Sarah McBride won’t officially be sworn in as senator of Delaware’s 1st district until January 2021, but she hit the ground full sprint right after her win in November.
“Senators assume the office here in Delaware at midnight on election night, so you get dropped into the deep end pretty quickly and have very little time to catch your breath,” McBride says. “In some ways, you don’t have the time and space to reflect and fully process.”
There’s a lot to reflect on and process: After winning her seat, McBride became both the first openly transgender state senator and the highest-ranking openly transgender official in U.S. history.
“I think more than anything else I’m energized,” she says. “I’m inspired. I’m ready to get to work.”
Although 4.5% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ, only 0.17% are elected officials, according to the Victory Institute. However, 2020 ushered in a “rainbow wave” that saw 334 out LGBTQ candidates winning offices—more than any other election year in U.S. history—which many attribute as a direct response to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. Such a surge of representation hopefully signals a more permanent shift toward the normalization of LGBTQ elected officials. But while there are still so few, those holding office, particularly at McBride’s level, essentially have two jobs: the one they were elected for, and being a conduit of representation for those coming behind them.
“It’s interesting, when you’re running, you’re so focused on the grind of the campaign, you don’t think about the symbolic component,” McBride says. “But when it does hit you, the election in and of itself can send a life-affirming and potentially lifesaving message to a young kid here in Delaware, or elsewhere, that our democracy is big enough for them, too—that they can dream big dreams and live their truth all at the same time.”
McBride’s political ambitions started at a young age when she developed an avid interest in reading history.
“I saw within those history books the arc of the moral universe,” McBride says. “And I saw that as alone as I may have felt then, as little spaces as there were for someone like me in society to live and thrive at that point, I found hope in reading the history books because I saw that there was the possibility for change. And that every generation had opened the doors of opportunity to people who had once been excluded and marginalized.”
In 2012, during her last week as student body president at American University, McBride came out as a transwoman in a campus paper op-ed. She wondered if her political aspirations and gender identity were mutually exclusive. But she didn’t have to wonder for long: That same year, she became the first openly transperson to work at the White House, while interning in President Barack Obama’s administration. In 2013, she joined the board of directors of Equality Delaware, leading lobbying efforts in advocating for the rights of transpeople in the state, which led to the passing of the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act. Three years later, she became the first transgender person to speak at a major party’s national convention when she addressed the Democratic National Convention. She served as the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. Even President-elect Joe Biden wrote the forward for McBride’s 2018 memoir Tomorrow Will Be Different, detailing her career and personal life, which includes losing her husband and fellow LGBTQ rights activist Andrew Cray to cancer in 2014.
McBride’s path to the Senate couldn’t have been more textbook, proving she could live in her own truth without stunting her career. At the same time, she was adamant during her Senate campaign to be seen beyond her gender identity and as an advocate for more than just LGBTQ rights.
“It’s so important to recognize what Audre Lorde said, which is that ‘There is no thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives,'” McBride says. “When I would talk about my work fighting for LGBTQ equality, I tried to make clear to people that the fight for equality isn’t about some abstract moral principle, it’s about making sure that everyone has a job that pays a livable wage, healthcare that meets their needs, quality public schools in their state, and safe communities. Those are universal needs and universal principles.”
“What I certainly hope to reinforce in my work as a legislator is how interconnected all of these issues are,” McBride continues, “and how this is a continuation of the work that I’ve been doing my entire life, which is to fight for dignity and opportunity, to fight for the underdog.”
In an ideal world, McBride would cease to exist in the public consciousness as a trans politician and become just a politician. But given how she’s still the exception and not the rule, her voice on the national political stage carries a certain weight of responsibility to more than just Delawareans. Certainly, McBride doesn’t claim to speak for the entire LGBTQ community, but her voice and her position are undeniable game changers for representation at the government level.
“There are far too many people who have never had the chance to see themselves reflected in government and certainly never at the level that they deserve and need,” McBride says. “I’m also cognizant of the fact that the only way I can honor the LGBTQ community is to do the best job I can as the state Senator, to focus on the district and my constituents, and to serve them to the best of my ability. That’s the only way I can ensure that while I may be the first, I won’t be the last.”