When senior Kai Frenay walks around campus, he sometimes draws suspicious looks and glances from other students. In conversations, some assume that he’s a bigot, or ignore what he has to say about current events.
The reason, Frenay said, is all because of one little accessory on his backpack: a button emblazoned with the “College Republicans” logo.
Frenay is the secretary of the College Republicans, a club representing conservative students and politics at the UW. Like many others in the club, he’s proud to be a conservative on the predominantly liberal UW campus, but he’s often frustrated by a campus culture that seems unwilling to hear him out.
“The college experience is about challenging your beliefs and learning from different perspectives,” Frenay said. “When the campus tries to silence or shame you for those perspectives, it sort of negates the whole point.”
The club has faced criticism recently for controversial demonstrations it has put on in Red Square, such as last May’s “Build the Wall” event. That demonstration was counter-protested by more than 100 people, and the entire event was eventually broken up by police.
In October, the club held a more low-key “Hillary for Prison” demonstration, which attracted less protest and was spent mostly taking pictures and talking to supporters and other curious students.
While the club also engages in more typical student activities, like phone banking for Republican legislative candidates or holding debates with their liberal counterparts, the Young Democrats, members of the College Republicans have differing perspectives on the club’s attention-grabbing protests.
Frenay isn’t the biggest fan of the demonstrations, but sees them in part as a result of the club feeling stifled by the campus culture toward conservatives.
“Our ideals keep getting pushed aside by the left on campus,” Frenay said. “When someone tells you that your beliefs are wrong year after year, that only galvanizes you and makes them stronger.”
Other club members are more enthusiastic about both the demonstrations and the club’s decision to stand by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Sophomore Chevy Swanson, who organized both events, saw them as a chance to share his and the club’s opinions in the public light. He knew backlash would be inevitable.
“I really respect that people protest the events if they don’t agree with them,” Swanson said. “I just have a problem with how some people choose to protest.”
During the demonstration, Swanson said that one protester brought out an electric guitar and an amp to drown out the club.
Swanson admitted that it was “a pretty funny way to protest,” but argued that “protests shouldn’t cover up what they’re protesting; they should try to produce better ideas, and let the public decide.”
At their post-second debate meeting in October, the College Republicans began by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, afterwards eating snacks and watching highlights from the debate. They discussed and argued over the merits and pitfalls of a Trump presidency.
Opinions on the Republican presidential nominee in the club are mixed. Frenay, for instance, expressed empathy for conservatives on campus placed in an awkward situation by the club’s endorsement of Trump.
“I don’t support Trump,” Frenay said. “I support conservative ideals. But I’m glad we’re reaching out to more conservative students on campus, we’ve had a huge increase in membership this year.”
Swanson, perhaps the club’s biggest Trump supporter, argued that it was still important for the club to support the party’s nominee.
“If something happened that was objectively, completely terrible, we wouldn’t sit there with our fingers in our ears,” Swanson said. “After everything that’s happened, I still think he’s the best candidate for the club.”
Senior Jessie Gamble takes pride in the patriotic atmosphere of the club and its meetings. As president of the College Republicans, she knew what she was getting into the moment she made up her mind about going to the UW.
“We know we’re swimming upstream, and that we won’t change a lot of minds,” Gamble said. “Our goal is to produce productive conversations.”
Gamble still wishes it was more acceptable to express conservative viewpoints, especially for professors. Like other club members, she also expressed a strong desire to see more liberals and conservatives on campus try to communicate peacefully.
“Not everyone rolls up their sleeves and bridges that gap,” she said.
For the club, part of opening up that communication includes plans to bring a controversial speaker to campus.
The club received criticism several months ago when it announced plans to bring conservative speaker and writer Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. A Change.org petition calling on president Ana Mari Cauce to ban him from campus received nearly 700 signatures, prompting Cauce to respond by condemning his speech but allowing the club to host him with their own resources.
As with Trump, Yiannopoulos represents another point of disagreement in the club. While most members support the club’s right to host him, many are unenthused by his intentionally offensive statements and polarizing online persona.
Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter in July for his tweets about “Ghostbusters” actor Leslie Jones, which he wrote while Jones was receiving a storm of racist harassment. Supporters of Yiannopoulos see him as an edgy boundary-pusher. Detractors, and Twitter, claimed his actions constituted abuse and harassment.
“There are a lot of things Milo says that I don’t agree with,” Frenay admitted. “To block him though means blocking freedom of speech.”
Gamble pointed out that Yiannopoulos, who would be hosted in a private room entirely by the College Republicans, does not charge a speaking fee for his talks on campuses. Students who don’t want to hear him simply have to stay away.
While programs put on by the club are not always representative of every member’s wishes, those in the College Republicans took pride in the “big tent” nature of their club, and their broader goal to further healthy dialogue on campus.
“We have Trump fans, we have “Never Trump” people, and we have people who don’t even care about the national election,” Swanson said. “Some are libertarians, some are conservative-leaning, some are more left-leaning.”
Swanson continued, “If you have an echo chamber at a university this size, it becomes ideologically dangerous. It would be just as dangerous at an overwhelmingly Republican college.”
For Gamble, that dedication to promoting free speech and reaching across the aisle runs deep. In her senior year, she still holds a deep respect for the UW, and says she’s eager to further grow the club’s relationship with the Young Democrats and their shared commitment to civil involvement.
“It wouldn’t be any fun if we didn’t have to hear different ideologies,” Gamble said. “As long as we can help one Republican kid feel comfortable and accepted on campus, I’m happy.”
Gamble says that she isn’t afraid to continue to speak out at the UW.
“I wouldn’t choose anywhere else,” she said.
Reach Podcast Editor Alex Bruell at email@example.com. Twitter: @BruellAlex