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LGBTQ rights activist Sarah McBride takes the stage during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.
Paul Sancya/AP

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Sarah McBride thought coming out would kill her political career. She’s just getting started.

After a string of high-profile political successes, the millennial trans activist is running for state office.

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“Always hot, never iced,” said Sarah McBride, despite the sweltering July weather in Washington, DC, as we sat down in a coffee shop just a couple hundred yards from the White House.

Her coffee preference belies her cool public image; McBride has developed a reputation for handling intense situations with exceeding grace.

She had driven down for just a few hours to give a talk before heading home to Wilmington, Delaware, where just the week before, she had announced her candidacy for state Senate.

Though just 28, McBride, who is trans, is quickly emerging as a political force of nature. Few can match the long list of accomplishments she has piled up at such a young age (she’ll be 29 this month), particularly on behalf of trans people. Before coming out in 2011, she worked on the campaign of former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, as well as the state attorney general campaign of Beau Biden, whose father, Joe Biden, would later become vice president. After graduating from college, she became the first openly transgender White House intern, working on LGBTQ issues in the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs before going on to a career as the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, where she continues to work part-time while she campaigns in her home state.

But McBride’s real introduction to the national political stage came in 2016, when she addressed Democrats as the first openly trans person to speak at a major-party convention.

“Despite our progress, so much work remains,” she said in the Democratic National Convention speech, foreshadowing the LGBTQ issues at stake in that year’s presidential election. “Will we be a nation where there’s only one way to love, one way to look, one way to live? Or will we be a nation where everyone has the freedom to live openly and equally; a nation that’s stronger together? That’s the question in this election.”

I’ve met McBride before. Through my work as a political journalist, I’ve seen her at various LGBTQ events, and I’ve interviewed her at least a dozen times. But this was our first one-on-one conversation in person. For someone with such a large national footprint, meeting with her felt like catching up with an old friend.

“My interest in politics, and my interest in government, was always about making change, whether that was in elected positions or in working for campaigns,” McBride explained, clutching her coffee. She was wearing a navy blue dress with green trim, and her smile exuded warmth and kindness. Her speech was carefully measured, a skill any rookie in politics typically develops quickly. “It wasn’t about the position or the title ... I just wanted to get stuff done.”

In 2013, McBride joined the board of directors for the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Delaware and successfully led the push for gender identity nondiscrimination protections in the state legislature. Then-Gov. Markell, who signed the bill into law, credits McBride’s work as the key factor in passing the legislation, which banned discrimination in areas such as housing and employment.

“It would not have happened without her,” Markell said in an interview. “She humanized the issue. This was not just some theoretical thing that families go through. She was extremely articulate about what [nondiscrimination protection] means, and why it’s important that Delaware be a state that welcomes and embraces all people.” Markell was quick to show support for McBride’s fledgling campaign, endorsing her immediately.

McBride speaking on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2019.
Eric Kayne for the Human Rights Campaign via AP

Since Danica Roem’s successful run for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, trans people have made small but significant gains in elected office. Last year, three openly trans candidates were elected to state legislatures in New Hampshire and Colorado, and several more won key local races.

Though McBride said she hasn’t always had ambitions of running for public office, there was a time when she thought transitioning would scuttle many of her dreams. In 2012, she nervously came out in an op-ed in the American University student newspaper, the Eagle, to a mostly raucous and positive response (she had been the school’s student body president). In many ways, hitting send on that post, and the outpouring of love and support she received in return, prepared McBride for national politics.

“I did think that coming out meant there wouldn’t be the space in the room for me to contribute to the kind of change I wanted to contribute to,” she said. “Since then, I’ve seen that was a mistaken assumption and a fear that, while understandable, was unfounded — that the heart of my home state is big enough to welcome and love someone like me, that there is a place for me to contribute and to have a seat at the table, that there is space for other LGBTQ people, including transgender people, to do that.”

One trans person in particular was watching, inspired by McBride’s rise through the national political scene. Charlotte Clymer, now McBride’s colleague at the HRC, was still in the closet and slowly coming to terms with her identity when she first met McBride in person at the United State of Women summit in 2015. “I had known about her since her op-ed,” Clymer told me. “I remember the day it came out: It made national news and I was really taken aback. I mean, I’m very much in the closet trying to understand myself, and here’s this senior at American University who, as the student body president, just came out and was very proud about it, and it made an enormous impact on me.”

