US Election 2020
Sarah McBride is set to become America’s most powerful trans politician
The Daily Beast
September 25, 2020
Sarah McBride, who is about to become America’s first out trans state senator, talks to Tim Teeman about politics, faith, grief, coming out, and friendship with Joe and Jill Biden.
Sarah McBride is taking nothing for granted. Last week, Delaware Democrats nominated her for a safe state Senate seat in Wilmington, previously occupied by soon-to-retire incumbent Harris B. McDowell III. If, as is almost certain, she is formally elected in November, McBride—a close friend of Joe and Dr. Jill Biden—will become America’s first out trans state senator.
But McBride—a longtime LGBTQ campaigner and national press officer with the Human Rights Campaign—is not resting on the laurels of inevitability. “I’m going to work my heart out in the next few weeks to make sure we win in November and elect Democrats in Delaware,” McBride told The Daily Beast. The 30-year-old politician hails the “fair-mindedness” of the voters in Delaware’s 1st State Senate district, and beyond that is “mindful of how life-changing and life-affirming it would have been for me as a kid to see the headlines and stories about transgender people winning elections in their communities.
“I hope this campaign can send a small but important message to a young kid just trying to find their place in the world—that our democracy is big enough for them, that their voices matter, and that they can live authentically. I know how much of a difference that message would have made to someone like me growing up. I also hope that this campaign brings about the substantive change my neighbors still need—around health care and paid family leave, education, and criminal justice reform.”
If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected, McBride is confident that they will reverse all of the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ attacks, especially on transgender people—like the infamous military ban. This will be welcome, she said, but will not diminish the “immediate and substantial” damage done to so many by such actions. “People have lost their lives because of the inaction of this administration. Their loved ones will never see them again. We cannot ignore that fact,” said McBride. But she is optimistic Democrats can win, and “adopt policies that mean people are treated with dignity and respect not matter who they are.”
A Biden presidency and Democrat-controlled Senate would, she hopes, oversee the passing of the Equality Act, which would finally enshrine anti-LGBTQ discrimination measures as the law of the land. McBride remains “optimistic that we will move forward from this moment of crisis and discrimination to a brighter, more inclusive future.”
“I’m not running to be ‘the transgender state senator,’” McBride told The Daily Beast. “I’m running to be a state senator who was born and raised in this district, a state senator who is a caregiver, a state senator who is working every single day to ensure more Delawareans get the health care they need and are supported in the challenges and crises they face with meaningful policies.”
McBride connects LGBTQ experiences to other communities. Some people who come out “lose their families, jobs, and health care,” she said. Many people during the pandemic have had to choose between their health and their jobs. “That’s an impossible choice. For me, the moral measure of a society is how we treat people in their moments of vulnerability and hardship. There’s so much more we should be doing for people when they are facing the challenge of illness or the loss of job or income.”
Since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, McBride has been considering the grief of the justice’s family and friends, alongside the fear and nervousness of those concerned about the impact of a hastily installed right wing justice to replace her. “For me, what it reinforced was that we’re in the home stretch. There’s a critical election a few weeks away. It’s important for all of us to fight like hell in the next few weeks and years to make sure we have the government to represent the diverse country we have—not a government that rules for the few and a vocal minority.”
LGBTQ people have benefited from a few Supreme Court decisions, said McBride, “but others have been harmed—on issues ranging from gun violence to voting rights. LGBTQ people, people of color, religious minorities—our dignity is on the ballot this November, and our collective fate. Quite literally, our democracy is on the ballot.”
The LGBTQ voting bloc is “roughly the size of Michigan, and larger than the margin of victory in the last several presidential elections. It is central to supporting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and strong, progressive leaders up and down the ballot,” said McBride. “This is a choice between a healthier democracy where all voices matter, or to go down the path of division, discrimination, and a wholesale attempt to undermine democratic values and principles.”
What does McBride make of LGBTQ conservatives and Trump supporters? “Being LGBTQ doesn’t make you automatically immune from being wrong.”
