Senator Sarah McBride Won't Let Hatred Stop Her from Fighting Injustice

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Audra Heinrichs
·11 min read
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Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

January 12, 2021, was a historic day not just for activist and politician Sarah McBride but also for the United States. McBride was sworn in as a Delaware senator, making her the country's first openly transgender senator and the highest-ranking elected transgender official.

While the momentous occasion stood in stark contrast to the very different kind of history that was made less than one week earlier, when then president Donald Trump incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the Wilmington native—who is often credited with the passage of legislation in Delaware banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, housing, and insurance—has spent the better part of her adult life maintaining focus amid stark portraits of pain, panic, or just plain pandemonium.

While in college at American University, as she reckoned with her gender identity, McBride began pursuing politics with positions on former governor Jack Markell's 2008 campaign and on then Delaware attorney general Beau Biden's 2010 campaign. In 2012, just before graduation, she wrote an op-ed for the university newspaper introducing herself as a woman for the first time. It gained international thrall, and led to an internship in the Obama White House and, later, leadership roles at Equality Delaware and the Human Rights Campaign. In 2016, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention, becoming the first openly transgender person ever to address a major party convention and shedding light on the important work that still remains in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality.

Now, as she begins her new role as a senator, McBride feels little fear about all the other firsts that lie ahead. Over the phone with BAZAAR.com, she discusses her legislative agenda, how a Biden–Harris administration will work for the LGBTQ+ community, and how she remains undeterred despite existing—and emboldened—bigotry and violence.

Now that you’ve been formally sworn in, what are the first actions you and your team will be taking in Delaware and beyond?

First and foremost, it's been a whirlwind. I am filled with so much gratitude for the opportunity to serve. But even more than that, I'm filled with an incredible amount of hope. We are in a unique moment where we can tackle the big challenges that face our community and our state, and where we can make meaningful progress for the folks we have the privilege of representing.

We have to ensure that Delaware continues to face the COVID-19 crisis in a science- and data-driven way, and moving forward, that we get the vaccine out as efficiently and effectively as possible to as many people as possible. But I believe, too, that the only way for us to fully recover from this crisis, for us to meet this moment and to learn the lessons of this crisis, is to ensure that our recovery is one that lifts all boats. As [President Joe] Biden says, “Build back better.” I think one of the central ways for us to do that is by passing legislation that supports and protects working families, from raising wages here in Delaware to ensuring universal paid family and medical leave for every worker. I think those are our next steps in the path toward a full and meaningful recovery.

Considering the insurrection at the Capitol and the surrounding discourse, a new public official such as yourself—particularly a transgender woman who represents the Democratic Party—has every reason to feel exceptional trepidation in continuing this work. Have you personally felt the backlash of that event?

Long before January 6, there were certainly elements of hate and prejudice that didn't like seeing transgender people succeed in any capacity. As an advocate, as a candidate, and now as an elected official, they didn't begin a week ago. But the attack on the U.S. Capitol only gave further license to those who might commit violence against anyone they have a difference of opinion with or anyone who they believe to be lesser, whether that's people of a different political party or people of different backgrounds.

There's no coincidence that January 6, as a culmination of years of escalating rhetoric on the part of the [former president Donald Trump] and his allies, also coincided with a rise in hate violence here in the United States. This Far Right-wing violence that we saw committed by insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol was white supremacist violence. It was violence seeking to uphold the power of a particular community of people at the expense of the rest of the country. This violence is part and parcel of a larger, disturbing trend of increasing hate-based violence, of increasing hate-influenced violence, and of increasing prejudice and bigotry in our society.

You’ve shared glimpses of what your inboxes on various social media platforms look like and the kind of trolling you’ve received since being elected. How do you keep your focus, grace, and sense of humor in spite of it all?

I'll be frank. From my perspective, if bigots are angry with me, I'm doing something right. I will not let hatred or even threats of violence prevent me from speaking out against injustice and pushing forward the kinds of policies that I believe benefit all of us as a society. I am clear eyed on the challenges. I am not naive to the barriers, and I'm certainly aware of the risks. But I can handle that. I'm lucky, and whatever risks I face pale in comparison to the challenges and the risks facing far too many people—trans or not—throughout our society. People are at risk of very real violence in their own communities every single day. People who have been on the receiving end of discrimination and violent attacks simply for walking out of their homes. So whatever risks I face and whatever stress that might cause me only motivates me to fight for dignity and safety and opportunity for every single person.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Biden wrote the foreword for your 2018 memoir, Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality, and has long been an advocate of yours. Are you confident that the Biden–Harris administration will further legislation that benefits the trans community? And if so, how?

