In a 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer this April, Caitlyn Jenner (then still going by Bruce) came out as transgender to a large, cross-generational audience, discussing her plans to transition and what it was like living as an Olympic superstar who the world saw as a man.
But what surprised some people more than Jenner’s gender identity was the revelation that she is a Republican. “Is that a bad thing?” Jenner playfully asked Sawyer. “I believe in the Constitution.”
In a voiceover, Sawyer told the audience that Jenner does not believe either political party has a “monopoly on understanding.” She then asked Jenner whether she would ever advocate for trans issues with conservative politicians like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.
“I would do that in a heartbeat. Why not?” Jenner said. “And I think they’d be very receptive to it.”
At least one group of conservatives – the Log Cabin Republicans, who describe themselves as “the nation’s largest Republican organization dedicated to representing LGBT conservatives and allies” – is hoping Jenner’s political identity will help push more members of the GOP to support trans rights legislation.
“There are a number of Republicans that I think could stand to benefit from learning the personal stories of transgender individuals,” the group’s executive director, Gregory T. Angelo, tells Rolling Stone. “I think those stories have all the more ability to make a meaningful impact if they’re told by a transgender Republican, and an even more meaningful impact if told by transgender Republican Caitlyn Jenner.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says Jenner’s coming out as both transgender and a Republican will be influential in two particular ways. “First, her public pronouncement about being a Republican could help some Americans understand that trans people are varied in every way everyone else is,” Keisling tells Rolling Stone. “More importantly, she is introducing more people to trans people and our lives, and that’s really how we influence society. That’s how we moved Democrats, and that’s how we will move Republicans.”
It remains to be seen whether this is wishful thinking. To be sure, trans people face bigotry from people of all political stripes, and from all sectors of society. But historically, the majority of Republican legislators who have voted on LGBT rights legislation have voted against such bills. And Republicans have been almost exclusively responsible for the dozens of anti-trans bills that have been introduced in states and cities around the country.
This year in Nevada, Minnesota, Florida, Kentucky and Texas, for example, Republican lawmakers introduced “bathroom security” bills forcing transgender people to use restrooms designating the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than the gender with which they identify. Collectively, these laws would criminalize the transgender population with misdemeanor charges that carry jail time and hefty fines, hold businesses responsible for allowing trans people to choose which restroom to use, and reward students with thousands of dollars for reporting transgender peers who use the “wrong” bathroom. None of these bills made it through the legislature.
Nancy Nangeroni, chair emeritus of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, said proponents of these bathroom bills employ arguments that are “very similar” to past concerns about gay men in men’s locker rooms, which “have no more truth in them now than they did then.”
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration agrees. The office just released a guide to transgender bathroom access that is starkly at odds with this kind of legislation. “[I]t is essential for employees to be able to work in a manner consistent with how they live the rest of their daily lives, based on their gender identity,” the manual says.
Such legislation is often justified as “protecting” cisgender women from attacks by trans women. However, there is no evidence that trans people use restrooms to stage assaults. And in fact, as the OSHA guidelines note, “[r]estricting employees to using only restrooms that are not consistent with their gender identity…singles those employees out and may make them fear for their physical safety.”
Indeed, a UCLA School of Law survey found that 70 percent of transgender respondents reported experiencing denial of access, verbal harassment or physical assault at gender-segregated public restrooms.
Conservatives in several states have also recently passed versions of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that essentially allow businesses to refuse service to gay and transgender customers. While other states consider similar RFRAs, backlash from LGBT groups and even large corporations like Walmart has been so extreme it has forced legislators to revise and amend the controversial legislation.
If she does decide to talk to Republican politicians about policy issues affecting trans people, could Caitlyn Jenner help make these sorts of bills less popular among the GOP? It’s too soon to tell, of course. But recent comments from several of the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls suggests that at least some members of the party are grappling with trans acceptance in the wake of Jenner’s announcement, if awkwardly.
“If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” Rick Santorum told BuzzFeed News in early May. (At the time, Jenner was still using male pronouns.) “My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody, not to criticize people for who they are. I can criticize – and I do – for what people do, for their behavior.”
There’s good reason to question Santorum’s commitment to transgender acceptance – this is the man, after all, who has likened gay relationships to bestiality – so it was no surprise when Santorum later qualified his comments on Facebook. “My comment affirmed Jenner as a person, made by God in His likeness as we all are. It was meant to express empathy not a change in public policy,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham recently offered this bizarre counter to Steve Deace’s argument that Republicans embracing Jenner will lose constituents’ support. “Here’s what I would say to the talk show hosts: In the eyes of radical Islam, they hate you as much as they hate Caitlyn Jenner,” Graham told CNN. “They hate us all because we won’t agree to their view of religion. So America, we are all in this together.”
At another point in the interview, Graham spoke more sensibly. “I haven’t walked in her shoes. I don’t have all the answers to the mysteries of life,” he said. “I can only imagine the torment that Bruce Jenner went through. I hope he’s – I hope she has found peace.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who’s rumored to be mulling a 2016 run, was asked by an ABC correspondent if he agrees with President Obama’s assessment of Jenner as courageous. “Well, I think it’s a personal decision,” he said.
Then there’s Mike Huckabee, who in February (before Jenner had publicly announced her plans to transition), said he would’ve liked to have “felt like a woman” in high school so he could “shower with the girls.” BuzzFeed also uncovered two other videos in which Huckabee made shower jokes referencing the 2013 California School Success and Opportunity Act, which granted transgender school students access to school facilities and activities matching their gender identity.
“I’m giving a commonsense answer to the insanity that’s going on out there,” Huckabee said earlier this month in defense of his comments.
Certainly, some Republicans pay more than lip service to the LGBT cause. In Florida, for example, Republican Sen. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is an outspoken supporter of her transgender son, and has already invited Jenner to her office via Twitter. Though Sen. Ros-Lehtinen voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, she went on to become the first Republican in Congress to co-sponsor the Respect for Marriage Act, which seeks to repeal DOMA. And in March, Ros-Lehtinen co-sponsored the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, designed to speed up the guardianship process for LGBT youth and ban discrimination against LGBT individuals seeking to adopt or foster children.
There are also a handful of Republicans who have supported trans rights in states legislatures. A Connecticut bill allowing trans residents to change the gender on their birth certificate without undergoing so-called gender-reassignment surgery recently passed the state senate with bipartisan support (despite three GOP votes in opposition). And in December, Republican New Jersey State Sen. Diane B. Allen joined Democrat Joseph Vitale as co-sponsor of a piece of legislation just like Connecticut’s, a year after Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure.
Ros-Lehtinen and the other Republicans who have voted in favor of trans rights remain outliers, to be sure. But the Log Cabin Republicans’ Gregory Angelo is hoping Jenner’s coming out will push more conservatives to embrace trans-inclusive legislation. Angelo has offered to introduce Jenner to prominent conservative lawmakers, and extended an invitation for her to be the keynote speaker at an event this fall.
Jenner’s agent tells Rolling Stone that he and Caitlyn “have had no discussion about [activism in the Republican party] at this time.” But given that Jenner seemed more than open to engage with the GOP in her 20/20 interview – and has been outspoken about her passion to help others – we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that Jenner will try to school the GOP in trans rights.
“We all need to be more tolerant of each other,” says the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition’s Nancy Nangeroni. “Maybe through Caitlyn we can find a little more common ground than we had in the past.”