What if Trump wins? What does that mean for LGBTQ people?
“When I say our lives, rights, and dignity are on the ballot, that’s what I mean. A second term of Trump and Pence would be catastrophic for Americans of all backgrounds.”
“I looked around and saw a world I feared would not accept me for the person I was”
Politics wasn’t always McBride’s desired career. When she was young, growing up in Wilmington, she wanted to be an architect. She made movies in middle school and high school. But even as a young child, she was “passionate about making change.” Government and advocacy, to her young mind, meant being able to make “the most amount of change to the most number of people possible.”
She accepts she was “lucky” to be born into the family she was: two “incredible” older brothers (Sean and Dan) and two “very socially engaged” parents. Her mother Sally was an education advocate who was part of a coalition of parents who helped start the public art school she attended; her father David talked about current events at the dinner table and Sunday morning after church.
“More deeply, as I struggled with who I was and how I fit into this world, I looked around and saw a world I feared would not accept me for the person I was,” McBride said. “Politics and advocacy seemed like the best avenue to bring about change and build a world where everyone could live their lives to the fullest.”
As a chapter in her book, Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality (with a foreword written by Joe Biden), is titled, the personal really is political for McBride. For her, the fight for equal rights and other issues are not “abstract moral principles,” but fights that affect people’s lives in acute, very real ways. She claims she did not enter politics for “position and platform” but rather to fight for the underdog.
Again, it’s personal. Growing up trans was “tough and difficult,” McBride told The Daily Beast. “As much as I knew I was lucky to be born into an inclusive and loving family, I feared for my safety, I feared for my ability to find community, and I feared for my ability to find love. The idea I could run for office or serve in government or contribute to my community—those ideas were almost impossible and incomprehensible as a kid. It is a profound reflection of how far we’ve come that this campaign is even possible. I was also incredibly lucky, and especially lucky when I eventually came out. So many people in our communities are facing so much worse than I ever faced.”
McBride grew up with “few examples of people like me who were accepted, embraced, and celebrated in their communities.” She recalled watching a sitcom, with the trans character known to the viewer but not the characters on the show. “Every time another character expressed any kind of romantic interest in this character, who was beautiful, the laugh track would cue. When you’re 10 or 11 years old, you don’t know a lot, but you know you don’t want be the joke. That’s what I saw of myself in pop culture.”
But she also saw Amanda Simpson become the first out trans woman appointee of any presidential administration in 2010, and “finding hope in that progress.” She was also inspired by President Barack Obama’s election victory, and the “power to create change and improve communities” he embodied for her. She wants to do the same.
McBride is grateful to have never suffered from depression, to have always been able to see the positive—this she sees as a “privilege” she hopes she is paying back in her own advocacy. Still, “It wasn’t easy not being myself growing up. I was working through it. And I was figuring out who I was and how to live authentically and how to be safe and be affirmed. I was lucky to be able to do that at a relatively young age. For me there was a level of denial up until there wasn’t—which was the point at which I came out.”
McBride recalled “staring at the mirror, saying ‘I’m transgender,’ and almost immediately I would say, ‘No, I’m not,’ rationalizing this unyielding fact that I knew deep down inside.”
The young McBride hoped she could compensate for the “incompleteness” she felt if she succeeded in life in other ways—“if I made a difference in the community, if I made family and friends proud; that those things would bring me the wholeness and completeness I lacked. It might be difficult for a person who is not transgender to understand what it feels like to be trans. The closest thing I could compare it to is a constant feeling of homesickness, an unwavering feeling in the pit of my stomach that would only go away when I could be seen and affirmed as myself.”
A key turning point came when she was student body president at American University in Washington. Making a difference in that community and gaining confidence meant McBride was “finally able to come to terms with who I am and to see that the things I thought would bring me wholeness and completeness would not. The only way to address the constant pain and homesickness was to live authentically.”
