Senator Sarah McBride on the Advice and Compassion She'd Give Her Younger Self

SAUL LOEB | Getty Images
SAUL LOEB | Getty Images

Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride has, in her own account, already lived "a lot of life" in 30 years. If you know only a small part of McBride's trail-blazing story, you know that's an understatement. Her victory in the 2020 election cemented her status as the highest-ranking openly transgender elected official in United States history. Prior to that, McBride had already broken barriers in 2016 as the first openly transgender person to speak at a major political party's national convention. Oh, and she penned a memoir Tomorrow Will Be Different, which comes highly recommended by none other than Vice President Kamala Harris.

But there's more to McBride's incredible journey — one filled with love, loss, and intense loyalty to her community — than the highlight reel of historic wins. Senator McBride (or Sarah, as she insists I call her) is a defiantly optimistic person not in spite of her intense journey, but because of it. "I'm representing the district that I was born and raised in," McBride told POPSUGAR with a sense of genuine wonder, speaking from her childhood home in Delaware. "I still walk around these communities and neighborhoods and quite literally tear up at the fact that I have the privilege of representing a community I love as my authentic self."

As yet another Pride Month kicks off, we spoke with Sen. McBride about the lessons she's learned as a part of the LGBTQ+ community and the wisdom she'd share with her younger self, if she could go back in time.

POPSUGAR: We watched your CBS interview, and you spoke about feeling from a young age as though you just didn't quite feel like yourself. Could you expand on that?
Sen. Sarah McBride: One of the challenges cis folks have when talking about gender identity is it's hard to understand what it feels like to have a gender identity that differs from your sex assigned at birth, or to be trans and in the closet. From as early an age as I can remember, I remember feeling this unshakeable homesickness. I didn't quite understand that there were other people like me, I didn't understand that there was anything I could do about this feeling, I didn't understand why I knew I was a girl at a young age, but I knew it. I knew that the only instances where that homesickness began to diminish were moments when I was in some small way presenting and being perceived as myself.

"When you're asking people to sit back and allow for a slow conversation to take place before they're treated with dignity or ensure opportunity, you're asking people to watch their one life pass by without the fairness that everyone deserves."

I remember when I was about five, I was playing with my friends Courtney and Stephanie. We would always play dress up in their back play room on the second floor far away from parents, and they had Disney princess dresses. I remember dressing up as Cinderella in those Disney princess dresses at a young age and in those moments that homesickness would begin to disappear. Of course, that proverbial stroke of midnight would hit, and I'd have to go back to being a role that everyone perceived me as.

It wasn't until I was about 11 that I really found out there were other people like me, and that there was something I could do about this piece of information that I thought about probably almost every single waking hour of every single day. I was watching the sitcom Just Shoot Me! with my mother and during the course of an episode, a guest character was revealed to be transgender. None of the characters knew she was trans, but the audience did, and she was beautiful. The reoccurring gag of the episode was that every time someone would express any kind of interest in her, the laugh track would cue.

I was sitting with my mom, and I turned to her — almost afraid that even asking about it would out me — and asked what was happening, and if there were people like that, and she said yes. My heart dropped, because what could have been a life affirming moment was shame-inducing and scary, because I thought, I'm going to have to tell you that someday and you're going to be so disappointed. At 10, 11 years old, you don't know a lot, but you know you don't want to be a joke.

I think many trans adults who don't transition until later, they'll always wonder, What if? And I do wonder how different my journey could have been had those first experiences finding out about people like me had been affirming and celebratory and nuanced and compassionate. Would I then have had the ability and the courage to just share myself at an earlier age?

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 01: Sarah McBride, National Press secretary of Human Rights Collation speaks on introduction of the Equality Act, a comprehensive LGBTQ non-discrimination bill at the US Capitol on April 01, 2019 in Washington, DC. Ahead of Internat
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Getty Images/Tasos Katopodis

PS: When was the next time you spoke to your mom about transgender identity after that first conversation?
SM: Probably not until I came out about 11 years later. I certainly didn't confide in anyone. Not a friend, not a therapist, no one until I was really pretty much on the verge of coming out to everyone. Because I knew the moment that I confided in one person, the moment that I would acknowledge that this is real, this is who I am, that inevitably I'd come out. Sadly, I just wasn't ready for that.

