Opinion | Why a Trans Republican Keeps Engaging With Conservatives

Jennifer Williams is a member of the Trenton City Council. She’s a Republican from a military family and says she’s far more along the lines of Teddy Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower than Donald Trump. She is focused on solving Trenton’s problems — from stemming the tide of violent crime to helping veterans get access to mental health care in one of the poorest cities in America.

She is also transgender. Ms. Williams, 55, is the first openly transgender person to win elected office in New Jersey and one of very few openly transgender officeholders nationwide. As a transgender woman and as a Republican, she believes there is a need for her to engage with people who might never have met a trans person before. She told me that she sees it as her responsibility to fight for trans rights within the Republican Party while working on behalf of her constituents in Trenton.

“I actually believe, if you’re transgender, one of the most conservative things you can actually do is live your authentic self,” she said. “But to do that, the government should not be in your business — they shouldn’t be in our bedrooms; they shouldn’t be trying to tell us who we can be, who we can live as, who we can go to school as.”

This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is part of a series of Opinion Q. and A.s exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics, and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: I first learned about you when you attended CPAC in 2018 and you were holding a sign that said, “Proud to be conservative, proud to be transgender, proud to be an American. #SameTeam.” What was that experience like, and have you been back to CPAC since then?

Jennifer Williams: I went in 2019. I was apprehensive going into it because I could see 2018 was the last year where you didn’t have the full Trumpapalooza come on and where CPAC kind of sold their soul to the Trump side of things. It just increasingly got less comfortable.

In 2017, we had a great response from everybody. A lot of people were curious. Two thousand eighteen for almost the whole part, that was it. Some Ben Shapiro-wannabes had started debating us, but then we had moments like a young man from North Carolina come up and basically come out in talking to me because he can’t come out where he lives in North Carolina as a Republican and gay.

I mean, so many people said that was a theme: “I’m not like those people. I’m not like Mike Pence.” But after 2019, I couldn’t go back; it got too crazy. You could see where it was headed, where it would actually be dangerous for us to go. Because in 2017, when I plotted it out and Jordan Evans was with me, I deliberately placed us across from the press row. If something happened, it would be documented and we would be able to run into the media room for safety.

Coaston: You ran and you won your race to be on the Trenton City Council in 2022 to represent the city’s North Ward. You emphasized in interviews while you were running that you were focused on knocking on doors and getting to know people. What has that looked like since you’ve won? What have you heard from your constituents and what does your relationship with the people who voted for you look like?

Williams: It’s interesting actually being in the office. You don’t realize how limited your options are. It’s amazing how many varied problems you receive that you have to handle on a local level, from potholes and streetlights to rat infestations, to people trying to find out how they could buy a house. We have a partner program to give seniors laptops through a nonprofit, and having seniors contact me to try to get a free laptop because they don’t have any other way to reach out to doctors or their family.

The worst part is we’ve had a good number of murders here in the city. Just going to funerals, and meeting people and trying to meet them where they are, whether it’s in a bad place with grief or trying to hear their problems or frustrations with the city.

We had industrialization and then de-industrialization. We have environmental issues, basic economic issues, crime issues, veterans issues, trying to find veterans mental health care. So you name it, we have it. But what I find that’s great is when you talk to folks and you go to their door, they still have hope. They haven’t totally given up, because if they did, they wouldn’t call you. When you do go there and you’re able to help make something good happen, that’s the greatest feeling in the world.

Coaston: What spurred you to run for office in the first place?

Williams: I just had that growing feeling of: Could I win? Should I run? I had to really think about it, particularly also as someone who’s L.G.B.T.Q.

We’ve never had someone on Council who’s L.G.B.T.Q. But I had to look at it, and say: If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? I have this good skill set, I have a master’s in business, I’ve done a lot civically, I’ve been involved. I was on the zoning board for 14 years; I chaired it the last two years, and I felt ready. I don’t like to use that phrase, impostor syndrome, but I had to really realize, you know what, you have the résumé, too. There’s no reason you can’t get elected just as anyone else. When you have a city that has a 28 percent poverty rate and a 38 percent home-ownership rate, how could you not run if you can make a difference?