On Christmas Eve 2011, McBride sat in her church, the Westminster Presbyterian in Wilmington, listening to the choir and looking at the stained glass windows, thinking she “could not continue to miss the beauty in this world. I could no longer watch my life pass by as somebody I wasn’t. That moment that evening was the tipping point for me.”
She wasn’t planning on coming out on Christmas Day, but her parents could see McBride seemed distracted. Her mother asked her what was wrong. McBride came out. “I always say it ruined Christmas, but every day has been better since. Once I got through the denial, I felt the need to come out. It wasn’t a long, thought-out process. It was life.”
Her mother’s initial response was not positive, which McBride understands. “I think my mom responded as a person. She responded with love, but also fear. She responded with inclusion, but also a lack of knowledge around trans people. I never interpreted her tears or her fear as anything less than her unending love for me. I knew it would be difficult. It was 2011, before there was a lot of information out there and what Time magazine called ‘the transgender tipping point’ (in 2014).
“It had taken me 21 years to come to terms with it, to overcome the fear and the shame, so I knew it would take some time for my parents to come to a healthier place, but I also knew from the very first moments after coming out that they loved me and would support me in this journey. And that’s what they’ve done. Now not only are they my biggest champions, they are also the fiercest advocates for the LGBTQ community.”
McBride’s mother founded a support group for parents of trans people, and both her parents campaigned for the state’s SB 97 bill, passed in 2013, prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. “That was just over a year after I came out. I was lucky to know from the start that while there would be tears and that there may be things we would say and regret, that with grace, goodness, and patience we would get to be where we needed to be as a family.”
Sean, McBride’s older brother, is gay, and when she came out, her mother asked: “What are the chances I have a gay son and a transgender daughter?” McBride hoped she would “get to a place where she would ask that question not out of a place of pity but out of a sense of awe—and in the diversity and strength and love within our family, she has absolutely gotten there.
“Both my parents have said if there was a button they could press resulting in me not being trans and our family not going on this journey they would not press that button because we have seen the goodness of community and love of our family. We have seen the potential for change. I don’t think any of us would trade that for anything.”
“Joe and Dr. Biden have both helped me re-find my hope after Andy passed, and helped me find grace in my grief.”
The last decade has also been professionally and personally transformative for McBride. In 2012, she became the first out trans person to work at the White House as an intern in the Obama administration. In 2016 she became the first transgender person to speak at a party’s national convention, addressing Democrats in Philadelphia.
Working at the White House was “one of the most affirming experiences of my life,” McBride said. “Working there day in day out was awe-inspiring, comforting, and a demonstration of the fact my voice could matter and that we could have a seat at the table and contribute to this democracy.”
It also meant something to be able to welcome the public—especially minority groups—to the White House, she said, for officials to speak to them and them to speak to officials.
“It really felt like the People’s House at that moment. It made you realize you were a small part in a historic moment in this country where our democracy became a little bit truer to our ideals and values. The tragedy of the last four years is that Donald Trump and Mike Pence have sought to undermine that progress and journey towards a more inclusive and more ‘perfect union,’ as Barack Obama called it, and we’re not going to let them succeed.”
Before entering LGBTQ politics, McBride worked on former Delaware Governor Jack Markell’s 2008 campaign and Beau Biden’s 2010 campaign to become the state’s Attorney General. She calls the latter “as good and decent a person as he was a political figure,” and a mentor. It was through Beau that McBride got to know Joe and Jill Biden “beyond the headlines.” Joe has “picked up the mantle on LGBTQ equality” that Beau proudly carried, she said. While working at the White House, McBride met her future husband, the healthcare activist Andrew Cray, who was also trans.
Very personal tragedy, and healing from tragedy, also links McBride and the Bidens. Both her late husband and Beau, McBride said, “lived the values at home they fought for. Both their policies and personal interactions were guided by kindness.”
