NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND—On the main stage of the Conservative Political Action Conference, conservative pundit Kayleigh McEnany gave a shout out to President Donald Trump’s decision Wednesday night to repeal an executive order that protected transgender students‘ right to use the bathroom and locker room that corresponds with their gender identity.
“President Trump rescinded the Obama guidelines on transgender,” McEnany said, provoking a loud cheer from the audience.
A few minutes later, White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus took the stage to defend the decision. “It’s a state issue,” he said of the legal protections.
Just outside the hall, two trans women attending CPAC held up signs protesting the president’s decision and pleaded with their fellow conference-goers to speak to them and open their minds.
“As far as they’re concerned, we are the worst stereotype they can come up with,” said Jordan Evans, a trans woman from Charlton, Massachusetts. “But that’s the reason why I’m here, to show that we’re all the same. I’m a conservative. You’re a conservative.”
Adjusting her oversized glasses, her jacket lapels covered in pro-capitalism buttons, Evans told TPM that she found it “depressing” but “expected” that much of CPAC would cheer the repeal of her rights. She noted that the libertarian wing of the party that used to make a strong showing at CPAC, and was more friendly to LGBT rights, has been pushed to the side by a growing contingent of social conservatives.
“So if there’s ever a moment to work with people, it’s now,” she said.
Evans’ only ally and co-demonstrator Thursday was Jennifer Williams, a trans woman from Trenton, New Jersey, who served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Williams says the two reached out to each other online after writing op-eds about being conservative and trans for different newspapers.
“It’s really important for conservatives to meet transgender people,” she told TPM. “We have to demystify a lot of myths. We already agree on a lot, but not always on my rights and freedoms as an American. You’re not going to take those away from me.”
Both Williams and Evans said they felt disappointed and betrayed by Trump’s decision to rescind President Barack Obama’s executive order protecting transgender students.
“Trump billed himself as an ally of the LGBTQ community. He harped on it,” Evans told TPM. “He defended LGBTQ rights on the stage of the RNC. No other nominee has done that. He held up the [rainbow] flag. He kept [Obama’s] LGBTQ envoy. But this was the big litmus test, and he failed.”
The newly-confirmed leaders of the Justice Department and Education Department argued that the rights of trans teens should be left up to individual states and cities to decide. They also cited a wave of lawsuits from states and schools that did not want to comply with the executive order.
Evans, who herself holds local office as a constable, disagreed with this argument. “You can’t discriminate against a trans person because that goes against the Equal Protection Clause,” she told TPM. “This should be something the feds stand up for, because it pertains to basic human rights.”
Williams added that she has experienced personally what it means to leave trans rights up to states. “I was in North Carolina on the first day of HB2, visiting relatives,” she said. “I can tell you about having to search on the internet so I could find a safe restroom in Greensboro. My children had to see that discrimination firsthand, in 2016, from my own political party. It was really disheartening.”
Williams has attended nine CPAC conferences, but only two as an openly trans woman. Though she agrees with Evans that evangelicals and social conservatives have gained power, she sees signs of overall progress on embracing LGBT rights. She was encouraged, for one, that the conference disinvited Milo Yiannopoulos—a speaker infamous, among other things, for outing and harassing transgender people.
“Look, my first CPAC was in 2006,” she said. “Mike Huckabee would get up and say terrible things about LGBTQ rights and he’d get a big crowd cheering. By 2012, maybe half the crowd would do that. This year, a lot of younger people have been coming over and saying hi. From older folks, we’re still getting some quizzical looks. So we still need to do a lot of work with my generation, Generation X, who don’t always see us as equals and don’t realize that we’re just asking to have the same rights they have.”