PS: We understand that you came out in your school paper at American University. Why did you choose that path to sharing your truth?
SM: Yeah, on the last day of my term as student body president there. So, I came out to my parents over winter break in 2011. I knew my parents would be devastated. I knew it was going to be earth-shattering for them, but I also never worried that I was going to get thrown out of the house. I was confident that if I was confident, they would walk with me on a journey to full support and acceptance. I'd seen them embrace my older brother who's gay, when he came out almost a decade before I came out, I saw them do that without skipping a beat. Obviously, one of the big differences was that they had examples of gay people who were happy, healthy, successful, embraced, welcomed in their community. They didn't really have those examples for trans folks, which was where I knew their devastation was coming from. It was around fear for me and fear for what this would mean for my life. So it was hard. They cried a lot. They certainly begged me not to come out anyone else, but I knew if I extended a grace to them they would demonstrate growth, which is what's happened. And then over the next several weeks, I came out to more friends and family.

I went to American University, which is quite literally the most politically active campus in the country — it's ranked in those lists as number one or number two, depending on the year — and so people are more tuned into student government there than at your typical college. I knew it was going to be a big deal for folks that the student body president or the most recent student body president was coming out as trans and transitioning. There were two things on my mind when I decided to do a public coming out. One was, this is going to be gossip and they always say in crisis management to get your news out in your own terms in your own words. To not have my story painted as scandalous, I just know that it's hard for people to mock and ridicule when you tap into their empathy. If I shared my story in that way then I thought perhaps people would greet my news with a warm smile rather than a mocking smirk, and that's certainly what happened.

"I could find love and be loved, and I found that in the most magnificent and yet tragic way possible with Andy."

The second thing was that I had a unique platform, however small. I had a unique opportunity to educate the campus a little bit, and to hopefully ensure that in reading my note and in finding empathy and compassion for me, that hopefully I could do it in a way that would also lay the foundation for other trans students on campus who followed me or who were there at that time to live on and find a campus that was a little bit more accepting.

The response was incredible. I was so nervous for a whole host of reasons, but every message that came in was a message of love and support and celebration. In coming out to close friends and family in the preceding weeks, and then eventually in coming out publicly, those were the first instances where I realized that my world wouldn't come crashing down around me if I came out. And I think I closed the note with saying, "I now understand that our dreams and our identities are only mutually exclusive if we don't try."

PS: With hindsight, is there anything that you wish you could tell your younger self about what life would be like after publishing that letter?
SM: First and foremost, I wish I could tell my younger self that it's going to be OK. That you can come out and your family will still love you, your friends will still be your friends, you can live your truth and dream big dreams all at the same time. Whether those dreams are finding love and being loved, living in communities you love and doing work that you love, that's possible. Truly, the only things that are impossible are the things that we don't try.

I've always been a "glass half full," idealistic person. But I have never been more confident in our individual and collective capacity to bring about change as I am now, as I am securely 10 years into the movement. I wish I could transfer the hope and optimism that I feel in our ability to bring about change to my 16, 17, 18-year-old self. Because in addition to wishing I knew that it was going to be okay, the hope that comes with knowing that change is possible even when things aren't okay, creates a light at the end of the tunnel. It creates the energy to keep moving forward. I wish I had that fuel at the level that I have it now when I was younger.

PS: You mentioned loving relationships, and we do want to talk about your husband, Andy. How did you meet him, and what was forming that connection like for you? Editor's note: Sen. McBride married Andrew Cray in 2014. He died four days after their wedding following a terminal cancer diagnosis.
SM:I first met Andy at a White House Pride reception in 2012, right after I'd come out. It was the first time that I had ever been in a space with so many LGBTQ people, and it was at the White House, under the Obama administration. I vaguely remember bumping into this person, and sort of saying 'I'm sorry,' and continuing to move forward.