Cray died of cancer in 2014, Beau Biden the following year. “Every time I see Joe Biden we talk about Beau and Andy. We talk about our loss,” McBride told The Daily Beast. “Joe and Dr. Biden have both helped me re-find my hope after Andy passed, and helped me find grace in my grief, and helped me heal from that hardship. One of Joe Biden’s greatest gifts and strengths is that he will help this country heal and help us find purpose in our pain, and help us move forward in this crisis we face.”
“The most formative experience in my life is not my identity, it was my relationship with Andy,” said McBride. “Loving Andy left me profoundly changed. He made me a better person, a kinder, more compassionate person. The experiences I had with him have left me a stronger person.
“There are so many things I take away from my relationship with Andy. I take away the fact I am lucky to have had the time I had with him. I still feel like my cup runneth over with love from the time we had together. I’m lucky I have my health and his legacy to give me comfort. I’m lucky in loving Andy I gained an extended family. I’m lucky to have had health insurance—despite some surprise medical bills, it covered the care he needed.”
Cray’s death also instilled in McBride “the fierce urgency of now,” she said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.—the determination to spend whatever time she has alive to do good. “The final thing I’d say I took from my relationship with Andy was the recognition that hope as an emotion and hope as a phenomenon only make sense in the face of hardship.”
In the final month of Cray’s life, McBride’s brother Sean, a radiation oncologist, said life would be incredibly difficult but that she should take strength from the “acts of amazing grace” that would fill her life, such as the family and friends who organized their wedding in five days, and Cray surviving long enough to take part in the wedding.
These examples of “transforming the impossible into reality and hope” McBride sees in the America of today. She recalled the famous Mr. Rogers quote of being a kid and seeing something scary on the news and his mother’s advice to “Look for the helpers.” The same principle gives her “comfort and confidence” today that the American people will come through these times.
McBride is presently single and not seeing anyone. “I feel my cup runneth over with love from Andy. Every day I wear my wedding ring as a tribute to him. I hope at some point I will find another partner in my life. But right now I very much feel Andy’s presence and love, and I still feel comforted and supported even though he is no longer with us physically. I still feel comforted and supported by his memory, legacy, and love.”
Cray’s death also helped define the nature of McBride’s Christian faith. She had always worshipped as a Presbyterian at the church where she had that self-revelation on Christmas Eve nearly nine years ago. She was an ordained elder there as a teenager. “I think I struggled with my faith when I was growing up. It was actually Andy’s death to be faith-affirming and faith-confirming.”
In the days leading up to Cray’s death in his hospital room, when he was losing his ability to breathe, there were a group of around ten people—mainly LGBTQ with the exception of Cray’s mother, stepfather, and McBride’s mother. Every person was holding on to one another—either holding hands, or with hands on shoulders.
“The love in that room was tangible. You could feel it,” McBride said. “Bishop Gene Robinson, who had married us, also delivered the sermon at Andy’s funeral. He talked about God being love, and in that tangible feeling of love in that room, that was God for me. It made me understand my faith in a way I had never really understood it before. It made me believe at a level at which I had never believed before.”
McBride is an active member of the church community and is one of the storytelling troupe that acts out scripture lessons at Christmas and on Palm Sunday. The church provides her with “support, comfort, and family.”
To her, the use of “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” as an anti-LGBTQ battering ram by the Trump administration and their bedfellows in the religious right “feels like both a corrupting of the faith that I have been part of for my entire life, and also a corruption of the fundamental value of religious freedom. To me, god is love. I was taught that the tent of all major religions was the notion of compassion, and the golden rule of treating others as you would be wished to be treated yourself.”
For McBride, “religious freedom” means shielding vulnerable religious minorities from government persecution. “What it should never be is a sword to inflict harm on already marginalized people.”
McBride hopes more progressive faith voices will speak up against anti-LGBTQ religious bigotry. While she believes in the separation of church and state, she also says it is necessary to recognize how “for many people the language of religion and faith is language they live and speak. We can’t deny for many people their values are guided or influenced by their faith, so we have to recognize that faith plays a role in the public square. But we can never allow personal beliefs and faith to become the rationale for undermining the rights, dignity, and opportunity of other people.”
