Jennifer Williams was nervous – excited and proud and ready, sure…but also nervous. Nervous about what people would say, nervous about how this would go down, nervous that the people with whom she ideologically connected would reject her or ignore her or ridicule her.
She had just stepped into the lobby of the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, Maryland where the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the largest annual gathering of conservative activists in the country, was meeting in March 2016. And while she had attended seven previous CPACs before, this was her first time at CPAC presenting as Jennifer, a woman. Jennifer is transgender, and this was her first time at the conference since her transition to living as the woman she has long known herself to be.
“I probably had to reintroduce myself to 25 different people or so,” Jennifer said, recalling the many friends and acquaintances she had made over the years at CPAC. “And to a person, the very first question they asked me was, ‘Are you still a conservative? Are you still a Republican?’ – That was the worry, that I would automatically change teams. They had this stereotype that all LGBTQ people are liberal Democrats.”
At this year’s 2017 CPAC, she made the fact that she is transgender crystal-clear for everyone by carrying a sign that explained, “Proud to be Conservative. Proud to be Transgender. Proud to be American. #SameTeam.” But in order to be a LGBTQ activist at this year’s conference, she had to first make it through last year’s conference – all alone and needing to reintroduce herself to all of her old colleagues, one person at a time.
Jennifer Williams has been working over the past few years to encourage the Republican Party to advance its understanding and vocalize support for transgender dignity, equality, and non-discrimination protections. She has become a leading voice seeking to change the party from within – the party that she has been a part of for so long, which has espoused her deeply held values of individual liberty and personal freedom.
“Every day I Google ‘Transgender Republican’ to see if more Americans like me are out there.” – Jennifer Williams
One particular moment at CPAC solidified for Jennifer a perception that there is hope for the party to evolve on LGBTQ issues.
She was scheduled to attend an annual breakfast at the conference just as she had done for years, but she wasn’t sure if she would be welcomed by the coordinating organization as a transgender woman. She approached the host a bit before the breakfast and said, “Hi, my name’s Jennifer Williams. You used to know me by a different name, and that’s because I am transgender. I’m still a Republican and still a conservative and I’ll leave if you want me to, but I would like to stay and pay for a ticket to the breakfast regardless.”
The host, an older man, paused for a second, then nodded. “That’s alright,” he said. “Go to your table. You’ll see your old name – but just go ahead and rip up that name badge and write yourself a new one with your new name. Sit down and enjoy the breakfast, and I hope you come back next year.”
Jennifer’s heart swelled. “When he did that and said that to me, it told me that I would still have a home,” she said. “I knew then that there was a possibility I could be a Republican and be a conservative and be transgender.”
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Conservatism, in some ways, runs through Jennifer’s blood. She was brought up in a conservative, Kennedy Democrat, working-class, Christian family, and today she remains a practicing Catholic. She’s the youngest child in the family, with five older brothers, who all have served in the United States military.
“I had always wanted to serve, too,” she said. “As a kid who had a World War II vet as a Dad, I was fascinated with history and our military,” she said. “But I thought through what would happen if someone found out I was transgender, and I wondered what would have happened if I got a dishonorable discharge. That would be bad enough for me. But what would that have done to my brothers who were career officers? Would their careers be impacted? Not a day goes by that I do not regret not being able to serve.” Jennifer serves her community today through being civically active and serving as Vice-Chairman of her hometown’s Zoning Board, which she has been on for nine years.
Last year, Jennifer had the opportunity to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio as a delegate from New Jersey, the latest in her long history of political activism. She is a Republican Committeeperson for her district and previously had volunteered for candidates and spoken on behalf of them – always Republicans who did not center their campaigns on social issues or rail against LGBTQ people. “If you’re pro-military, small-government, pro-business and pro-urban areas, I support you,” she said.
“When I went to the RNC, I got some looks when I told fellow Republicans that I was transgender,” she said. “But when I shared with people my thoughts on the economy or destroying ISIS or immigration or the 2nd Amendment, we maybe disagreed on a few policy points, but mostly we agreed with each other. So before I told them that I’m transgender, we had already made a connection.”
“I know many people in the Republican Party have never met an LGBTQ person before, let alone a transgender person,” she continued. “But I know how to speak with them. I know what they believe. And when I say I’m transgender, I see them processing it. I see them thinking after a conversation with me, ‘Well, we just shared a lot of things we have in common, so now I’m reassessing what I think about transgender people. She’s a lot different than what I saw on TV.’ I want to get people to realize that we’re Americans too, we have 9-to-5 jobs, we pay taxes, we serve in the military, we try to make our communities better, and we’re not a threat to anyone. What we do with our liberty, happiness and freedom has no impact on anyone else’s liberty, happiness and freedom.”
