In life, sometimes you come back to a place where, in many ways, you feel at home, while others in your tribe may feel fear and dread. Such a place may also be where, like Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, you have a “special set of skills” through which you can make positive change happen. Your skills and your uniqueness may bridge gaps that seem unbridgeable to others.
That is exactly what happened recently when three other transgender women and I attended the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. We each were there for four days to meet and network with our fellow conservatives and to advocate for transgender Americans and our broader LGBTQ community. For those unfamiliar with CPAC, it is the conservative movement’s annual Woodstock, with an expected 14,000 attendees coming from the United States and around the world.
None of us are wealthy, and all of us made our own way to CPAC without financial support from any political action committee, donor, advocacy group, or anyone else telling us what to do or how to do it. We ventured from across the country as happy rainbow warriors looking to network, exchange views, learn, and make inroads for the future as we represented our transgender community. We met fellow conservatives from red states, blue states, and purple states as well as from Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Our message was simple: “We are equals, we agree on many things (but not all), and if you aren’t already on board with LGBTQ liberty, freedom, and equality … let’s have a conversation!” We expected to have a lot of interesting discussions, but what we didn’t expect was to have about two dozen LGBTQ community members or their parents and relatives share a hug and introduce themselves as they thanked us for being there. In addition to interactions with these amazing, supportive folks, we received more hugs, fist bumps, high fives, and even a few kisses on the cheek as we engaged with our fellow conservatives in real discussions about our community. Many CPAC attendees asked us to pose for pictures with them and to come back next year.
To help make conversations happen, Adelynn Campbell, Jordan Evans, Gina Roberts, and I dressed in business attire and wore distinct handmade pins my wife had made that said, “Proud to Be Conservative … Proud to Be Transgender … Proud to Be American … #SameTeam.” To make sure that no was confused about our message, she also placed a Republican elephant with one-half of the inset being the great Transgender Pride flag. One thing I learned when I began my LGBTQ advocacy as the only openly transgender delegate at the massive Republican National Convention was that if you want to meet a lot of people and dispel any myths and fears they may have about our community, you need to advertise. Politely introducing yourself to people one by one is great, but being small in number won’t allow you to achieve critical mass. In addition to our loud and proud buttons, we also held my wife’s handmade signs with the same “Proud to Be…” slogan in large type to make sure no one missed us or the positive message that we sought to bring.
This wouldn’t be the first time that these special signs and buttons appeared at CPAC. Last year, my colleague Jordan Evans joined me to advocate for our transgender community and help hold a replica of our country’s original Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flag from the American Revolution. It was quite effective in helping us capture the eyeballs of passersby last year and create great moments of conversation after CPAC attendees flashed surprise at two real-life transgender people being in their midst. This occurred the very day after President Trump’s administration rescinded the Obama guidance on accommodations that helped protect transgender schoolchildren in the United States. To say that Jordan Evans and I were unhappy about the Trump administration’s unwise decision would be a vast understatement, and as 2017 rolled along, we did everything we could to advocate against this action and others that followed.
Obviously, this past year has been a difficult one for our LGBTQ tribe and especially our transgender community. Even as Republicans and conservative Americans, we felt the sting and frustration of what seemed like an unrelenting round of announcements, press conferences, tweets, breaking news, and actual actions regarding our administration’s direction on the lives of LGBTQ Americans. We also had to contend with state-level discriminatory actions against transgender people around our country and campaign against them when they cropped up. So this year, I knew that we would need to go one better with our using an attention-grabbing flag representing freedom, liberty, and equality. Fortunately, our colleague Gina Roberts graciously donated a rainbow flag with the famous Gadsden snake and “Don’t Tread on Me” emblazoned on it.
Each of us who advocated at CPAC realize that many in our LGBTQ community who don’t share our conservative and Republican perspectives may prefer that we demonstrate, display anger, or outwardly challenge our fellow CPAC attendees. For reaching our brothers and sisters in the conservative movement, that is not a winning strategy. In our collective opinion, to win any hearts and minds of this crowd and many other conservatives and Republicans around the country, one needs to be respectful, civil, and prepared to elicit questions and provide honest, fact-filled, yet heartfelt answers as needed. You must also share your own story over and over and over. Not through confrontation or name-calling.
