Update: Democrat Sarah McBride has won a Delaware State Senate seat on Tuesday night, becoming the highest-ranking openly trans politician in the country.
This story was originally published on October 28, 2020, at 11:30 a.m.
Sarah McBride has a vivid memory: She is standing on the floor of the Delaware State Senate, “literally in tears, pleading for my basic dignity.” It’s 2013 and she’s still a senior in college, collaborating with the late Beau Biden, then the Delaware Attorney General, on the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act. It passed by a one-vote margin.
Now McBride is on the cusp of becoming a member of that same state senate in her election bid to represent Delaware’s first district, and in turn, become the highest-ranking transgender politician in the country. She has already spent years advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in Dover, as the national press secretary with the Human Rights Campaign; in 2016, she entered the national spotlight speaking at the Democratic National Convention as a “proud transgender American,” the first to ever do so.
Amid a presidential election when trans rights are most definitely on the ballot, McBride represents a changing face of politics as one of the record number of LGBTQ+ Americans running for public office and winning elections. Ahead, she spoke with Refinery29 about how state legislators can act to prevent violence against transgender people, what true representation in government means, and her relationship with the Biden family, who supported her when she publicly came out in 2012.
I’m from Wilmington, Delaware, which is in the district you’re running in. We also have a Delawarean running for president. What do you think are some of the best qualities of our home state?
“One of the things I think that’s so difficult for us Delawareans to explain is why we love our state so much. We are a state of neighbors. There’s, at most, one degree of separation. Joe Biden talks about the presidency in terms of the duty to care, and in many ways that’s a responsibility that we as Delawareans feel for one another. And we have the opportunity in this moment to make our laws and our policies more fully reflect our values as a state of neighbors.
“In many ways the first senate district has been at the forefront of change, and the story of change goes right through this community. In the ’50s, the first public school to integrate after the fall of ‘separate but equal’ was Claymont High School. And that responsibility to care for and feel empathy for your neighbour no matter the differences you have in identity or belief or background, this notion that we have a responsibility to one another, I think that is what we need more of in our politics.”
When did you know you wanted to run for public office? I remember at the DNC in 2016 you said that you thought at one point your dreams and your identity were mutually exclusive. When did you believe that those dreams could be realized?
“For me, the dreams that I referred to then were the dreams of finding community, finding love, finding professional fulfilment, and being able to make a difference in my community. It was never about a position or title, it was always about where I can make the most difference. I got involved in politics at an early age, but the notion that someone like me could run for office seemed so impossible it was almost incomprehensible. In looking at the potential of our community, at the unfinished work, at this seat opening up, and the incredible potential for change that I think the Delaware legislature offers, it seemed like the right time and the right place to put my energy.”
Being trans, you internally feel like there are barriers put in front of you. Part of the process for myself has been to realize that those barriers don’t exist, or at least understand that they can get toppled over.
“I think that’s exactly right. I’m hopeful and optimistic that our democracy is worth fighting for because over the last 10 years, I’ve seen that change is possible. I have seen that what once seemed so impossible it was incomprehensible, is not only a possibility, but in many cases a reality today. And that our system with the right people who have the courage to act can still make progress for those who so desperately need it.”
One of those changes this past summer was the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock V. Clayton County, ruling that LGBTQ+ people can’t be discriminated against in the workplace. I feel like no one was expecting this. What was your initial reaction?
“Relief and surprise. This Supreme Court has been packed by Republican, conservative presidents, and I think after hearing the oral arguments as they related to the trans component of the case, there was a lot of fear that it would not go the right way. Not because the law isn’t on our side — I think the overwhelming pre-existing jurisprudence showed that the law does protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination — but there was a concern about the lack of understanding who transgender people are and that that lack of understanding would get in the way of an accurate ruling.
“There’s obviously still a lot of work to do to change hearts and minds, there’s still a lot of work to do in creating a world where particularly trans people of color are safe from violence. Because even at its most expansive, the Bostock decision will only be able to impact certain areas of life that do not include public accommodations and public spaces.”
I agree, it was a big step, but the Equality Act, which has been passed in the House but not the Senate, would protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination on a state and federal level.
“The Bostock decision reinforced and underscored the need to pass the Equality Act. It didn’t undermine or negate its importance; it only deepened the momentum and need for it.”
What does it mean to you to have true representation in the legislative process?
