Sarah McBride: Authentic activism, from Delaware to D.C.


As we make our way into a new year, there are a lot of things that we as a community have yet to accomplish, but we should take a little time to celebrate the tremendous strides we’ve made. Just a few years ago, if you’d told me that gay men and women would be casually discussing their same-sex spouses on TV, that politicians would clamor for the LGBT vote and that an openly transgender woman would be interning at the White House, I may have done a spit take (for the record, I don’t really do those … ).


Said intern is Sarah McBride and she’s not an intern anymore. Currently, McBride is the Special Assistant for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress. As an undergraduate at American University, McBride made national headlines when she came out as transgender in the student newspaper. A native of Delaware, McBride also serves on the board of directors of Equality Delaware and, in that capacity, helped lead and served as the primary spokesperson for the successful effort to add gender identity and expression to her state’s nondiscrimination and hate-crimes laws during the 2013 legislative session. In 2008, she served as a field organizer for Delaware Gov. Jack Markell’s campaign and, in 2010, as field director for Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden’s re-election effort.

PGN: I understand you grew up in Wilmington.

SM: I did. I went to Cab Callaway School of the Arts for middle and high school and then moved to D.C. for college at the American University. Currently, I work at the Center for American Progress, which is a large progressive thinktank. I work on LGBT issues there, but I come back to Delaware at least two weekends a month.

PGN: Wait a minute, Cab Calloway as in “hidee hidee hidee ho”?

SM: [Laughs] Right! The school was a creative and performing arts school and my mother was one of the founders. I took drama and then moved into film. It started as a magnet school and, depending on the metrics you use, it’s considered the second-best public high school in the state. It’s a fabulous, fabulous school. Beyond being a place for people to express their creative side, it’s a place where you can be your authentic self. It’s a very supportive and inclusive environment that I was very lucky to be in.

PGN: What was a favorite role you played in the theater?

SM: Oh God, in middle school I was in a number of plays but I soon realized that I preferred being behind the camera. Cab was a place where you weren’t just engaged in the arts, you were encouraged to be involved in the community in a way that a lot of schools steer away from. It was partly through them that I discovered my love for politics.

PGN: Were you outgoing even as a kid?

SM: I’d say yes, I always had a smile on, still do. I love meeting people, I love going out with candidates and knocking on doors and talking to people, going with officials to parades and greeting all kinds of people. I did student government in middle and high school, I did mock trial, you name it. No sports, though; I did all the bookish leadership roles.

PGN: How many in the fam?

SM: I have two older brothers, one who is 10 years older than me — he’s a radiation oncologist in New York, where he lives with his husband, Blake — and one who is eight years older who is the deputy attorney general in Delaware. I really look up to both of them.

PGN: I have one older brother and it was crazy at times. What was the worst thing your brothers did to you?

SM: There was a lot of rough-housing and I was usually on the receiving end from at least one of them. My mom was afraid they’d give me an inferiority complex. She now jokes that clearly that didn’t happen.

PGN: When did you first start to realize that you were different from the boys around you?

SM: I knew who I was, or am, for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t that I knew I was different, I literally knew I was a girl. But it was abundantly clear from society that who I knew I was, would not be accepted. I learned to keep it inside and try to ignore it. As I got older, I began to develop my love of politics. At 13, I started volunteering for various Democratic candidates, including campaigns for Attorney General Beau Biden and Gov. Jack Markell. The more successful I became, the more I thought I had to hide my authentic self, but I rationalized it to myself by saying, If I can make it worthwhile for me to be a boy for other people, by doing good things and creating positive change in my community, than being “Tim” would be worthwhile. If I was in a position to help other people who were struggling, then it was worth staying in the closet to keep that position. But once I got to American University and became student-body president, it became abundantly clear to me that I could no longer create the change that I wanted to create bringing only half myself to the table. I realized that staying in the closet was no longer an option. It was becoming insufferable.

PGN: How did you even figure out what a transperson was at such a young age? It’s unfortunately not something they teach in school.

SM: When I was about 8, my mom and I were watching a sitcom that had a transgender guest character. The storyline was a gag: One of the main characters had a friend who’d transitioned and come back incredibly attractive, unbeknownst to the main character who fell for her, and it was the running joke throughout the episode. On one hand, the show taught me that there were other people like me and gave me hope, but on the other hand, it taught me that it was something to laugh at. If there’s one thing you know at 8 or 9, it’s that being the joke is not something you want to be. It was a mixed feeling of hope and fear. I remember looking at my mom and thinking, Oh God, someday I’m going to have to tell everyone this and you’re going to be very upset, it’s going to be really disappointing for everyone.

PGN: How did you come out?

SM: After telling a few close friends to test the waters, I finally told my parents.

They were very supportive from the start but absolutely scared for me, for my safety, for my job prospects. And sad, because it felt like they were losing their youngest boy. But what they soon understood is that there might be a component of me that you didn’t know was there and that I might look different but I was still the same person with the same interests, the same sense of humor and the same smile. It took some getting used to and was not without bumps along the way, but now they’re amazing trans advocates and were there with me to work for the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act in 2013. They testified with me in front of the state Senate to help get it passed.

PGN: I read that Christmas is big in the McBride household.

SM: [Laughs] Oh yes, it’s huge! We all get into it. Me, my mother and grandmother just love Christmas. I was already reprimanded this year for drinking out of a non-Christmas mug.

PGN: What prompted you to come out on Christmas Day in 2011?

