It’s early January, and Sarah McBride is sitting at a desk in her parents’ house in Delaware. A “Sarah McBride for State Senate” yard sign is wedged between a bookshelf and the wall — already a relic from the election she won two months earlier. “It’s been a whirlwind,” she says, leaning forward and taking off her glasses to rub her eyes. And not just because it’s her first time holding public office: When she won her election for state senator of Delaware’s 1st District with an overwhelming 73 percent of the vote, she became the highest-ranking openly trans elected official in U.S. history.
Even on a video call, it’s easy to imagine how she captured three-quarters of her constituents in November. At 30 years old, she’s already well into her second decade in politics. She was 13 when she tagged along on a campaign for the first time, for a friend of her dad’s who was running for Delaware insurance commissioner. At 17, she worked on Democrat Jack Markell’s bid to be governor, recruiting about 50 high school volunteers that Markell credits, in part, for his upset win. McBride became a fixture at his public appearances, introducing him at events and, after he was elected, helping write his speeches when he was stuck. “She’s got this really remarkable ability to deliver hard truths in a way that doesn’t turn people off,” Markell says, “even if they’re things that people would rather not hear.”
An early test of that skill came on Christmas in 2011, the day she came out to her progressive, well-meaning parents. At the time, trans identities were still hovering outside of the American mainstream: the percentage of Americans who said they knew someone who was trans was still in the single digits, and figures like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner had yet to break through into pop culture. Her parents begged her not to transition — a reaction that was based in fear for her future, but that was deeply painful for McBride. She grasped for the metaphor that would help them understand. “With sexual orientation it’s a bit easier. Most people can extrapolate from their own experiences with love and lust,” she explained in her 2018 book, Tomorrow Will Be Different. “But they don’t have an analogous experience with being transgender.” She tried metaphor after metaphor, she says, before finally finding a way to describe her gender dysphoria that broke through: “a constant feeling of homesickness.” Her parents have been supportive ever since (she calls them her best friends).
A few months later, as the student-body president of American University, she came out as trans in her school newspaper. It was a huge and affirming step — celebrated by the student body and the media. But her dream was always to be in politics, and with so few examples of openly trans politicians, she wrote, “I worried that my dreams and my identity were mutually exclusive.”
She’s built her career out of proving that wrong. In 2012, she became the first openly trans woman to work in the White House, when she interned for Obama, and dedicated the next seven years to becoming one of the nation’s leading LGBTQ advocates, including as the spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ organization in the country. In 2016, she became the first out trans person to speak at a Democratic National Convention.
One of the rhetorical challenges in her campaign for state senator was communicating to her future constituents that she could be their advocate, not only an advocate for trans rights. On her campaign website, the word “trans” is conspicuously absent — in part a principled decision (“If you go on other candidates’ websites, it doesn’t include a litany of their identities,”) and in part because it simply wasn’t necessary (“If you Google me, you see that I’m trans before you see that I’m a Democrat.”) “But I also really wanted to reinforce that I was running to work on all of the issues that matter to the residents of this district,” she says. “The sad reality is that the moment I say the word ‘transgender,’ even if 99 percent of what I’m saying has nothing to do with it, some people will presume that I’m running to work solely on transgender rights.”
But she never let that derail her message. “I talked about how the fight for equality isn’t about some abstract moral principle,” says McBride, who’s a passionate American-history buff. In her speeches, she connects the fight for LGBTQ rights to progressive values and the larger American experiment — “the need of every person to have a job that pays the bills, housing that keeps them safe, health care that meets their needs, education that prepares them for the future, and communities where they’re treated with dignity.”
“She understands how to find universal truths in her own stories,” says Markell. “It was always one of her great strengths — something we look for in great political leaders.”
When we talked to her in January, days before her first session in the Delaware capital, she had an ambitious policy plan for the weeks ahead — focused on her key campaign promises to expand Medicaid and pass universal paid family leave. But she’s also eager to start her committee work on criminal justice reform, and tackling issues like renewable energy and the foster care system. “My governing philosophy is rooted in the quote by Audre Lorde: that there’s no such thing as a single-issue cause because no one lives single-issue lives,” she says.
You’ve spent most of your political career as an advocate, lobbying for LGBTQ rights on a state and federal level. How has the transition been from advocate to elected official?
It’s pretty similar in many ways. There are a lot of parallels between the day-to-day advocacy work that I was doing and the day-to-day of being a legislator. In that role as an advocate, so much of it was focused on legislative action. The process of seeing a bill from start to finish is a process that I’m very familiar with. But then, more fundamentally, as an advocate, I felt like I was working on behalf of a constituency — of a community that I was doing the best I could to represent, in the halls of state legislatures, in Congress. And so while the constituency that I’m representing has changed, in many ways, the feeling of responsibility to a community that I was representing continues, and that feeling that, ultimately, I’m not there on my behalf, I’m there to answer to that community. Before it was the LGBTQ community, and now it’s the first senate district of Delaware.