Jennifer is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between the Republican Party and the LGBTQ community. Raised in New Jersey, the Republican leaders in her state largely didn’t rely on anti-LGBTQ discrimination to mobilize voters.
Jennifer has worked extensively as an independent filmmaker, and years ago she produced a film about black Republicans and urban politics, and one interview subject’s words ring true for her: “I would rather change the Party from within, not without.”
“I have to believe that for myself,” Jennifer said. “If I leave the Republican Party, who will be there to be a voice for transgender and LGBTQ people when issues come up? Who will speak out when someone on the conservative side wrongly tries to make an issue out of something?”
There’s hope for improvement in the party, Jennifer said, although she feels that President Trump’s administration has been increasingly hostile to the transgender community, most recently with his proposed ban on open military service for transgender Americans. While attending CPACs over the years, she’s seen a shift in the way LGBTQ issues are discussed. “Politicians could get cheers for any anti-LGBTQ stuff in the mid-to-late 2000s, but recently, the response is more tepid. Even last year, several presidential candidates barely even mentioned ‘traditional values,’ and they didn’t say ‘marriage’ at all.”
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Jennifer socially transitioned in the fall of 2015 with the support of her wife and children – although she had been thinking about her gender for many years. “My actual transition to my authentic life today took a long time” she said. “I really started exploring the possibility that I really was transgender in 2009 and this thankfully, was much easier to do via the Internet. There was a million times more information than when I was trying to figure things out in my college and grad school years. The Internet has been a godsend for trans people. We could now find each other and learn about ourselves. From realizing that I needed to research the medical, psychological, and legal aspects of being transgender to figuring out when, if, and how our family could survive if I tried to transition, it took about six years.”
She knew early on that she needed to tell her neighbors. Jennifer walks to work, passing through the neighborhood, and so she and her wife strategized with some close friends on the best way to tell everyone. “We came up with all kinds of ideas, like ‘Should we bring a wagon and a box of wine and go to each of our neighbors’ houses individually?'” Jennifer joked. A generous neighborhood couple offered to host an event. They settled on having a gathering of nearly forty neighbors – and while most of the guests came to the party assuming that she and her wife were moving, the evening became a beautiful celebration of Jennifer, her wife, and Jennifer’s transition.
Jennifer delivered a short speech explaining her transition and was greeted by hugs and kisses and support from her neighbors. One of the women in the neighborhood dropped by the next day to give Jennifer a bottle of nail polish – midnight green, the same color as the uniforms and helmets for the Philadelphia Eagles, Jennifer’s favorite NFL football team. When she came out at work, she was surprised and pleased again by the overwhelming support from her managers and co-workers.
“People ask if I’m happy, and I say, ‘I wish I could bottle up my happiness and give it to someone who needs it,'” Jennifer said.
Still – it wasn’t without challenge. She and her family had to confront many legal, professional, medical, and social barriers and regulations to transition, so it took some time. “I wanted to succeed at my transition for my family and myself and to make it a safe one for us also,” Jennifer said. “My wife and children have been amazing, and we are living a more happy, healthy, and thriving life today because I transitioned. But I like to say that ‘we transitioned’ as a family because that is what really happened for us. I’m a very lucky woman.”
“People ask if I’m happy, and I say, ‘I wish I could bottle up my happiness and give it to someone who needs it.'” – Jennifer Williams
Deciding what to do about her strong affiliation and the political beliefs she shares with the Republican Party was also a consideration. “We had to decide early on whether staying involved in the GOP was the right thing to do,” Jennifer said about herself and her wife. “But it would have been disingenuous of me to change parties. It would have been a betrayal of my soul and a betrayal of my spirit to do any different.”
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“Every day I Google ‘Transgender Republican’ to see if more Americans like me are out there,” Jennifer said. And she’s found that while there’s a lot of work to do, the Party is evolving every day. In July, after President Trump’s tweets about open service for transgender people, more than a half dozen Republicans issued their most trans-affirming statements ever, with Orrin Hatch saying, “Transgender people are people and deserve the best we can do for them.”
Jennifer works with Garden State Equality and several other organizations to advance LGBTQ equality, including non-discrimination protections. Earlier this summer, she was a part of the team that encouraged Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to sign into law two bills strengthening non-discrimination protections for transgender students and those accessing her state’s healthcare system.
