persuade Republicans to support transgender equality when, according to one recent Pew survey, only 19 percent of them believe that someone’s gender can be different from the sex they were assigned at birth? Can the Republican Party really be imagined without its powerful and vocal anti-LGBT voices? Williams says that she talks about transgender rights with her fellow conservatives in the language of small government and economic strength—values that Republicans are supposed to hold dear.
“The more you discriminate, or the more you want to have the conditions to discriminate,” she reasons with them, “the more likely you’re going to increase the chance of a transgender person—of anyone in the LGBT community—to have to rely on public assistance, and to not be able to fend for themselves.”
Conversely, she tells them, “what you’re also doing [with anti-transgender measures] is you’re holding back other Americans from making their own way in the world, maybe creating a company, maybe producing in our economy, and then hiring other Americans.”
From Williams’ vantage point—although things might look particularly dire now, with Vice President Mike Pence and anti-LGBT evangelicals making their influence known within a chaotic White House—the Republican Party is on the brink of a refresh.
“Particularly having put myself out there and spoken to a lot of rank-and-file Republicans from around the country, at the [Republican National] Convention, at CPAC talking to conservative activists and younger folks under 25, up to 30–I think there is great hope for the future,” she says. “But we’re in a period now where we’re seeing social conservatism—the religious freedom, religious liberty folks—they’re nearing the nadir of their power.”
Indeed, Williams believes that the Trump administration’s relentless and increasingly transparent attacks on transgender people—like the recent attempt to re-implement a troop ban after it was initially halted by court injunctions—are only helping more moderate Republicans to see the light.
“There are millions of Republicans and conservatives who [think], ‘That’s not me,’” she claims. “They don’t want to be a party to discrimination.”
Among those millions are some of the biggest names in the party. Although the RNC supports the troop ban, senators like John McCain, Joni Ernst, Orrin Hatch, Susan Collins, and Richard Shelby have all criticized it, with McCain and Collins supporting legislation last September to prevent the ban from going into effect.
The Trump administration’s attempts to ban transgender troops are causing anxiety and heartbreak for prospective and current servicemembers alike but, in the long run, Williams believes it could unwittingly accelerate the Republican party’s evolution on transgender issues.
“The moderates have stepped up way sooner than they would have,” Williams says. “Had this ban not have happened, I think we would still be working on them.”
In fact, she says, the troop ban has helped her own outreach efforts on Capitol Hill.
“Eighteen months ago, two years ago, it was hard to actually get an official meeting set up,” Williams told me. “Now, I can get official meetings set up—and that’s because of John McCain speaking out, and Joni Ernst, and Richard Shelby.”
That may be reflective of promising trends among Republicans as a whole. A 2017 Reuters poll found that a sizable 32 percent of Republicans supported transgender military service—which is comparable to the 40 percent who now support same-sex marriage, according to Pew. Certain homophobic and transphobic media pundits might make it seem like LGBT-hating is still a near-universal position among American conservatives but as Williams is quick to remind me, “Just because you see them on TV, that’s not everybody.”
Williams isn’t the only one advocating for transgender people on the right. Groups like the American Unity Fund and the Log Cabin Republicans work with Republicans on LGBT issues, with varying approaches. And, of course, there’s Caitlyn Jenner who, after initially supporting Trump, recently told Newsweek that the current administration has “been the worst ever” on transgender rights and “set our community back 20 years, easily.”
Based on her prior Trump support and some controversial public comments, Jenner has lost some esteem within the overwhelmingly left-leaning transgender community. But Williams, who says she initially lost a lot of her Democratic friends for being a vocal transgender Republican, can relate to an extent—and she maintains that the Olympian-turned-activist remains a powerful force for change.
“I love her because she has done a lot of work behind the scenes that no one ever sees,” says Williams. “I’ve seen her lobby people. I know her heart’s there. I know it’s for real.”
And as for her own Democratic friends, Williams says that most have returned: “They will say, ‘Hey, I still don’t agree with you. I think you’re crazy. But I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing.’”
Williams seems realistic about the length of the road ahead. She says that she’s not adamant about convincing fellow LGBT people to “vote Republican” but rather hopes that they can see the value in trying to convince the party that presently wields the most power in Washington to lay off the anti-transgender attacks.
“What I’ve seen is the more I talk to people and the more my colleagues talk to people on the right, the more we’re getting people to agree with us,” she says.
After watching the number of transgender attendees at CPAC increase from herself to herself and “three others” over the last few years, Williams isn’t expecting a huge wave of transgender conservatives to follow in her footsteps, but she thinks that others in her position have an important role to play at a particularly pivotal moment.
“I’m not going to tell you that we’re going to get 20 [at CPAC] next year,” she says. “But having people in that space to speak with hundreds of conservatives around the country, particularly younger ones, is essential if we’re going to make things better.”