Conservative, Christian & Trans: A fight for inclusivity within identities at odds

Heather Marie Dunn, left, stands during worship at Chi Alpha on Nov. 7, 2017.

Alex Connor

Editor’s note: Heather Dunn is a senior in accounting at Iowa State, graduating in December. This article is part of Voices, a project by the Iowa State Daily that seeks to facilitate civil discourse and build awareness about diversity on Iowa State’s campus. Heather’s views do not reflect the transgender community, evangelical community or conservative community as a whole.

Heather Marie Dunn sits with her back straight, eyes drawn forward and legs spread equidistant from her chest. She fidgets with her recently painted lilac nails — pushing one fingernail under the other, again and again.

On this particular Tuesday evening, sitting in the third seat in the third row of Design 101, Heather is dressed casually — a gray Iowa State sweatshirt, dark jeans and plain black tennis shoes.

Her orange and gray winter coat is draped over the seat behind her as she waits for Chi Alpha, an interdenominational campus ministry Heather attends weekly, to begin. She adjusts her blonde, highlighted wig that falls just below her shoulders. She chats with those in front of her. The seats next to her remain empty.

When Heather talks, she exerts a level of assurance that can often be hard to match while conversing. She is confident, sometimes dominating, in her politics. She can — and will — spew the latest news in the conservative sphere or perhaps the effects of the polarizing shift in the GOP during the last 10 years.

Heather, 35, is also an evangelical Christian. She’s been such since she was a child. A self-described “conservatarian,” Heather abides by the philosophy people can have whatever lifestyle they want as long as no one else is being forced to do it for them or pay for them. An example: while one would say they are pro-choice, they are against the public funding of abortion and Planned Parenthood.

Heather doesn’t buy into groupthink or “the collective.” Her ideology is one all her own.

It’s 7 p.m. and unusually cold outside for early November. With the biting wind, the trek around campus begins to grow more and more unbearable — the promise of fall break looms in the near future.

Tonight’s sermon is based off a continuing series: “Love Looks Like Something.” It’s about acceptance and inclusivity, highlighting that “We can disagree with the way someone lives and still love them,” the pastor said.

Working from the book of Matthew, the message is based off an interaction between Jesus and a tax collector — someone frowned upon — in which Jesus invited him for dinner despite others vehemently opposing his presence.

Heather listens to the pastor, her feet flat on the floor with her palms resting face down on her thighs — eyes drawn forward. The themes of the lecture mirrored, to an extent, the acceptance Heather said she experienced after first coming out as a transgender woman in September.

She, too, had been offered a seat at the table: in the conservative community, in the Christian community and in the LGBT community.

She hadn’t experienced discrimination or intolerance, Heather said. To her, transgender issues were something that happened elsewhere — not here. Not Iowa.

But just the day prior, transphobia stared Heather down in the Memorial Union bathroom mirror, taking the form of a watchful woman standing just a few feet behind her.

“I had my first bathroom experience,” she said, still digesting the interaction.

Walking into the women’s bathroom Monday on the second floor near the West Student Office Space, Heather said she felt an unease come across her. As she entered, a woman went into the stall next to her — listening. When Heather exited her stall, so did the woman — following. As Heather washed her hands, the woman stood silently behind her. She caught the woman’s reflection in the mirror — watching.

Heather is 6 feet 3 inches tall and towers over those around her. Just beginning her transition, Heather is still learning how to do her makeup, where to shop, what shoe size she wears and what style she likes. She’s waiting for her natural hair — which she recently dyed blonde — to grow in length. The wig can be frustrating at times and doesn’t always remain in place on her head. She’s in contact with doctors and hopes to start on estrogen soon.

Up until this point, she hadn’t been afraid of how she was perceived.

“Transgender issues for me is like being in South Dakota and worrying about if I’m going to be arrested for using the women’s restroom,” Heather said. “It’s about the fear that someone is going to cause physical harm to me.”

But then it happened here. Not South Dakota, but Iowa State. The Memorial Union. Was it ignorance? Most likely, but nothing she couldn’t handle or eventually brush off. In her Facebook announcement coming out as a transgender woman, she even argued for the rights of those who oppose her to share their beliefs.

“You are free to lovingly and respectfully disagree. As a First Amendment fundamentalist, I will die for your right to do so,” Heather said. “The line is crossed when you get nasty, mean and hateful.”

To many, Heather doesn’t make sense. In her varying communities, some cannot understand how she can identify and live openly as all three — as a conservative, Christian, trans woman. But Heather doesn’t feel it has to be one or the other. The stereotypes associated with her identities don’t have to be pitted against each other.

