NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Being transgender doesn’t mean you have to give up your principles as a conservative, nor does it mean you should allow the Republican Party to subject you to political attacks based on your gender identity.
That was the message last week of four transgender attendees at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering where conservative activists hear from high-profile figures in the conservative movement, including, this year, President Trump.
Late on a Friday afternoon during the conference, the transgender attendees gathered in the hallway of the hotel where CPAC was taking place and held up a Pride flag that also bore the snake from the Gadsden flag, which has become a symbol of the Tea Party movement. In their other hand, they held up small placards reading, “Proud to be conservative, Proud to be transgender, Proud to be American, #SameTeam.”
Jennifer Williams, a 49-year-old New Jersey-based transgender woman and Republican activist, said she and her group “felt a responsibility to definitely be here at CPAC.”
“We wanted to make sure people knew that transgender people exist, and LGBTQ people exist, in the conservative movement and we are just like you are,” Williams said. “We may disagree on some issues, but we own houses, we rent, we have jobs, we strive to have health care and good lives and we want to make our own way in the world, but you can’t try to legislate against us because of myths and because of your fear.”
It’s not the first time Williams and other transgender activists unfurled a Pride flag in the halls of CPAC. That happened last year in the same week that the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidance assuring transgender kids access to the school restrooms consistent with their gender identity.
Williams recalled attending CPAC in 2016 at the time of the presidential election when she had the same goals of getting conservatives acquainted with transgender people.
“I came here two years ago by myself,” Williams said. “I was the only openly transgender person that I knew of here at CPAC, and I had to reintroduce myself to about 25, 30 different people because I had been a longtime CPAC attendee, and to a person, they all say, ‘It’s OK. We’re still your friend. But only one question: Are you still a Republican? Are you conservative? That’s all I’m worried about.'”
But that presence continued to grow. Last year, two attendees appeared in the halls of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center to hold up the modified Pride flag. Last week, a total of four transgender attendees were present, with three holding up the flag and another standing nearby.
Aside from Williams, the other transgender attendee at CPAC making a recurrent appearance was Jordan Evans, a 27-year-old transgender woman from Charlton, Mass., who said she had attended CPAC starting in 2014 before she transitioned.
“There are so many different factions of conservatives and Republicans at CPAC, and while I may not agree with them on all of them, I find solace with a number of them,” Evans said. “That makes it worth it. And as someone who came out a few years ago, I didn’t want to let that stop me from coming here, and if anything I wanted to take advantage of my unique experience and stories and try to [engage in] civil dialogue and discourse while I’m here.”
One of the new additions to the group of transgender attendees was Adelynn Campbell, who’s 23 and on the board of the College Republicans group as a student at King’s College in New York City.
“I wanted to come to CPAC because I wanted a voice and I wanted to share my voice in the Republican Party,” Campbell said. “I didn’t think I could do that, and this is just a great place to have the opportunity to do that, and to maybe get to talk to people and share my experiences when otherwise I wouldn’t.”
Another new addition was Gina Roberts, who’s president of the San Diego chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans. The most formidable of the four transgender attendees and a rifle enthusiast, Roberts stood nearby holding up the Pride flag and half-jokingly described herself as the “bodyguard” for the rest.
“Conservatives are wonderful,” Roberts said. “They basically accept you more as a human being than liberals do, especially as a conservative Republican GLBT member. I go to Tea Party meetings. I’m so accepted there, they wonder where I am when I’m not there, so I haven’t had any issues at all.”
In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, Roberts — who said she’s been a lifelong Republican since 1968, and who transitioned a few years ago — also expressed ideas akin to Trump’s on potential solutions on arming teachers to prevent additional mass shootings.
“So it’s a two-prong approach,” Roberts said. “Let’s provide the last line of defense by volunteering — we’ll hire some security guards and things like that — but let’s give the teachers the right to protect themselves and the students. Can you imagine the football coach in Parkland if he would’ve had a gun instead of being a bullet sponge? He saved countless lives.”
Roberts said she voted for Trump in 2016 and applied to be a delegate for him at the Republican National Convention, but wasn’t selected. However, Roberts said she’ll take part in the California Republican Convention, making her the first openly transgender delegate for the event.
But can the presence of transgender attendees at CPAC really be making a difference? After all, after their appearance last year, the Trump administration followed up on rescinding the guidance for bathroom use for transgender kids with Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from the U.S. military and the Justice Department asserted transgender people aren’t covered under existing federal civil rights laws.