I had largely forgotten it until maybe two or three months later. I got a Facebook message from Andy saying that we had met or bumped into each other at the White House Pride reception, and basically asking me out. He told me that he thought we'd get along swimmingly. And I'm like, Who says the word swimmingly?

So we went on a date, and it just slowly moved forward. I was interning at the White House, so I was working outrageous hours, from 6 AM until like 9 PM every single day. I was pretty tired and consumed with that and so for the first few months, our relationship was sort of a date here, a date there. Then once I finished the White House internship, we went from casually dating to me living with him pretty darn quickly.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 25: (L-R) Sally McBride, David McBride and Sarah McBride attends the
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Sen. McBride with her parents, Sally and David McBride.Getty Images / Dia Dipasupil
PS: What was it like falling in love with somebody after you'd come out?
SM: We started dating three or four months after I came out. It was a lot of life in that 2012 to 2014 period. There's been a lot of life in my years period, but it was surreal more than anything else. I mean, it just felt right. So there was also an element of just normalcy to it that made it develop in such a deep way.

He developed cancer so quickly, going from zero to a hundred quickly in terms of moving in with one another. That took us to a whole other level and we developed a bond that people who are married for 15 years maybe never develop. Our first date was August and he died in August so our relationship was two years, and about half of it was defined by cancer. But in that two years was honestly a lifetime of love. The devotion he showed to me even during his battle with cancer and then the love I tried to show him was truly a lifetime of love, packed into two years.

I still in many ways feel like my cup runneth over with love to this day, even though it's now seven years later. I certainly still think about him every single day. He and his passions and his life and our experiences together still inform so much of what I do and how I do it now.

My relationship with him underscored for me how urgent change is and how when you're asking people to sit back and allow for a slow conversation to take place before they're treated with dignity or in short opportunity, we're asking people to watch their one life pass by without the fairness that that everyone deserves.

It was also one of those instances where I was able to see that my dreams and my identity weren't mutually exclusive. I could find love and be loved, and I found that in the most magnificent and yet tragic way possible with Andy.

PS: Turning back to politics for a second, how does it feel to constantly be spoken about as a "history-maker?"
SM: On a day-to-day basis, you're just thinking about doing the best job that you can, right? You don't really think about the history of it all because you can't. Still, I feel a responsibility to ensure that while I may be the first, I'm not the last. I feel a responsibility to, as I say, not leave a Sarah-sized hole in the wall; to try to use that opportunity to bring down the wall as best I can.

"It will be in the voices and stories and power of trans youth that we will defeat these forces of hate once again."

There are obviously certain burdens that come with being the first person of a particular background in a space but I think ultimately, I can't feel sorry for myself for whatever extra burdens or extra challenges or extra responsibilities that come my way because the fact that I've had these experiences reflects how lucky I am. The fact that I've been given the opportunity means reinforces that other people haven't yet, and therefore I am lucky. I'd rather have these opportunities with the extra responsibilities than not have these opportunities at all.

PS: If you could go back and time and tell young Sarah how much history you'd make, what do you think she would think?
SM: I just don't think I would have believed it. I wouldn't have believed that these things were possible because the idea that this could happen would have been not just impossible, but incomprehensible.

I wish I could have shown myself [my future success], because it would have proven to me all that I feared, while understandable, was unfounded. It would have left me hopeful that regardless of how incomprehensible this change could have felt, regardless of how unclear the path forward would be, that hope and knowledge that change is possible gives you have fuel to continue. I think if I had been told what my future would become and I had believed it, I can't imagine how different my life would have been.

It could have been an entirely different journey with authenticity and happiness that much earlier. Yet at the same time, I'm also mindful that this is the journey that I was on, and it's a journey that's shown me goodness, it's shown me change, it's shown me love. Who knows how it would have been different had I come out at a different time at a different age. On the flip side, I also can't help but be grateful for this specific journey and path I've been on because of what I've had the opportunity to do and the people I've gotten to meet, and who knows how a different path would have impacted that.