“To trans kids, I say, ‘You are loved. You are valued. You matter. You have a place in our community, and our country too’”
McBride invokes again and again a stout, pragmatic optimism—an awareness of obstacles and challenges alongside a determination to confront and solve them. She returned from D.C. to Delaware to live, which “re-centered” her and reminded her of the “goodness in our communities.” Campaigning for her senate seat has shown her the “sacrifice and courage” of her likely future constituents. If national politics can feel toxic, local politics feels to McBride like a practicable arena for change.
In LGBTQ politics, she has observed change, and an increase in a diversity of voices and concerns, particularly on trans issues, and around the lives and experiences of Black trans women. “We should always do more to include more voices so they have a seat at the table, and ensure that those with seats at the table are heard enough. The movement can and should always look to do more, and become more diverse.”
McBride is hopeful that the feminist movement in the United States “will remain firm in its commitment to trans rights,” when compared to the influence of trans exclusionary radical feminists in the U.K. where Boris Johnson’s Conservative government just rejected proposals for people to self-identify their gender and for trans people to be able to change their birth certificates without a medical diagnosis.
“Here, we recognize that trans women are women, that trans women deserve equal rights, and that the fight for gender equity is inextricably linked to the fight for trans rights,” McBride told The Daily Beast. “I hope we remain on the right side of history. It’s incredibly disheartening to see the Johnson government walk away from the trans community in the way they have. It’s also disappointing to see the progressive movement in the U.K. not clearly and definitively reject the attacks from the trans exclusionary movement. I firmly believe that the public in the United Kingdom will continue to overwhelmingly favor trans rights, and in the long course of history those who stand in the way will be proven wrong.”
About J.K. Rowling’s apparent animus towards trans people, McBride said, “It’s disappointing to see literary figures whose work has comforted and inspired countless LGBTQ people, including trans people, so clearly and cruelly reject the messages at the heart of that work.” McBride is less interested in addressing Rowling, and more focused on “talking to the kids and young people crushed by the cruel and mean-spirited comments she has made. To them, I say, ‘You are loved. You are valued. You matter. You have a place in our community, and our country too.’”
McBride maintains she has no long-scope political ambitions—including running for president herself one day—beyond “working my heart out” to win in November, and, if successful, representing her constituents and “bringing about change… I think the one thing I have learned in the last 10 years is that life has a way of intervening when you make plans.”
McBride said that celebrating her 30th birthday this year felt significant in that she realized she was now older than Andy was when he passed away.
“I think about that quite a bit. The biggest thing on my mind when I turned 30 was just how young Andy was when he passed away. I had been older than Andy was when he died for a couple of years (at 28), but when I turned 30 it really hit me. He never reached that point. That was the biggest thing on my mind: the tragedy of that, and reinforced the sense of urgency to do what I could in the time I have on this Earth.”
She also looked back on her 20s, “and thought, ‘Thank god I am still alive,’ and remained in awe of the incredible beauty and love I have gotten to see—the incredible highs and the incredible lows.”
McBride has been most inspired by meeting young trans people across America, “doing what once seemed impossible to me growing up, living the truth of their journey and dreams at the same time. When I think back to the young version of myself, who was so scared, so frightened, and so fearful that there wasn’t a place for me in this community and democracy, I wish I could tell myself that ‘You’re going to be OK. It’s going to take lot of work and you’ll shed a lot of tears. But you can be yourself, you can find love, and you can find community and everything you feared would be impossible will be possible.’”
Thinking of those young trans people who may have seen news of her political victory reinforces the sense of responsibility McBride feels to do whatever work is necessary to help “build a world where no kid has to wonder whether they can make it too, or wonder whether they can be themselves and be loved; and no kid has to wonder if they have to give up their dreams in order to be themselves. Whether LGBTQ or not, we would all be better and freer in that kind of world.”