“I can already see it now, a lot of our LGBTQ members rolling their eyes — but I wanted to believe him,” Jordan Evans of Massachusetts said last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), speaking about Donald Trump a day after the president rescinded protections for transgender students. Like Caitlyn Jenner, Evans is a transgender Republican who supported Donald Trump, hoping he’d support trans rights. And she still believes she can change the Republican Party.
“I wanted to believe him,” she repeated in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress at the annual gathering of conservative activists at which both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke. “I mean, he was doing things no other Republican candidate has done. Even on the trail, he was doing things that I thought, well, that even if he was doing it for political capital, he was creating a conversation. I was afraid of Mike Pence but Trump strikes me as the kind of guy — he’s a strong CEO. But what happened yesterday [with the Trump administration rescinding guidelines the Obama administration put in place to protect transgender students], that was the litmus test. I was giving him a chance to kind of prove me wrong on this particular issue, and he failed.”
Evans, who described herself as a libertarian, is a veteran of CPAC. But this was the first time she “came out authentically,” and she said it “went surprisingly well and exceedingly well.”
She stood in front of the main ballroom with Jennifer Williams, a New Jersey trans woman, also a CPAC veteran, who held a sign that read, “Proud to be Conservative, Proud to be Transgender, Proud to be American, #SameTeam,” as well as a Gadsden flag, which has become the symbol of the Tea Party movement in recent years. This was the second year Williams has attended CPAC as openly transgender.
What made them stand out from most gay, bisexual or lesbian Republicans at CPAC is that these two transgender women weren’t trying to blend in — they were literally standing there behind a sign — and they were trying to bring attention to transgender rights in a place in which the crowd applauded when it was announced onstage that Trump had rescinded trans student protections. That was shortly before Education Secretary Besty DeVos clarified that she was fully onboard with the administration’s action ― calling President Obama’s guidelines on transgender students an “overreach” ― contrary to media reports that said she’d opposed the decision.
“I felt terrible about it,” Williams said regarding Trump’s action. “Put a pit in my stomach. Two-hundred-thousand Americans, two-hundred thousand trans kids were told that you’re other, that you’re foreign, you’re alien. When the president did this, on Attorney General Sessions’ behalf, or whoever’s behalf, that cut to my soul as a conservative, because that goes against our principles of personal liberty and freedom and determining your own destiny.”
But, she said, many at CPAC were supporting her, and that, she explained, is a marked change from years before.
“We’ve had people come over and high five us,” Williams said. “Give us smiles. I just got done with a great conversation with a couple of Marines that really surprised the heck out of me. It was nice. The response has been overwhelmingly good. Hearing that cheer [in the ballroom] bothered me. But I’m glad I heard it, because it makes our mission that much more important and I’m glad we’re here. It’s like Harvey Milk said, ‘For each one they know, they’re not going to vote against you.’”
The fact that CPAC was planning on having former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannoupolos — who has made horribly defamatory comments about transgender women — speak at the event, and canceled his appearance only after tapes surfaced in which he promoted sex between underage people and adults, was a “mistake,” Williams said. But she was planning to attend before his cancellation. She was going “no matter what” to hold her sign.
Both she and Evans believe that their presence is important and that they can change minds, even if many LGBTQ people believe they’re deluding themselves and that they’re supporting a party and a movement that is working against them.
“The fears of the LGBT community are valid,” Evans explained. “The Republican Party does have a nasty track record on this. But I also feel that doesn’t mean that those of us who do vote Republican for other reasons shouldn’t at least do what we can, and at least try and pull the party into what we see as a more socially common sense position. I understand that we get a lot of flak for it. But I want people in the LGBTQ community to know…there are people here that, I think, we can work with. We aren’t going to see changes today, or tomorrow, but in the next few years we’re going to start to see things happen slowly and improve.”