There are many conservatives and Republicans who actually don’t hate or dislike LGBTQ people, nor reject others based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and who are embarrassed by what some others are doing in their name. They actually do support our community. However, as we have found at CPAC, many have never been offered the opportunity to meet or express their support to someone who is LGBTQ. Some conservatives have met a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person, but most have never met a transgender person before. By letting them meet us, we as advocates were given the chance to change their hearts and then, their minds — what I call the “Harvey Milk Rule.”
To paraphrase the great Harvey Milk: Maybe, just maybe, once they connect with us, they will become much less likely to vote against LGBTQ people instead of voting to help strip away our freedoms, liberties, and rights. In our case, the conservatives and Republicans we met would remember “those nice ladies from CPAC” before voting to hurt our community.
By being present at the Conservative Political Action Conference and inviting a conversation, we achieved our goal. We had the type of conversations that need to be had at this time. Over the many hours we stood with our rainbow Gadsden flag, message signs, GOP/Trans Pride buttons, and smiles and roamed CPAC, we spoke with hundreds of attendees. Many thousands more saw us as they walked back and forth between speeches and breakout sessions.
We worked hard to have those necessary conversations, minute by minute, hour by hour, with conservatives from all demographics and age groups. As one might imagine, we were more popular with millennials than with older generations. As a Gen X member myself, I know that most of my generation are supportive of LGBTQ people, but transgender liberty and freedom still seem to be a work in progress. Overall, millennial conservatives clearly have less issues with LGBTQ people than someone like Ben Shapiro would suggest.
After Shapiro’s appearance at CPAC, three of us were challenged to a debate by a group of young college men loaded for bear with talking points. Adelynn Campbell, Jordan Evans, and I held our rainbow Gadsden flag and our signs as defused their prepared arguments for denying our existence as transgender Americans. We also provided more than enough Trans 101 to destroy their myths about our community before a growing crowd for nearly 30 minutes. At one point in the debate, Jordan Evans and I switched places in order to tackle different questions from our debate opponents. By being at CPAC as fellow conservatives, we were able to counter and refute anti-transgender comments in speeches by Shapiro, Michelle Malkin, and France’s Marion Le Pen, live and in person. Nothing could stop us from taking questions and advocating for our community; not even a guy walking behind us with a crucifix a few times.
We were also able to offer a beacon of support to a number of LGBT conservatives who came to speak with us. We shared some of our experiences and were able to tell them things are getting better on our side of the aisle and that they too can be part of the change they want to see. It was wonderful to meet with them and to realize that the number of LGBTQ conservatives and Republicans is growing and that they already have a home in the fight to protect our community’s liberties, freedoms, and equality. I was honored to meet a quiet young gay man from North Carolina and learn about his desire to get more involved politically in his community and party. I’d like to think meeting some transgender women at CPAC may have made his decision and his journey a little easier.
However, some of our most meaningful conversations were with military veterans. Several veterans spoke with us to express their support for our using our right to free speech that they fought for in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other tough places. One Navy veteran said, “I may not understand everything about y’all, but I’m really glad you are here!” It was hard not to tear up through my smile as he slowly made his way to another speech. I would never try to convince Advocate readers that we changed the world, but I do think we are changing our little corner of it.
Two years ago, I attended CPAC 2016 alone in order to reintroduce myself to many old friends. Of the several dozen people whom I nervously reintroduced myself to, each one said that they were still my friend, but they all asked me the same question: “Are you still a conservative (or a Republican)?” Once I said yes, they were relieved at my answer. I saw great potential for the future in those quiet, friendly encounters where I shared my authenticity with my fellow conservatives. I learned that I could be a conservative advocate for my transgender/LGBTQ community on the right side of the aisle. Last year, one transgender conservative advocate at CPAC became two, and this year, there were four of us. I feel blessed to have had three more sisters from our community who happen to be conservative and Republican break with convention to advocate with me without any guarantee of a safe or successful outcome.
Now it is up to the rest of our greater LGBTQ community to keep the conversation going. We can achieve more by working together and engaging others whom too many not have given a chance in the past. No matter our political labels, ultimately we are in this fight for liberty and freedom together.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS is a transgender activist and was the first out trans delegate at the Republican National Convention.