In Congress, the Republican-controlled U.S. House held a vote on barring the Defense Department from paying for gender reassignment surgery as part of the military’s health care program, although the measure came up a few votes short of passage.
Williams, who said she’s been lobbying Congress on transgender issues for two years, said nonetheless she sees progress in her efforts because when she initially started, she had limited interaction, but eventually started making more progress.
“I’m now getting meetings with staffers, and some of the most hardcore conservative staffers on religious liberty, to have a chance to discuss with them how medical care discrimination particularly is un-Christian, it’s un-American and their senator, their congressman shouldn’t be involved in that,” Williams said. “That’s a conversation we never got to have before.”
During the time on Friday afternoon when the Blade saw the transgender attendees hold up the Pride flag at CPAC, the only interaction between them and the crowd was positive, although more attention came from members of the media seeking interviews. Williams gave a wave to a CPAC attendee whom she said gave her a thumbs-up as she spoke with the Blade.
After CPAC concluded, Williams later on said someone walked behind her group with a crucifix as they spoke to attendees, but she wasn’t “aware of it at the time as our eyes were forward.”
Ian Walters, a spokesperson for the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, said there were “no disruptions reported” as a result of transgender attendees at the event.
Asked whether the ACU supports their presence at CPAC, Walters replied, “We appreciate all of the activists who attend CPAC.”
But the transgender attendees weren’t the only LGBT presence at CPAC. For the third year in a row, the Log Cabin Republicans maintained a booth in the exhibition hall to demonstrate an LGBT presence with the conservative movement.
Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin, said his organization’s reception at the conference was “excellent” from the time the booth opened “there remained a constant stream of people visiting our exhibitor’s space here.”
“Without hyperbole or exaggeration, 100 percent, everyone who checked in with us was supportive — either supportive that we were here or supportive that we were here and of the work and message of the organization,” Angelo said.
Indeed, on the first day of CPAC on Thursday, the Blade was unable to approach Angelo because he was too busy interacting with conference attendees. The interview with the Blade had to wait until things quieted down Friday afternoon. According to Log Cabin, 94 people signed up for the organization before the event came to a close Saturday.
Log Cabin was among several conservative groups in the exhibition hall, including institutions like the Heritage Foundation, an anti-LGBT think tank that dolled out free popcorn to CPAC attendees as it advocates principles of social conservatism and limited government.
In what may be a sign that acceptance of gay people has grown to higher levels in comparison to transgender people, Williams and Angelo reported different experiences when asked if the welcoming reception was different than previous years.
Williams said in 2018 she’s “definitely” seen a change in reaction at CPAC compared to earlier years because “people are asking more deeper questions beyond unfortunately, medical questions, shall we say.”
“They ask real questions about how did you transition socially, why you are doing this, continue to tell me why religious freedom doesn’t impinge on what you’re doing,” Williams said. “So you have really good chances to answer questions for people that they’re maybe not going to ask in other venues because they’re afraid to.”
Angelo, on the other hand, denied any change in attitudes toward Log Cabin at CPAC and said the reception has “always been great.”
“This has kind of been the point that we’ve been trying to make in the years that we were excluded from CPAC all along,” Angelo said. “That is, the overwhelming number of attendees at CPAC not only support Log Cabin Republicans, but want to see us here, that we have a valuable role to play in the greater conservative movement.”
At the end of the day, the LGBT attendees felt the goals they set to accomplish at CPAC — which were varied, but with focus on demonstrating presence in the conservative movement — were achieved.
Angelo said CPAC gave Log Cabin a chance to advocate for secondary issues for its organization as opposed to LGBT rights — such as the Second Amendment and Islamic extremism — but also to send a message to Democrats.
“The tertiary goal of why we’re here is to remind LGBT Democrats and liberals that Log Cabin exists, we’ve existed for 41 years, we continue to exist and we’ll continue to be a voice for conservative principles within the LGBT community whether they like that or not,” Angelo said.
Williams said her presence and those of other transgender activists at CPAC enabled one-on-one interactions to help win battles on transgender rights.
“How we do that is by engaging them dispelling their myths and helping them get the courage to finally maybe stand up next year, this next election,” Williams said. “If a candidate locally says I’m against LGBT people, transgender people don’t deserve to have freedom and liberty and we should make sure that we save our restrooms from them, hopefully, we’re given these people the strength to say, ‘No, no, no, you’re wrong. I met these transgender women and they’re not what you’re talking about.’ I’m hoping they see that.”