Sarah McBride makes history as first trans state senator

After coming out, Sarah McBride went on to testify before the Delaware General Assembly in 2013 in favor of an ultimately successful bill banning discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, and in 2016, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention, becoming the first openly transgender person to do so. Submitted photo

DOVER — As long as she can remember, Wilmington’s Sarah McBride knew who she was. The problem was no one else did.

Finally, in 2012, she had had enough. With two simple words, she revealed to the world something she had been holding in for nearly 22 years and had only shared with her family and closest friends in the last six months: “I’m transgender.”

In less than nine years, she’s gone from hiding her true self to becoming one of the most prominent transgender individuals in the country.

After coming out, Ms. McBride went on to testify before the Delaware General Assembly in 2013 in favor of an ultimately successful bill banning discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, and in 2016, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention, becoming the first openly transgender person to do so.

And on Election Day this year, she made history again, this time as the first openly transgender American elected to a state Senate.

The 30-year-old Ms. McBride will represent the 1st Senatorial District, which covers north Wilmington and stretches along the Delaware River to the Pennsylvania line. She’s lived most of her life in the district, and, after garnering 73% of the vote against Steven Washington on Nov. 3, she is the first new officeholder there since 1976 (yes, her predecessor, Harris McDowell, who did not seek reelection in 2020, was in the Senate for 44 consecutive years).

Now, she’s set on becoming widely known for more than her gender identity: Rather than being the transgender state senator, she wants to be a state senator who happens to be transgender.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t run to make headlines or history. I ran to make a difference in this community,” she said.

Ms. McBride has been involved in politics and Democratic campaigns for more than half her life, starting as a volunteer on Matt Denn’s 2004 campaign for insurance commissioner. Two years later, she interned on Beau Biden’s campaign for attorney general, and she followed that up by working for future Gov. Jack Markell and for Mr. Biden’s reelection bid.

Her July 2019 campaign announcement was heralded from many quarters, and it quickly became clear she was likely a senator-to-be. Ms. McBride raised more than $292,000 after launching her campaign, receiving support from a wide variety of politicians, community leaders and others.

While she may not crave the spotlight, it has been shining on her for some time. In college at American University, Ms. McBride made national headlines just after finishing her term as student body president, when she publicly came out in an op-ed in the student newspaper.

“With every birthday candle extinguished, with every penny thrown, my wish was always the same. I am now blessed with the opportunity to live my dream and fulfill a truth I have known since childhood,” she wrote. “My gratitude is great to my family, friends and this university for accepting me as the person who they now know me to be, and for letting me show them the possibilities of a life well lived.

“I now know that my dreams and my identity are only mutually exclusive if I don’t try.”

After coming out, she received nothing but love and approval, erasing long-held fears that had silenced her for so long.

“I’ve known who I am for as long as I can remember,” she recalled last week. “I kept it inside for the first 21 years of my life because I feared that in coming out, I’d lose my community. I feared I’d lose the ability to find love. I feared I’d lose the potential for professional opportunities.”

She went on to work for the Human Rights Campaign, a job she loved but resigned from the day after winning election, so as to better focus on her new duties. Throughout it all, she has remained close with prominent Democrats in the state, including President-elect Joe Biden.

Her interest in politics stems from a long-standing desire to better the lives of others. Her priorities for the 151st General Assembly, which begins Jan. 12, include affordable and accessible health care, a more equitable education system and criminal justice reform.

She figures to have plenty of allies in what’s set to be the most diverse and possibly the most progressive legislature in Delaware history.

Winds of change

Ms. McBride’s victory likely would not have been possible even a decade ago. While polling on transgender-specific issues is largely a new phenomenon, the general attitude toward LGBT rights has changed precipitously.

In 1988, according to Gallup, 35% of Americans thought gay and lesbian relationships “should be legal.” By 2002, it was up to 52%, and earlier this year, 72% of respondents expressed support for LGBT relationships.

In a July survey from Kaiser Family Foundation, 49% of individuals said society has not done enough to accept transgender people, compared to 15% who said it has gone too far.

Still, some Republican-controlled states continue to push laws aimed at transgender individuals, most commonly with “bathroom bills” that would force them to use restrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates. Last year, at the direction of President Donald Trump, the Pentagon instituted a policy that effectively bans transgender individuals from joining the military.

Ms. McBride has been involved in politics and Democratic campaigns for more than half her life, starting as a volunteer on Matt Denn’s 2004 campaign for insurance commissioner. Delaware State News file photo

Delaware has emerged as an LGBT-friendly state, approving gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against it, banning LGBT discrimination (with Ms. McBride’s help) and outlawing conversion therapy.

Since her electoral triumph, Ms. McBride has heard from many transgender Americans expressing gratitude to her for shattering yet another glass ceiling.

“My hope is that the result in this election helps to send a simple but comforting message to a young person that our democracy is big enough for them, too, that we are a bighearted and inclusive state and that we all benefit when all of our voices are included in the conversation,” she said.

While diversity may seem a trivial matter to some, members of various minority groups, be they race, gender, religion or others, generally say representation matters.

“There’s the old saying that it’s difficult to be what you can’t see,” Ms. McBride said.

She has received plenty of kudos and national attention since her victory, but her mind is on her community. Very few people even raised her gender identity during the campaign, and those who did had “good faith questions” or words of encouragement, she said.

Some political observers around the state have speculated that she could break yet another barrier by seeking higher office down the road, but Ms. McBride insists her thoughts are on the here and now. She’s eager to get to work fighting for the many neighbors who have embraced her and for the community she loves.

Still, that doesn’t mean she’s unaware of the magnitude of her accomplishment. After all, there’s a reason she titled her 2018 memoir “Tomorrow Will Be Different.”

“If I could speak to myself 15 years ago, I would tell a younger version of me that it’s going to be OK, that your family and friends will love you, that your community will embrace you and that you can still dream big dreams,” Ms. McBride said,
pausing to gather her thoughts as she reflected on the challenges she’s overcome so far.