The following day, however, that would all change when her conservative friends turned a blind eye and accused Heather of allegations she said are untrue and hurtful, allegations she feels were a guise to mask their transphobia.

She couldn’t have it all three ways. She had begun to lose her seat at the table.

‘It looks like I was wrong’

Room 184 in Carver Hall begins to fill with young, Iowa State conservatives — many being white males. A blue Donald Trump flag is draped over the table in the front of the room. The executive board chats quietly behind a bunch of “Make America Great Again” material and anti-socialism stickers.

A remix of Donald Trump dancing on Saturday Night Live during the 2016 election cycle plays on the projector. Members pile in, including Heather, who has been involved with the organization since 2014.

Heather has been with the ISU College Republicans both in good times and bad. She’s been to meetings with just three people, but also 30. Tonight, 35 people attended. It would also begin the process of impeaching a member, something then-President Anthony Chavez said had not happened before. That member was Heather.

It’s a Wednesday, and like Chi Alpha, Heather attends College Republicans weekly. Both organizations meet at about 7 p.m., and like Tuesday — it feels unbearably cold, the wind biting.

Heather finds a seat at one of the desks in the back of the room in advance of the meeting. Before it starts, however, she’s pulled aside by Chavez. He asks they step outside of the room.

He tells her the College Republicans will be moving to impeach her on allegations of sexual assault and harassment. He tells her the organization will vote to remove her next week. She’s welcome, according to the organization’s constitution, to speak at this impeachment and issue a statement in her defense.

She doesn’t understand where this is coming from, nor when it occurred. Chavez tells her that apart from the impeachment, there are no current intentions to press charges. Heather tells him she’s done and walks away. No one fills her in on the allegations moving forward — she’s not even made aware as to how many counts of sexual assault and harassment she’s being accused of. Six, she would later find out.

College Republicans’ executive leadership said there are four counts of sexual harassment against Heather regarding two College Republicans members and two of their guests, as well as two counts of sexual assault against Dunn regarding a College Republicans member and another member’s significant other.

The organization would not provide any more detail into the incidents, except for that all six counts occurred at a College Republicans attended party in Adel, Iowa on Oct. 27. Heather, however, does not recall any of the incidents that are said to have occurred. Throughout the process, she remains that she is innocent.

A week later — wearing a blue dress, black leggings and a pair of black flats Heather says she ordered too small but wears anyway — Heather stands in front of the College Republicans, a prepared statement clutched in her hands in the form of an small, charcoal Acer laptop.

“We are not focusing on the gender status of Ms. Dunn,” Chavez said during the impeachment. “It is solely based off the fact that two counts of sexual assault and four counts of sexual harassment were committed. Gender is not an issue here. This is simply about the accusations.”

As Heather reads, her voice transitions between anger, sadness and confusion. Heather switches between looking directly at her laptop to the crowd of members with an underlying but resilient plea: “Vote no to bigotry based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

“I was under the impression that when I came out that the College Republicans were actually accepting of me,” Heather said. “It looks like I was wrong.”

She is impeached 20 short minutes later.

Heather posts on Facebook the next morning: “Going Independent! The GOP has lost my support!” But she sticks with it, and two weeks later is still a registered Republican.

Instead, she’s moved on in other forms such as changing her name legally through the university so when she graduates in December she will walk across the stage as Heather Marie Dunn. She bought a new, purple winter coat and is getting a facial. She got her eyebrows waxed and bought a gold purse.

She’s found community again through the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization dedicated to representing LGBT conservatives as allies.

As a conservative, she has to fight for inclusion within her party. As a Christian, she has to negate bigoted and targeted Bible interpretations regarding her decision. As a member of the LGBT community, she has to argue for her right to be on the right.

And she’s not leaving the table without a fight.

‘The letter T in LGBT’

For years, Heather suppressed her gender dysphoria. She didn’t quite have a name for the discomfort she was feeling inside.

“I really didn’t know what transgender was,” Heather said. “Transgender was just kind of like the letter T in LGBT. I never knew any transgender people.”

Gender dysphoria is an internal conflict between a person’s assigned gender — typically based off one’s sex — and the gender they identify with.

This is how decades later, with a failed marriage to a woman behind her, it came out during therapy that Heather wasn’t being honest to herself regarding who she truly was.

“I was trying to force myself into the closet by being in a cis, heteronormative relationship and marriage,” Heather said. “I was told I’m not a good liar.”