Now, after spending the past few years working with McBride, Clymer considers her a close friend. The two have an ongoing inside joke, a Twitter feud over pineapple as a pizza topping. “I think one of us tweeted a pro-pineapple or anti-pineapple stance, I forget who started it,” Clymer said.

But she also shared insights about McBride’s more serious side. “Sarah, more than any other person I’ve met, has such a healthy ambition toward the world,” she said. “I don’t think I can say that for a lot of people in DC, including politicians who I would normally support and vote for and contribute to. She has this undeniable hunger to ease the suffering of others, and it’s so potent in what she does on a constant basis.”

McBride was born and raised in the same state Senate district in Wilmington, Delaware, in which she seeks office. Her father, Dave McBride, is a corporate attorney, while her mother, Sally McBride, has a master’s in education from the University of Delaware and has been an educational advocate for more than 20 years. Her family — including two brothers, Sean and Dan — has long embraced her transition and career, and her parents remain vocal cheerleaders for their daughter’s success. Her Delaware roots are just as key to her identity as her trans status.

“Anyone who knows me knows that my love of Delaware is absolute,” McBride said, glancing out the coffee shop window in the direction of the White House. “Particularly in this moment with so much gridlock in Washington, DC, the decisions that impact people the most, and the opportunity for change, it’s at the state level. It’s in the state legislatures.”

Like Roem, McBride said she is running not as “a transgender candidate” but as someone speaking to local issues that are important to the voters in her district. “What Danica demonstrated is that voters value authenticity, whether that’s the authenticity of who she is as a person or whether that’s the authenticity of what she’s fighting for,” she told me. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done on LGBTQ equality and, throughout that work, have recognized that the fight for LGBTQ equality is also about kitchen table issues.” She went on to talk about how these issues intersect with racial justice, class issues, and gender equity. “It’s about all the issues that impact all of us on a day-to-day basis.”

When Roem ran, the former journalist was up against an incumbent who liked to refer to himself as the state’s “chief homophobe,” and she faced vicious attacks on her identity. McBride hopes the upcoming election season in Wilmington won’t be so vitriolic, but she’s prepared if it comes to that. “I’ve spent the last six years fighting for equality and opportunity, and sometimes that means my identity has been brought into the conversation and utilized as an attack. It’s nothing new to me. I’ll be ready if it happens,” she said.

Earlier this year, after McBride met with several members of Congress to discuss the needs of transgender children, two British anti-trans campaigners who had been in town for a Heritage Foundation event stormed into her meeting room and started screaming at her. McBride handled the confrontation coolly, ignoring the protesters while her coworker attempted to diffuse the situation. It was the mark of someone who understood the stakes of being filmed by activists looking for a negative reaction.

“In all the instances of harassment or threats I’ve faced, I’ve thought about how those experiences pale in comparison to the challenges that so many others are facing every day, both in the trans community and beyond,” she said. “I also recognize that to the degree that I face negativity from some people, it likely reflects some form of pain in their own lives. Hurt people hurt people. I try to find compassion for everyone, even if they are shouting in my face.”

McBride is no stranger to pain. She married the love of her life, Andy Cray, in 2014, just days before he died from oral cancer. McBride was 24 years old. Memories of her late husband are still vivid for McBride, and she said one of the most meaningful things she did in preparing for her run was to call Andy’s mom and let her in on the news.

“I said to her that I hope I make Andy proud,” McBride recalled. The words reminded her of a conversation she had with Andy not long before he died. “Andy was crying and talking about his fears, but more than that, he was talking about not being able to be there for the people he loved, and not being able to be there to tell me that he loved me, that I’m beautiful, and that he was proud of me.”

“What I’m actually really grateful about in that conversation was because it was so tragic and seared into my memory … hearing Andy say, ‘I love you, and I’m proud of you,’ is seared into my memory.”

After taking a moment, I asked her whether she would commit to banning pineapple on pizza in her first term. Instantly, a warm smile spread over face, and she snorted as she laughed.

“Well, while I have significant disagreements with Ms. Charlotte Clymer on this, at the end of the day, I will respect the freedom to choose,” she replied. “I look forward to hearing the views of the residents of the First District on this important public policy question.”

Delaware, after all, is the throughline on McBride’s life and career. “One of the reasons why I’m running is because these communities are the communities that helped raise me and helped shape me into the person that I am,” she said. “They’re the communities that I have the fondest memories of, whether it was playing in the highlands, going to the Claymont cheesesteak shop, going to Bellevue [State] Park for summer camp. The communities throughout the district were the communities that I called home, and the communities that raised me.”

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