When you won in November, you were part of a “Rainbow Wave” — there were more than 600 out, queer candidates on the ballot and a record-breaking 334 won their elections. But at the same time, you’re also taking state office at a time when state houses around the country are becoming hotbeds for extreme anti-LGBTQ legislation. In South Dakota, a statehouse bill would make it illegal for doctors to provide transgender health care to minors; in New Hampshire, another would add “sexual reassignment” to the definition of child abuse in the state’s Child Protection Act; and in Florida, a foursome of bills would make giving hormone therapy to minors a second degree felony, while legalizing so-called conversion therapy. Did that national climate influence your decision to run for state office?
In many ways, it’s the progress I’ve seen in state legislatures, more than the attacks, that motivated me to run for state senate. Delaware is not a state where we were facing anti-LGBTQ legislation — certainly we weren’t facing anti-LGBTQ legislation that had a chance of passage. [And] for every state where we were seeing anti-LGBTQ attacks, we were also seeing states that were being bold and innovative in moving the ball forward on equality.
I ran for state senate [because] in my work as an advocate, I saw two critical and related points: The first is that most of the issues we care about are handled at the state level. State legislatures are the place where the rubber meets the road on public policy and where you can make the most amount of change for the most number of people in the most number of ways possible in your community. And the second point is that, in large part because of the gridlock that we see at the federal level, state legislators are uniquely positioned to be laboratories of democracy — for big ideas that meet the scope and the scale of the challenges that we’re facing.
Despite the fact that your district is nearly 60 percent Democratic, your opponent leaned on common Republican anti-LGBTQ tropes about the breakdown of “the structure of the family” during the campaign, and even posted material from the Family Research Council, a known anti-LGBTQ hate group. How did those attacks influence your campaign?
I ran my campaign focused entirely on the issues. I never thought to run based solely on my identity. It’s an important part of who I am. It’s a part that I’m proud of, but it’s also just one part of who I am. And I can tell you that the voters clearly did not respond well to some of the attacks that I faced during the campaign. I think there was a presumption by some of the folks that worked on the other side that voters were not ready for an out, trans state senator, that voters would bristle at my identity. And I think the results very clearly demonstrate that the voters were ready, and that the voters were judging candidates based on their ideas and their experience, not based on their identities.
I will say: I can handle the attacks. They don’t bother me. I’ve been in advocacy too long to not already be used to them. But it was the first experience where I couldn’t really shield my family from the attacks that came my way that were rooted in my identity. And by the end, I know it was particularly hard for them. They were very ready for it to be over. And I think it was hard for a lot of LGBTQ people who are watching. For as hard as it might have been, the results ultimately demonstrated the fair mindedness and compassion and empathy of the residents of this district. The message that my election may have sent to a young LGBTQ person was not a message that was sent by me — it was a message sent by the voters of this district.
You wrote about your personal experience with that in your book — how difficult it was to find examples of thriving trans adults. What does it feel like to know that you’re that example for a generation of aspiring trans politicians?
I know how much of a difference that would have made for me as a kid growing up to see this story on the news or to read about it online. When I was growing up, I had to really look for examples of trans people who were happy, healthy, embraced by their community, and not just pursuing their dreams but reaching their dreams.
It really is difficult to be what you can’t see. And on election night, I couldn’t help but think about a young person here in Delaware — or elsewhere — who maybe heard a slur around the dinner table or was bullied on the playground. And that night, they were able to go to sleep, seeing the news that an out trans person had won here in this district. I think about how deeply important that message could be. And sometimes I walk around the district and reflect on the fact that I have the privilege to now represent this community as my authentic self. And I marvel at that simple fact that would have seemed so impossible to me as a kid, it was almost incomprehensible.
When you decided to run for office, were there examples of trans political success that you looked up to?
Over time, there were more examples. I think of people like Amanda Simpson [the first openly transgender woman to be appointed to an administration by an American president.] I remember when I was still in the closet, going online and reading about her appointment by the Obama administration in 2009.
[Virginia State Delegate] Danica Roem’s race obviously is a deeply profound and significant example, but one that actually sticks in my mind from that time was [Minneapolis City Councilwoman] Andrea Jenkins, who ran for an open seat as an out, black out trans woman, and was essentially the consensus choice. She was unopposed by a Democrat or Republican. And to see that sort of spectrum of trans candidates running and winning — [one] being a consensus choice, [the other] running in a red to blue district with a Republican incumbent — really shows you that there are many different paths that trans candidates can take in running for office and being successful.
You started your work as an LGBTQ advocate during the Obama administration – the “Golden Era” of queer rights, when same-sex marriage was legalized, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was overturned, and trans protections were codified by the executive branch for the first time. What was it like to work in LGBTQ rights during the transition from the Obama era to the Trump administration?
