The Slatest

A Brief Conversation With a Transgender Conservative at CPAC

Jennifer Williams of Trenton, New Jersey (pictured far right, above) was with a small group of transgender CPAC attendees

Jennifer Williams of Trenton, New Jersey (pictured far right, above) was with a small group of transgender CPAC attendees answering questions from and taking pictures with passersby. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What has the conference been like for you?

We did something similar last year where we had only two of us. This year, we had four people here who are openly transgender, trying to advocate for the greater LGBTQ community. This year is different because the support we got last year was kind of like, “Oh my God, this is amazing. I’ve never seen a trans person before.” So this year, it’s been more thoughtful. People coming up to hug us, whereas last year, it was more like fist bumps, that type of thing. Questions, but also more people coming to express support. “I’m glad you’re here, because I’m not homophobic.” Or: “I’m not a transphobic person.” We’ve gotten a few more of the older generation give us dirty looks, more than that. But people argued with us. I had one woman, a lawyer from England, try to convince me that the threat of medical care discrimination doesn’t exist, which is totally bogus, of course. So you end up in some intellectual discussions. But overall, the response has been great. And the fact that CPAC hasn’t come down on us for doing this. What we’re trying to do is start a conversation with people and dispel the myths.

Ben Shapiro was a very well-received speaker yesterday—

Yeah, unfortunately.

—and one of his applause lines is always “Men are men and women are women,” or something to that effect. I was downstairs at the CPAC Hub yesterday and they were giving out coloring books making fun of liberals and the trans bathroom issue. But you think people have been pretty positive nevertheless.

Oh, absolutely. Ben Shapiro is going to say what he says in his speech. Moreso guys than women are going to hoot and holler and think it’s funny. But if we’re not out here doing this, we can’t refute what he’s saying with the truth—our authenticity and existence. But the reaction’s been great. I mean, I literally had a veteran who was in a wheelchair come over to us and essentially thank us for exhibiting our free speech that he fought for. And said, “I may not understand y’all, but I’m so glad you’re doing this.” It was hard not to start tearing up, I’ve got to tell you. It was really cool.

I was thinking before I came here, probably because of Billy Graham, that it’s amazing how immense gay marriage was as an issue just a short while ago. Now it’s almost been erased from our political consciousness. Are you optimistic about how swiftly trans rights might be politically normalized?

I totally do; I get asked that question a lot. Ben Shapiro notwithstanding, [Marion Maréchal] Le Pen’s comments notwithstanding, you don’t hear a lot of folks on the stage talking about traditional marriage, traditional values, that kind of thing. Or even being openly anti-trans or anti-LGBT. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case, and they would have done it to get big claps from people and get the attention they wanted. But it has changed a lot and I do foresee that. It may not be two years—probably more so a couple of years after that. But I think we’re going to get to that point. Because you don’t see a lot of the other [social conservative] groups. The Family Research Center is here, but a lot of the traditional, very religious conservative groups aren’t here anymore. Log Cabin Republicans have been here for three years straight and they’ve been very controversial in the past. One great thing CPAC did last year was banning Milo Yiannopoulos from coming to speak after everything happened to him, because he’s one of the most anti-transgender conservatives out there, supposedly. I don’t believe he’s a conservative. And then this year they took away Mass Resistance being able to have a booth once they learned about their anti-LGBT views and particularly anti-transgender views, because right now there’s a bill in Massachusetts to remove public accommodations. So that growth has been amazing. A lot of it is built by the younger generation, the millennials. I can say this freely: I’m Gen X and I’m really happy, but clearly across the board, 3 out of 4 millennials who walk by us with this flag and these signs saying “Proud to Be a Conservative, Proud to Be Transgender, Proud to Be American, #sameteam” they immediately give us a smile, come over and say hello, want to take pictures with us. And we don’t get any grief from them.

The people who are among those doing the most to push trans rights have been politically correct college students on the left who have gotten a lot of flak from the main stage. What do you think about campus politics and political correctness, broadly speaking?

I think we lose when we confine free speech and when we shut people down. Because when we do that, we show that we can’t take criticism, even if it’s not based on anything, or if it’s wrong. But also, when we do that, we shut down our own voices. Rather than scream at someone on the stage, if they take questions, politely, correctly, succinctly, eloquently ask that question that they can’t answer, which is, “Prove it. Prove that I am not real, prove that my love for someone of the same sex or gender isn’t the same as your love.” And they can’t. But we inhibit ourselves when we shut down anybody else’s free speech.

I’m very much a limited government Republican and conservative, but as I say to my brethren here, one of the most conservative things you can do is actually be a transgender person. Because when you’re transgender you have to seize your identity—you have to put yourself out in the world as an independent person who’s going to try to make their own way and live life as happily as they can. And the last thing you want is the government telling you who you have to be and who you have to love. We can’t be hypocrites on social issues and say we want free speech and say we don’t want political correctness, and say we want limited government. We have to be consistent with everything. And I think people are starting to realize it. I think in five years, a lot of these issues are going to be on the wayside. I think we’re still going to be fighting for transgender equality, but we’re hopeful. Two years ago, I was the only openly transgender person at CPAC and I had to reintroduce myself to people. And I was scared. I didn’t know how it was going to go. And, to a person, about 25, 30 different people said the same thing. “It’s cool, don’t worry. We’re still friends. But are you a conservative? That’s all I’m worried about.”

Osita Nwanevu is a Slate staff writer.