When Heather was in high school, she came out to her family as bisexual. This, in some ways, allowed Heather to be more open and aware of who she was. How she felt inside, to some degree, had a name. Every now and then, however, incidents would occur and she wouldn’t feel comfortable with the gender norms she was being forced to fit into.

“As a child, I naturally gravitated toward playing with the girls … but at that time, my dad said it was not OK for boys to play with Barbies,” Heather said.

As she got older, her discomfort grew, especially with her own body.

“When I got into middle school and high school and hit puberty, that’s kind of when gender dysphoria really became awkward for me,” she said. “Here I was used to having girls as my best friends, and all of a sudden they’re having boyfriends, and I’m like, where are you going? We can’t hang out anymore?”

Heather didn’t understand where she fit into it all.

“Now I realize where I was; I identified myself as ‘one of the girls,’” Heather said. “But I didn’t see myself as a female back then.”

Heather grew up in Urbana, Illinois: population 41,000 and home to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She reflects on her upbringing as liberal and progressive. Going to high school, Heather said, the popular kids were the “goths” and Marilyn Manson fans. They were the ones on student council.

Heather had her rebellious side, too. Raised in a liberal household, like any teenager, Heather would purposefully act out against her parents. For her, this meant leaning more “left” than they did.

A faded tattoo with the initials F.T.W. is sprawled across her right arm. At 16, Heather and her then-boyfriend tattooed each other’s initials on their bodies. Heather remembers her mom being displeased, but more or less concerned about the lack of sterilization regarding the needle.

But her progressive, rebellious inclinations wouldn’t last long. Heather, when confronted by a friend on a book she was reading that was deemed “not liberal enough” and “too conservative,” couldn’t agree with that chain of thought.

“Why are some people afraid that I am reading ‘the enemy’s’ stuff?” Heather said. “If you want to strengthen your positions, don’t you want to know what the arguments on the other side are?

“I was basically told ‘no.’ They were afraid I was going to ‘sell out.’”

That’s when the gears began to shift for Heather.

She bought “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” by Sen. Al Franken which was published in 2003 as a satirical piece on American politics.

Heather then went and bought all the books Franken referenced. Heather’s world view began to change. She was introduced to conservative staples such as Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. In reading these different ideas, it started to click for Heather: She actually agreed with what they were saying. In this thinking, she began to find comfort in more conservative circles.

Additionally, she felt welcomed to express her opinion without feeling ashamed for looking at different perspectives or viewpoints.

“The First Amendment is to protect those who have dissident viewpoints, whatever your ideology is,” Heather said. “It’s not to protect your popular or safe opinions.”

This is why on Sept. 20, 2017, she came out to her friends and family as a transgender woman. The next day, she updated her Facebook bio to read “Be who God made you to be, not what society wants you to be!” She also changed her cover photo to the Transgender Pride Flag.

“Back in the ’90s, I think me coming out as transgender would be subversive,” Heather said. “Now it isn’t. Me coming out as a conservative transgender person? That’s subversive. That’s rebellious.

“When I came out as a trans woman I did not lose my ability to critically think — the idea that I go against group think or what the collective says — I am still an individual. Even as a conservative, as a transgender conservative, I am in the trenches fighting within my own party for inclusion. I’m doing more than just being on the opposite side.”

Less ideological, more consistency, better context

Not everyone will agree with Heather’s views, and she understands that. She just hopes those, especially in the LGBT community, recognize she wants to achieve the same goal as them — equality — but she’s just coming at the issue from a different angle.

For those in the conservative community, Heather doesn’t want to be perceived as a threat. Republicans aren’t opposed to change, she said, they’re just more skeptical.

“Some aspects of society need to change that are based off science and facts, not ideology,” Heather said. “I believe fully that you can be conservative and that you can be LGBT and that you don’t need to moderate both and you don’t need to fully attack one or the other to be fully authentic.”

In 10 years, Heather would like to see less ideology out of the transgender community, more consistency within the conservative community and more context-driven Biblical interpretations from the evangelicals.

“I plan to be active within the party whether I’m screaming at the top of my lungs and alone or I have multiple people behind me,” Heather said.

And she wants the transgender community to understand she can and does empathize with the anger many of them feel toward her party, but she wishes they would question their own allegiances, too.

“Even realizing that if we disagree with each other it doesn’t have to be based off of hate,” Heather said.

She knows it can, and will, be a long, winding road ahead to gain her seat at the table. All of them.

But today, tomorrow and for the rest of her life, she knows she will be Heather Marie Dunn — the name her parents would have given her if she had been born assigned female at birth.

She wears her identities openly. She is a conservative, evangelical woman.