On Saturday morning, the Twittersphere was still digesting Jenner’s comments to Diane Sawyer that “for all [intents and purposes], I am a woman” and that he has always been “more on the conservative side”. But at the same moment, Republican leaders were gathering on the floor of Minnesota’s house of representatives to promote a vicious legislative attack on transgender rights.
They were pushing a new provision, HF 1546, that would ban students from using school bathrooms, showers and changing rooms other than those for the gender into which they were assigned.
Similar moves have swept Republican-held assemblies in six other US states this year – Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada and Texas. Opponents of the bills call them “bathroom bounty laws” because in some cases they allow individuals to sue for up to $4,000 should they find themselves sharing bathroom facilities with a transgender person.
Though none of the bills has passed so far, they are seen as a sign of a new aggressiveness on the part of state-level Republicans in publicly expressing overt hostility towards transgender people. As such, they highlight some of the political and ideological tensions that Jenner could now face as a conservative embarking on gender transition.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and a trans woman herself, said that she saw no essential contradiction between Jenner’s transgender identity and his conservatism if by that he meant a belief in efficient and small government.
“It’s not Republicans who think government should get out of people’s lives who are the problem, it’s those who want to put it right in our faces,” she said.
When Jenner said he was “kind of more on the conservative side”, Sawyer asked him: “Are you Republican?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Is that a bad thing? I believe in the constitution.”
Keisling said she would welcome Jenner’s help in fighting what she called “mean-spirited, time-wasting knuckleheads” within the Republican party who were promoting the new bathroom legislation. “We welcome anybody who’s prepared to get involved in dealing with this legal nonsense.”
In his Sawyer interview, Jenner – who has asked that until further notice he still be referred to as “he” – said he was willing to ask the Republican leaders in Congress, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, to engage with trans issues. He said he expected them to be “very receptive to it”.
But the relationship between Republicans and the LGBT community has come under renewed stress recently as the large pool of potential candidates vying to become the party’s presidential nominee in 2016 have been tying themselves in knots over same-sex marriage.
The tension burst to the surface on Sunday when a gay hotelier apologized in the face of an LGBT boycott for his “poor judgment” in hosting a political event by Republican senator Ted Cruz, who has been touting his opposition to gay marriage around the country.
The main LGBT group on the right, Log Cabin Republicans, has been swift in inviting Jenner to join them, seeing in the former athlete and reality TV star a potential champion of their cause. The organization’s national executive director, Gregory Angelo, said that the idea that transgender identity and conservatism were mutually exclusive was a myth put out through the media by the gay left.
“There’s a very diverse LGBT community out there that aligns itself with basic conservative principles,” he said.
Angelo added that the philosophy of the group was to engage fellow Republicans with the 90% of politics in which they were in agreement, and then take on the more difficult 10%. “We remind the GOP of the roots of the party – in equality, in emancipation, suffrage and civil rights.”
Not everyone is convinced that accommodation is possible, however. Jimmy LaSalvia, an openly gay conservative strategist and founder of the now defunct GoProud, said that he decided last year to quit the Republican party after a decade of trying to reform it from within.
“The reason I left was that the Republican party made it clear that there was no place for LGBT communities within it. There’s just not the support on the right for that kind of diversity,” he said.
LaSalvia said that there were plenty of LGBT people attracted to conservative economic policies. “But more and more LGBT Americans are finding it embarrassing to commit themselves as Republicans even if they are conservatives.”
LaSalvia believes that Jenner’s coming out will make it all the more difficult for Republicans to stick to the past. “The interview was so powerful because millions of Americans look up to him. So now when Republicans push policies that are openly hostile towards transgender people, what they are doing will hit home for everyone.”