I'm not only confident that the Biden–Harris administration will advance pro-equality policies, I'm certain they will. That means restoring protections that the Obama–Biden administration implemented that were undermined during the Trump–Pence administration. Of course, it also means pushing for the passage of the Equality Act through Congress in order to explicitly and undeniably protect LGBTQ people from discrimination throughout daily life. Joe Biden has made clear that that's a legislative priority for him and that he's eager to sign that legislation should it get to his desk.

There is a handful of transgender politicians who sit in state legislatures, but what can be done to ensure more trans politicians and advocates are elected to higher positions or, at the very least, able to work in tandem with lawmakers?

We first need to recognize the simple fact that trans candidates can not only run, but can run and win everywhere in competitive races. We saw that with Danica Roem in Virginia and with Brianna Titone in Colorado in 2018. Trans candidates are competitive candidates. Voters are hungry for political courage and for authenticity, and trans candidates bring both to the table, as well as the full range of experiences that any individual trans candidate brings beyond their identity.

The second thing we need to recognize is that beyond the elected office, we need to see trans people appointed to positions of responsibility at every level of government. In Pennsylvania, for instance, there is an incredible secretary of health, Dr. Rachel Levine [President Biden's pick for assistant health secretary] who's worked with Governor [Tom] Wolf to oversee the state's COVID-19 response. She is an out transgender woman in a position of leadership in a gubernatorial administration.

Finally, we need to pass the kinds of policies that ensure that LGBTQ people are not only clearly protected under law from discrimination, but are offered the same kinds of opportunities as every other person in our society. It's much more difficult to run for office and serve if you're also struggling with housing insecurity or unemployment, are without health care, and if you are fearful about walking down the street as your authentic self. Both legal and social changes are necessary for us to see more LGBTQ people in a position where they can run and to ensure that no matter the district, no matter the community, a transgender candidate can be judged on their ideas and their experiences, not just our identities.

As a student, you penned an op-ed for the American University paper in which you wrote, “At an early age, I also developed my love of politics. I wrestled with the idea that my dream and my identity seemed mutually exclusive; I had to pick.” Have you experienced that that’s not the case?

My interest in politics, government, and advocacy was never about a position or title. It was always about the fact that I felt like those were the spaces where I can help make the most change for the most number of people in the most number of ways possible. Even at a young age, when you're in the closet and struggling with whether to come out, you grapple with some of the most existential questions that you can face: What is an authentic life? What is a meaningful life? To me, a meaningful life is a life in service to others. it's a life dedicated to bringing about change. For the first 21 years of my life, it seemed that my dream of helping to make change and my identities were mutually exclusive.

Since coming out, I've seen that at the end of the day, the only total limitation on our dreams is the capacity of our own imagination. I think back to seven years ago, when I stood on the floor of the Delaware State Senate [to testify on behalf of passing the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act] with tears in my eyes and my parents by my side fighting for my rights and the rights of thousands of other Delawareans, I looked out at a chamber where no one was like me. Now, to have the opportunity to serve in that same chamber, to stand on that same floor as my authentic self, fighting for dignity and opportunity for every single person is a small reflection of how far we've come and the knowledge that change is possible.

You’ve been exceptionally candid about your relationship with Andy, your late husband and an LGBTQ+ health care advocate, who passed away of cancer in 2014. How will you continue carrying him into your work?

In my campaign, I said that I wanted to be the health care senator and the paid-leave senator. Those were passions I had long before my relationship with Andy, but they were passions, informed and deepened by both Andy's life and his legacy. He spent his life fighting for more people to get the care they need. Of course, the circumstances of his life and passing deepened that commitment and illuminated for me even more how cruel our current system is for those without insurance and for those who are forced to give up their income in the face of illness. In this new role, I'm thinking every single day, as I always have since his passing, What would Andy do? His life and his legacy continue to motivate and inform my work, my service, and the change I hope to help bring about.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Trans folks are forced to navigate so many difficulties in the medical system, from dealing with gender-reaffirming surgeries to general care. What must be done both socially and legislatively to ensure a more empathetic process?

The foundation upon which equitable care is provided is obviously training and education. We need more providers to go through training that prepares them to respectfully and effectively treat LGBTQ people, which should include recognizing that there isn't a special way to treat LGBTQ patients. Sometimes, the response LGBTQ people get for even routine traditional care is that the providers are unqualified to serve an LGBTQ person. Part of that training is also to reinforce that while there are certainly important ways to affirm an LGBTQ person, in many cases, the care that they need is identical to the care that any other person needs. We need providers who are trained and proficient in treating LGBTQ people respectfully but without presuming that their needs are so unique that that they're not qualified to provide care for them.

At the federal level, I'm eager for the Biden–Harris administration to reinstate the regulations issued during the Obama–Biden administration protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in health care. Re-implementing that regulation will protect our community and is a critical next step.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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