“First, it means symbolic power. The old saying is, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ and the reality is when a transgender person is elected and is able to serve in a legislative body at any level, there’s going to be a young kid who’s struggling with who they are and trying to figure out their place in this world, going to bed that night, and knowing no matter the slurs they were called on the playground or in school, that our democracy can be big enough for them, too. That can be a lifesaving message, that can be a life-changing message, and at the minimum it’s a life-affirming message.
“Secondly, issues can remain abstract when no one who is impacted by them has a seat at the table. Having diverse representation brings to life the issues that impact the community that’s represented. The only way legislative bodies can craft public policy that meets the needs of a diverse community is for the full diversity of that community to have a seat at the table for a wide range of voices to be included in those conversations. Even beyond issues of LGBTQ equality, when we have people who historically have never been part of those conversations, the policies we adopt become much more effective in meeting the needs of the communities we are seeking to serve. You cannot have a government of the people, by the people, for the people, if all of the people are not represented. Diversity in government is not a luxury, it’s a core component of a healthy democracy.”
It’s saddening to see that this is the worst year on record for murders of transgender people. How can other state legislators follow your actions in advocating for nondiscrimination protections to prevent transgender-based violence?
“I loved the way you framed that question, because sometimes I get that question and it’s very specialized, like, ‘How are specifically you going to fight transgender violence?’ They should be asking every elected official that question.
“There are a handful of steps we need to take in order to address this epidemic of violence, particularly for Black transgender women. There’s obviously the necessity for full legal equality as a foundation. Nondiscrimination protections that ensure trans people can access employment, housing, shelter, and services without risk of discrimination.
“Another is economic empowerment. It’s investing in businesses owned and operated by members of the community; it’s about making sure that our schools are safe for LGBTQ people so that they can get an education necessary to be able to not just live, but thrive. So often the violence that trans people are facing is a byproduct of prejudice, discrimination, and institutional barriers conspiring to push trans people out of stable employment and stable housing onto the streets.
“We have to make sure we are pursuing racial justice in all of our policies; we have to reform and reimagine our criminal justice system to truly protect the dignity of every person. Beyond all of that, we need politicians who will uphold in their rhetoric and their actions the dignity and humanity of every person.”
You have labelled yourself as a healthcare candidate, which is critical right now for many Americans, and as you know, even more so for LGBTQ+ Americans. What needs to be done to help people navigate a medical system in which care can be poor and insurance coverage non-existent?
“I hope we move forward with our public policy through a public health lens, and part of that public health lens is a prioritization of equity.
“On top of that, I think we need to recognize that people’s ability to get the healthcare they need is not just about cost of insurance or cost of care, but what impossible choices they have to make in order to get the care that they need, which is why I’m so passionate for paid family and medical leave, because as we’ve seen during the pandemic, no one should give up their source of income in the face of illness, and everyone should be able to get the support they need from their loved ones.
“All these issues are critical for LGBTQ people, because while we have unique needs, we have the same underlying needs that every person has. To create a medical system that recognizes everyone, we need to recognize the diverse and unique needs of LGBTQ people, whether that’s people living with HIV, transgender people in need of medically necessary care, or same-sex couples who are looking to start a family.”
You’ve known Joe Biden for a while. He even wrote the foreword to your book, Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality. Can you describe him as a person? How would you convince skeptical voters to support a Joe Biden presidency?
“With Joe Biden, what you see is what you get. He’s as decent, kind, and compassionate behind closed doors as he is in public. I worked for [his son] Beau Biden, who was a boss, a mentor, and a friend. I worked for him on his campaigns, but I’ve also worked closely with him passing the nondiscrimination law we collaborated on. Joe Biden is someone who listens, and who listens with a big heart. He is someone who has faced incredible tragedy himself, but has recognized that the only way to deal with that pain was to channel it into purpose, and he has, I think, in many ways carried on Beau’s legacy, and his championing of LGBTQ equality. He was ahead not just of presidents and vice presidents, but of pretty much every national politician in calling transgender rights an issue of human rights.
“I’ve seen the tears in his eyes when he talks about violence against transgender women, I’ve heard the passion in his voice when he speaks on the need to pass the Equality Act, and I’ve seen his big heart first-hand when he, Jill, Beau, Ashley, and the rest of the Biden family embraced me after my coming out without skipping a beat.
“What separates good leaders from petty and ineffective leaders is being willing to listen, willing to grow, willing to admit when they are wrong, and willing to use their empathy and compassion to bring people along with them, and that is what Joe Biden has done on LGBTQ equality. That’s what he’s done on a number of issues — and that’s one of the reasons I’m proud to support him.”