We’re only 15 miles, really, from Princeton, N.J., one of the wealthiest towns in the nation. It might as well be in another galaxy from where we are.

Coaston: Yeah, that’s something. When you cross that bridge into Princeton, it’s in a completely different place.

Williams: Yeah, and it’s amazing because even just trying to get school kids or our youth to realize that there’s a whole ’nother world outside of Trenton and that they could be a part of it, but at the same point, getting people from the suburbs to realize you need to help us. Not because of guilt, but it’s good economics — because as Trenton does better, the whole county’s going to do better, the state will do better, and we wouldn’t be so reliant on the county or the state for different things.

But what would it hurt if you took 1,000 families in Princeton and said, “Come into Trenton once a month, go visit one restaurant or go visit one of the few supermarkets we do have.” That would make a massive economic difference in our city. We’d be able to provide more jobs to people.

Coaston: You noted back in 2019 that you didn’t get much pushback for who you are when you were first running for office. Has anything changed since then?

Williams: Yeah, it has. I still have not had many problems. I had one problem when I ran for City Council last year: A woman yelled a slur that’s used toward transgender people as I was getting in my car after I stopped door knocking. But that’s about it. When I go to some spaces, you can kind of feel that the tone’s different. People might say, “Oh, so what’s your pronouns?” It’s not in a friendly way. It’s sarcastic.

Coaston: Back in 2018, you talked in an interview about how social conservatism seemed to be in a nadir. Now we’ve lived through Covid, the Trump years and some big shifts in conservatism, especially about social conservatism. How have your politics changed, or have they?

Williams: That’s a great question I struggle with every day. I don’t exactly know where I fit in now, because having met so many other Republicans and folks who would’ve at that time considered themselves conservative at CPAC and them saying I’m not like them. I don’t believe this. I’m not against abortion, I’m not against other issues. My Republican beliefs have to go with foreign policy or economics or business. I think a lot of those people are afraid. They’re afraid to stand up; they’re afraid to speak out. That’s why we’re in a situation that we are, because the folks who have been on the right extreme are very, very loud. They are scary. I mean, look at Jan. 6.

I still believe I’m a Republican. I still believe that my beliefs along the lines of business, our foreign policy, a strong military — those still hold true for me. I don’t know if there is a silent majority of the quieter, more moderate people, because moderates aren’t the type to go to the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire to go support the most moderate candidate, or what William F. Buckley would say, the most conservative candidate who can actually win. I still think I’m in that middle, but I think the goal post has definitely moved a lot more right.

But I’m still going to stay; I’m still fighting. I have to fight for my L.G.B.T.Q. community. I have friends who’ve left other states. I have friends who are in Florida, an older gay couple. A lot of their circle are moving back to the North because they’re afraid of where they live and how the culture is changing.

I’m a Republican, but it’s getting harder and harder each year. What I’m hoping is more of the people who have been quiet will be a lot louder,. If they want to save the Republican Party and have it be like the party of the past, the party of Eisenhower, the party of Reagan, the nonsocial issue side, the party of Teddy Roosevelt — these are names that still do mean something. Yes, they’re in the past, they’re in black-and-white photos, but the past is what gives us a guide as principle for the future. Just because people were turning over the tables and throwing dishes and screaming that the election was stolen, doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them.

I don’t have a choice. I’m an L.G.B.T.Q. American, I’m a transgender American. I believe that the government should not have a right to tell you who you should marry, who you should love, who you can be or what kind of future life that you can have. I actually believe, if you’re transgender, one of the most conservative things you can actually do is live your authentic self. But to do that, the government should not be in your business — they shouldn’t be in our bedrooms; they shouldn’t be trying to tell us who we can be, who we can live as, who we can go to school as. That’s not Republicanism.

Coaston: You were one of the first out trans people to attend a Republican National Convention back in 2016. What was that experience like, and would you go back in 2024?