It was certainly night and day between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. And thank God they happened in the order that they did. The reason being, I think, the examples of progress we saw during the Obama administration helped instill in me a deep faith that with hard work, we can bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice; that elections can have consequences, and we have the capacity to elect good decent people who will help us bend that arc. And I think that when you’re facing an administration like the Trump administration, as an LGBTQ advocate, the knowledge that change is still possible, despite what you’re seeing right in front of you is a necessary ingredient to have the energy and the perseverance to face that onslaught of attacks.
But I’m also very mindful, as someone who has read a lot of history, that it’s oftentimes in our biggest challenges that we take our most significant steps forward. And that for all of the progress that we saw on legal equality during the Obama administration, the conversations and the organizing that we have done during the last four years has not only helped to beat back many of the attacks but have actually laid the foundation for long-term change.
And that’s really been true throughout the movement, right? It was in the flames of the riots in response to police violence at the Stonewall Inn that our modern movement was created. It was in the depths of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that new tactics and new organizations were created and the infrastructure of our movement was forged. It was in the 2004 fight around marriage equality and the bans on same sex marriage that conversations were happening among family members around dining room tables across the country that laid the foundation for the public’s evolution on marriage equality. It was in 2016 in North Carolina with the passage of their anti-trans bill, HB2, that we not only defeated the Republican incumbent governor in that state, who thought he was actually signing his ticket to re-election when that bill passed, [but] we really helped educate the country about who transgender people are.
And so the attacks are dangerous, the attacks have real consequences. But I’m also confident that in facing those attacks, we’ve laid the foundation for long-term progress and we are ultimately stronger as a community and as a movement after it.
You often talk about politics through a historical lens. Is that how you got interested in politics?
As a kid, I first thought I wanted to be an architect — I still think architecture is one of the most beautiful forms of art. Our family took a trip to D.C. and I saw these beautiful buildings — the White House and the Capitol, and I first [started] reading about those buildings from an architectural standpoint. But then when I discovered the history that happened in those buildings, my eyes were really opened to the potential that we have in politics — to deepen our understanding of who we are as a people. Every chapter was advocates, activists, citizens — and a handful of courageous elected officials joining with them — who wrote those chapters, and bent that arc more toward justice.
In your writing and speeches, you’re particularly good at translating complicated progressive issues into really accessible, relatable language. Is that by design?
I think in this moment we struggle with making things accessible to people who are just beginning to tune into a topic or just beginning to learn. Would I have loved for them to have tuned in earlier? Absolutely. But I’m in the business of social change. And in order to drive and foster social change, you’ve got to start by meeting people where they are, in an accessible way that challenges them, but still with a language that resonates with them. For some people, that language is the language of morality and fundamental rights. For others, it’s a more individual visceral sense of empathy. For others, it’s economic arguments. For others, it’s the language of faith. And we have to be comfortable utilizing different language to meet people where they are. Otherwise, we’re not going to actually deliver the kinds of results that we need to be invested in delivering.
Your mentor, former Delaware Governor Jack Markell, has said you always had a “knack” for communicating difficult issues in ways that people can hear and digest. One of the most striking examples of that was in your book, when you describe your experience of being transgender as “a constant feeling of homesickness. An unwavering ache in the pit of my stomach that only goes away when I can be seen and affirmed in the gender I’ve always felt myself to be. And unlike homesickness with location, which eventually diminishes as you get used to the new home, this homesickness only grows with time and separation.”
It was an analogy forged in those extensive conversations with my parents, where I was desperately searching for words and language to describe my experience so they can understand. And I landed on that one after probably a dozen or so other examples that were much less poetic. In many ways, the fight for equality mirrors our own journey to coming out. That journey to coming out is a struggle to find home within ourselves and our identities. And similarly, the fight for equality is a struggle to find our physical home — a home within our communities — where we are loved, embraced and supported.
And I think that’s a reflection of the universal truth, the universal value at the heart of the fight for equality — which is that all of us have a deep desire to find home in ourselves and home in our community. And that’s true for LGBTQ people, but also true for everyone else. And that’s, I think, another reason why voters were able to see my experience as an LGBTQ advocate through a universal lens, rather than as an experience that in their minds siloed me to a specific set of experiences and perspectives and identities. That the needs and the values behind the movement are universal.
What did you take away from that learning process with your parents?
I think it’s my experience with my parents that reinforces for me that, while not everyone’s going to be willing to go on this journey with you, if you meet people with where they are — if you meet good faith questions, with love, with patience, but not too much patience — that we can have productive conversations that genuinely move people to where they need to be and where they should be. I remember sitting in the car with my folks after a family dinner, and they said to me that if there was a button or a switch that they could push and I wouldn’t be trans, they wouldn’t press that button or flip that switch. And that the goodness of people that we’ve seen, and the capacity for change in our community that we’ve witnessed, the people that we’ve met, and the experiences we’ve had — they wouldn’t trade for anything.