When I was sworn in [as state Senator of Delaware], I asked two trans teens to hold the bible. I wanted those images of a trans person holding the bible, getting sworn into office. I wanted other trans people to see themselves there. By having those two trans teens as part of that ceremony, it was my hope that it would in some small way make that possibility that much more real for someone seeing it.

It was also for me to be able to stand with them and to be as I took the oath of office to be reminded of how far we've come but how much more work we need to do as at a time where trans teens and trans young people are under really unprecedented attack. I've been very cognizant of what this could have meant for me as a young person and I really do try to take whatever opportunity I can to make sure that more trans young people are able to see themselves, and our government know that our democracy can be big enough for them too.

"I am powerful just by being, and I carry that power with me from the safest of spaces to scariest of places."

PS: Speaking of the public side of your job, is there anything that you've learned being in such a public-facing role that you'd want to prepare your younger self to handle?
SM: I remember at one point in my advocacy work, the hate that was coming in [online], and the negativity and the toxicity and the bullying online that was coming in was really overwhelming. I wondered whether I could not only work, but do anything that put me out there publicly, because I worried that I didn't have thick enough skin. I worried that I would internalize all of that hate and all of that toxicity to the same level that I was doing then; that I wasn't ever going to get used to it and it was always going to hurt. I thought about stopping, about trying to find something else in my life to do. I spent a lot of time reading and listening to podcasts and reflecting.

Everyone deals with something society has told them they should be ashamed of, whether it's your sexual orientation or your gender identity or any other almost infinite number of things about a person that society can say 'You should hide that,' or 'That's worthy of being mocked.' And the thing about out-LGBTQ people is that we have taken that fact, we have taken that insecurity and that fear, and we've conquered it.

The bullies see that. They see that power, they see that individual agency in conquering our own fears and insecurities and they're jealous of it. And so one of the things that I had to learn is that I am powerful. I am powerful just by being, and I carry that power with me from the safest of spaces to scariest of places. And that's true for every single out LGBTQ person, that power in claiming our story, in claiming our truth. In many cases, probably, walking down the street in that truth, that is power, and so much of the hate comes from the jealousy of that power.

PS: You mentioned trans children and teens earlier, and they're being targeted by waves of awful new legislation — whether school bathrooms or sports teams or just a whole slew of hateful horrible things. If you could speak to all those young trans people, what would you want them to know about what their future can hold?

SM: I would say that as scary as it is right now, and as dangerous as these bills are, what we've seen time and time again throughout the history of the LGBTQ+ movement, is that every single time anti-equality forces come for us — whether it was the police at Stonewall, whether with the apathy of government during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, whether it was George W. Bush and anti-marriage equality forces in 2004, whether it was Pat McCrory, the bathroom police in North Carolina in 2016 or whether it is today — these anti-LGBTQ politicians trying to bully trans kids, what we have seen is that time and time again, when these attacks come our way, we ended up organizing and mobilizing in new ways, we end up having conversations with our communities and our country that open hearts and change minds and in the end we sow the seeds of the destruction of the politics of hate that they seek to implement. And so every single time we face these attacks we end up growing stronger, we end up winning. And if we've done that before that I know, we will do it again.

It is always in our biggest challenges as a community, as a country, that we take our most significant steps forward. And I'm confident that that will be the case now. It will be in the voices and stories and power of trans youth that we will defeat these forces of hate once again.

PS: We can end with: What are you doing this year for Pride? What's on your agenda, if anything?
SM: Well, passing a Pride Month resolution in the Delaware State Senate. I'm hoping that this month we can announce some meaningful exciting next steps in the fight for LGBTQ equality here in Delaware. So I'm excited. If anyone wondered whether the forces at work are pro-LGBTQ, it's almost perfect that the world's starting to open up as Pride comes about. So I'm hoping that there are going to be some opportunities for the community to come together in-person to celebrate safely and responsibly for the first time in two years. And I'm going to keep my eye out for those opportunities. I don't know exactly when it's coming up and who's organizing them here in Delaware, but I'll be there.