Williams: Well, it depends on how much my life insurance policy is at that point. That was a special time. What I learned from that experience was that the country was different. Transgender people were new; we were different. Most people, they knew of Caitlyn Jenner. They had never met a transgender person.

The reason for me to go there is because we knew there would not be a transgender person at that convention. There would be no voice to say: “No, this is not how you think we are. This is how we actually are. We actually are regular American citizens. We’re your neighbors. We’re the people you sit next to on a train or a plane. We have a lot of the same shared beliefs, and you should respect us. You should not be trying to legislate against us.”

[Caitlyn Jenner, a trans activist and Fox News regular, did attend the 2016 Republican National Convention, speaking at a “Big Tent Brunch” sponsored by the American Unity Fund.]

I ended up actually chatting with a gentleman who was the former chair of a Southern state’s Republican Party. We just started talking about issues — economic, military, destroying ISIS, the Second Amendment — usual Republican stuff, and we’re on the same page, we’re on the same page. I said, “I just want to tell you, your governor, Nikki Haley, said something really great, which is she didn’t think that South Carolina needed any laws banning transgender people for using bathrooms like in North Carolina,” because we just went through H.B. 2.

[North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, also known as House Bill 2 or H.B. 2, was signed into law in 2016. It required schools and government offices to only permit individuals to use the bathrooms that matched the sex listed on their birth certificate. The portion of the law regarding bathroom use was repealed in 2017.]

I could see in his face something started shifting. He goes: “Really? You think that?” I said: “Yeah, because they actually hurt people like me because I’m transgender myself. They really hurt us because we have more to fear by going into a public restroom and being assaulted than anyone else does.” You could just see for a moment, about 10 seconds, his processing of his brain was like: “This doesn’t compute. I just talked about ISIS.” You know what? I don’t know that I changed that man right off the bat, but I do know this: He had to spend the next four days at the Republican National Convention and beyond saying he met this really nice transgender woman who was reasonable, didn’t yell at him, and he agreed with on a lot of issues. To me, that has to be worth something.

I’ve never claimed that I can change the party or change the leadership, particularly in a lot of these states who are having legislation, but what I try to do is have them tap the brakes. I think folks like me around the country who are doing this — you see in different states, there are Republicans voting against this legislation. Some of these states down south and out west are not enough, unfortunately, because it’s good business to be anti-trans right now. It’s easy because people think it pushes up poll numbers, it might help an election. I have a feeling that as much as trans folks will be a big issue next year, it’s not going to work as well as some of these consultants are selling it for.

Coaston: You’ve been talking about this work that you’re doing of reaching out to other Republicans and talking to people about ISIS, about conservatism and about being trans. What has that work been like for you over the last seven or so years?

Williams: It’s difficult. I’d go cold call congressional offices and introduce myself to the staff as being a Republican from New Jersey, da da da, “And I’m also transgender.” You could see the jaws drop. “I just want to be a resource for you. You might have some bills come up like the Equality Act, and I’d like to give you a good Republican perspective on that,” etc.

But what I tried to do is implant the idea of, you’re going to be getting told a lot of things, you’re going to be sold policies, you’re going to have older folks come and talk to you and say, “Well, I have to vote for this because Senator So-and-So is, or my constituent, my donor, or the Liberty Counsel or Alliance Defending Freedom is coming in for a meeting.” I needed to go meet them and try to meet as many staffers as I could because I never wanted them to be able to say, “Well, I’ve never met a transgender person,” or think that only what they see on Fox News or the Daily Wire or something else, that’s what their image of a trans person was.

I was shocked how many people had never even met a gay or lesbian person before, but that’s because people were so siloed. If they met 10 of us, then they feel that there’s 100 or 200 of us and we’re more of a constituency. That’s the single biggest problem that we face as transgender Americans: We’re so small in number compared to gay Americans, the rest of the L.G.B. community, and that’s the battle.

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Jane Coaston was the host of Opinion’s podcast “The Argument.” Previously, she reported on conservative politics, the G.O.P. and the rise of the right. She also co-hosted the podcast “The Weeds.”

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