Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuba libre in hand, was busy waxing nostalgic with former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart about their efforts to undermine Fidel Castro when the animated discussion was interrupted by Caitlyn Jenner.
The world’s most recognizable advocate for transgender causes wanted to hug the retiring Miami lawmaker with a history of bucking and pushing the Republican Party on LGBT issues.
“Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a person of many firsts, and if you know anything about me I love firsts,” Jenner said at a recent gala honoring Ros-Lehtinen’s career. “The first Latina elected to Congress, the first woman elected to Congress from Florida, the first Republican in the House to support marriage equality, and she did it in a very big way.”
Jenner, also a Republican, and Ros-Lehtinen are at odds with the majority of Republican lawmakers. President Donald Trump has announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military via tweet and multiple state legislatures have considered legislation that would restrict access to restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities on the basis of sex assigned at birth.
“Fighting for gay rights, transgender rights is such an important part of my DNA and what I do,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Ros-Lehtinen introduced legislation in 2015 that would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation or gender identity. She also signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief in a Supreme Court case seeking to protect access to public accommodations for transgender students. And Ros-Lehtinen’s son, Rodrigo, is the first openly transgender child of a sitting member of Congress.
“The most important job Ileana’s had... is being a mom,” Jenner said. “For the trans community we have many, many issues. The suicide rate for young trans youth is nine times higher than the general public, we have homelessness, we have young trans people being kicked out of their homes all across this country. Transgendered kids … may be bullied in school, they may be a little different, but when they go home, [if] they go to a safe place and a loving family, that is by far the most important thing we can do for our kids. So Ileana, I want to thank you for that.”
But Ros-Lehtinen, the only Republican in Congress with a 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT rights organization, won’t be in office next year.
Her retirement and a potential wave election for Democrats in 2018 could make pro-LGBT Republicans a rare breed in the next Congress. Four of the eight Senate Republicans endorsed by the Log Cabin Republicans, a pro-LGBT group, could be gone next year, and nine of the 11 House Republicans endorsed by the group are retiring or face tough reelection campaigns.
“I think it’s a real challenge for the Republican Party with people like Ileana leaving and I think it’s a real challenge for the Republican Party if you look at millennial voters, they support equality by phenomenally large numbers,” said David Stacy, the head of government affairs for the Human Rights Campaign.
But Stacy said if certain Republicans can win reelection — like Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Virginia Rep. Scott Taylor, two 38-year-old members who get high marks from pro-LGBT groups — they can effectively carry on Ros-Lehtinen’s work within the Republican Party. Curbelo has the second-highest rating among House Republicans from the Human Rights Campaign, while Taylor was the second House Republican, after Ros-Lehtinen, to sign onto the Equality Act, a bill that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to existing federal civil rights protections.
“To me, it’s a freedom issue, it’s liberty,” Taylor said. “Who cares who you love or what you do with your life as long as you don’t harm anybody else? In terms of gay marriage, everybody should be equally as happy or as miserable as everybody else.”
Taylor entered Congress in 2017, less than five years after Ros-Lehtinen and then-President Barack Obama formally backed gay marriage in 2012. Gay marriage became law in all 50 states after a 2015 Supreme Court ruling.
Log Cabin Republicans president Gregory Angelo said the group has been preparing for Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement for years, cultivating relationships with lawmakers on the importance of taking pro-LGBT stances.
“I see the Republican Party moving, at times however slow, to a place of greater inclusion and leadership on LGBT issues,” Angelo said. “I do see that it was specifically her work that paved the way for Republican LGBT advocates.”
And Angelo is heartened that some new Republican lawmakers who assumed office after surviving a competitive primary are signing onto pro-LGBT bills. One of the reasons some Republicans have shied away from LGBT issues in the past is because of the threat of a Republican primary challenger on the right.
“I see instances time and again of individuals who were decried as anti-gay Republicans in competitive primaries and ended up becoming allies of the LGBT community,” Angelo said, noting freshman New York Rep. Claudia Tenney and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey as two examples of Republicans who signed onto pro-LGBT bills though they were attacked for being anti-LGBT during their initial runs for office.
The actor Richard Gere, who has worked with Ros-Lehtinen for years on a number of human-rights issues, said her long career as a trailblazer within the Republican Party on LGBT issues serves as an example for others to take a stand.
“People who feel people’s pain in a deep way, they’re there for the long haul,” Gere said. “A lot of people come in and out of different subjects and might be interested for the moment, but she does feel things extremely deeply. I think she’s also realistic because nothing changes quickly.”
There isn’t much in the way of LGBT-related legislation that’s likely to move through Congress in Ros-Lehtinen’s final months in office, though advocacy groups are trying to find more Republicans like Taylor and Curbelo to cosponsor pro-LGBT legislation and will monitor attempts from social conservatives to insert anti-LGBT amendments into must-pass bills.
“As a trans woman, I just want to say from the bottom of my heart, your leadership, your compassion and your unconditional love I just want to thank you, baby,” Jenner said.