Even last year, her jaw dropped when, in the middle of North Carolina’s HB2 fight, Donald Trump, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said on the Today show that Caitlyn Jenner and any transgender person would be welcomed in Trump Tower, and that he didn’t think there should be laws restricting transgender people from using the restroom. “I just parked my car and listened on the radio before I walked into work,” she said. “We were leaving for North Carolina in a few weeks to visit family and I was hoping he would take a stand for us, and when he did just that with Matt Lauer… I started clapping and fist-pounding the dashboard, wanting to high-five someone,” Jennifer said. “I tweeted out that candidate Trump saved lives that day. Having such a prominent Republican stick up for transgender people – I never believed that it would ever happen.”
“Then fourteen hours later, Trump went on Sean Hannity’s show, and he carefully walked back a lot of what he said, and it really hurt. It hurt my wife, it hurt me, and when he did that, it showed that he probably wasn’t going to be the good New York Republican we had all hoped he was going to be.”
He has since disappointed Jennifer when it comes to military service and his directive to rescind life-saving guidance for public schools on treating transgender kids with respect and dignity.
Jennifer is not unaware of the many challenges within the Republican Party when it comes to important LGBTQ issues. But she also has faith that lawmakers will open their hearts, open their minds, and grow. “I tell people that we have a lot of problems on the Republican side. But the Democrats took some time, too – and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there as well,” she said, referencing the Democratic leaders who sponsored or voted for anti-LGBTQ legislation in 2016 and 2017.
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“I always remind people of the Ronald Reagan rule: My 80% friend isn’t my 20% enemy,” Jennifer said. “You need to remind people about that.”
She has often been surprised to see strong support come from people and places that may feel unlikely.
“Some of the most beautiful people about my transition were very religious people,” she offered. “Their own pastor may have no issue about preaching against LGBT people, but they’ve told me that they had to have their own conversation with God – including one woman I’d known for about a year before my transition. We had always had great conversations. She’s really into boxing and I’m also a fan, and we could always talk about boxing together. She had to decide if she could accept me and still be a Christian. And apparently, she could. We’ve become closer and she became a protector of sorts for me. Two years later, she still checks in on me every morning around 10am. It is really sweet.”
Jennifer thinks often about the Republican National Convention and the conversations she had with other Republicans, politicians, activists and even pastors. At one point she shared a cab with a delegate from Mississippi, a kind woman who invited Jennifer to a church service the next morning. After the service she approached a party official and they engaged in a conversation about standard Republican issues, agreeing on most things, like foreign policy, taxes, and crime.
“One big thing I want to discuss with you is that our party platform is going after transgender people,” Jennifer said. She added, “No transgender person has ever committed an assault in a public restroom. Ever.”
“I’ve heard that. I know…it’s a big issue,” the man replied.
Jennifer said, “This matters a lot to me and my family because I’m transgender,” she said. The man paused for a bit, and Jennifer could tell that he was processing those last words, I’m transgender. She continued: “Why don’t we just double the penalties for anyone who commits crimes in restrooms?”
“You’re more law and order than I am!” the surprised man responded with a smile.
“I always remind people of the Ronald Reagan rule: My 80% friend isn’t my 20% enemy. You need to remind people about that.” – Jennifer Williams
Conversation by conversation, Jennifer shared her story and put herself out there at the Republican National Convention – and it’s work that she continues to do each and every day.
On her way back to New Jersey from Cleveland following the convention, Jennifer reflected on all of the conversations she had had that week. “After I got on the plane to come home, we were delayed on the tarmac for about twenty minutes. Having a window seat, I began staring out the window, and I got emotional,” she said. “What I had just done finally hit me. I had just gone to the Republican National Convention during one of the worst political years for my LGBTQ tribe, which was caused by some in my own party. I didn’t know anyone there before I left home, and I was the only trans person I knew would be there. That was an amazing feeling. It was an amazing feeling to know that I’m a Republican and that I can go to my national convention in a year when the party is trying to hurt LGBTQ people, and I can still be effective in representing our community. I got a lot of people thinking – and whether I changed their minds, I’ll never know – but getting them thinking is important.”
This is at the core of Jennifer Williams’ philosophy on creating social change within her political party. “I believe that for me, there’s a reason why I am able right now to use my lifetime experience in politics, including making movies and speaking in the media and dealing with messaging,” she said. “I’m here to help my transgender community make it through this period of strife. I want to move the needle to help the party embrace the LGBTQ community.”
“If they know you, they’re going to be less likely to vote against you,” she said. “But they have to know you first.”