SM: I’d been struggling with everything, as I mentioned. I’d come to the conclusion that I needed to come out but I told myself that I wouldn’t do it on or before Christmas, I didn’t want to ruin it for my family. But my mom sensed that I wasn’t my usual self and asked me what was wrong. I just sort of blurted it out and, needless to say, we spent about 75 percent of that holiday talking about what it meant to be transgender, what I was feeling, their fears for me. We talked for hours and hours. It was an interesting time. I promised them that the next Christmas I wouldn’t have any surprises.

PGN: Did you come out as gay first, like many folks, or was your being LGBT a complete surprise?

SM: No, I identified as a straight cis male for my entire life until a few months before transitioning. I started dating a guy right before coming out and told a few friends about it. What it did for me was show me that I could deviate from what was expected of me and still be accepted. That I wouldn’t be considered a joke, which was my biggest fear. We only dated for a few months so I never mentioned it to my parents at the time. So yes, it was a shock. They didn’t know I had anything to do with the LGBT community. When I was student-body president at AU, I was working on getting gender-neutral housing with a campaign entitled “Live True to You.” When someone asked me why, there were three answers but I only gave two: that it was the right thing to do for students and that I have always been passionate about LGBT issues because my oldest brother is gay. The third was that I was transgender but I didn’t say that. It was the first time I gave an answer that was so glaringly incomplete. It was a watershed moment for me.

PGN: How old were you when your brother came out and did that help pave the way?

SM: I was about 12 and he was in college when he came out. My parents were incredibly supportive of him and his relationship. He was dating the guy that he’s now married to. I always knew my parents were very accepting people, but this showed me in a very tangible way that it was true.

PGN: So moving to politics, what was it like working for Beau Biden?

SM: I loved working for Beau. I was an intern on his campaign in 2006 and field director in 2010 and in between I was a field organizer on Gov. Markel’s campaign. Beau is a compassionate and smart person and in politics for the right reasons.

PGN: Did the staff collectively shake its head when Joe Biden made one of his famous gaffs?

SM: [Laughs] You know, everyone loves him! We don’t have too many national politicians in Delaware, so when he was nominated for vice president, we went crazy. It was like an earthquake. He’s definitely a lot more spontaneous than Beau but they are both thoughtful, caring people.

PGN: Will we see Beau Biden 2020?

SM: He’s announced that he’s running for governor in 2016 so who knows? He’ll be a great governor.

PGN: I understand you have quite a relationship with the current governor, Jack Markel.

SM: He’s been a mentor to me and was extremely supportive when I came out. We spoke on the phone and he said, “Well, that’s big news.” Then followed by saying, “You are the exact same person Carla and I know and love.” I’m really lucky. In so many ways, my experience has been so positive, but the sad part of it is, that’s the exception. Most people don’t have their family supporting them, let alone the governor.

PGN: Something great about Delaware?

SM: We’re really a community of neighbors. A place where everywhere you go, you find a connection with the stranger you’re meeting. We seem to be able to always find commonalities; it’s a comforting and wonderful feeling. I mean, after transitioning, the governor called me every week to see how I was doing. That’s the kind of thing that happens in Delaware.

PGN: Speaking of things that happen in Delaware, let’s talk about the passage of the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act.

SM: Prior to it being passed, it was entirely legal in Delaware, like in many states, to fire or not hire a person simply because they were transgender. It was perfectly legal to deny them insurance, deny them housing and throw them out of a restaurant or a store, simply because they were living true to themselves. Now that the act has passed, Delaware is one of the most LGBT-inclusive states in the nation. I worked on it and testified, my parents testified, we put a lot of work into it. I’m now working with Center for American Progress to try to make the case on a national level.

PGN: What was a high point of interning at the White House?

SM: I worked in the Office of Public Engagement, which is sort of the front door of the White House. It’s the office that does outreach to different constituents and I was the liaison for the LGBT community. I absolutely loved it. I had many amazing experiences, from meeting the president and First Lady to out Olympic athletes and other people who have made an impact on the LGBT community who were invited to the White House. But honestly, just being able to walk into the White House each day as my authentic self was an inspiring and empowering experience. To be hired and welcomed as my authentic self was something that was unforeseeable just five or six years before.

PGN: [Laughs] Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people are just walking into the White House these days!

SM: I know! I was afraid they would stop doing the tours, but thankfully they haven’t because it’s a wonderful experience.

PGN: So you met FLOTUS?

SM: I did, she’s very warm. She speaks to the interns every semester and I got a big hug from her.

PGN: I love the friendship between her and Jill Biden.

SM: Yes, Jill is so down to earth. In addition to her day job as Second Lady, she’s still teaching. They’re both incredible women.

PGN: Speaking of incredible people, tell me about your husband. I know he recently passed but was an activist as well.

SM: Yes, Andrew Cray, he died of cancer last August. We got married about a few days before he passed. Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, officiated. We were very lucky to have had the time and experiences that we had together.

PGN: What was he like?

SM: He was one of the most kind, intelligent and comforting people I’ve ever met. We worked together at CAP. He was an LGBT advocate and a trailblazer on transgender health care. He helped to co-found Out2Enroll, a project encouraging LGBT people to enroll for health insurance. Prior to Obamacare, one in three LGBT adults who made less than $47,000 a year were uninsured. A month before his death, he participated in an event at the White House celebrating the successful enrollment of more than 8 million people into health insurance following implementation of the Affordable Care Act. It’s a tragedy for those who knew him but also for those who benefited from the work he did. I learned much from him and he had a great sense of humor.

PGN: OK, random questions. Any tattoos?

SM: No, but I’m thinking of getting a tattoo of Delaware. My friends and I call ourselves “Statriots.”

PGN: Funniest thing you did as a kid that your parents still talk about to this day?

SM: I had a podium in my bedroom and I’d memorize speeches, carry the podium into the living room and I’d deliver them for my parents.

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