Tuesday 2 July 2013

Interview with Sarah McBride

Monika: Today it is my pleasure to interview Sarah McBride, a young trans-activist from Delaware, USA. Sarah served as Student Body President at American University from 2011-2012 during which time she came out. Since then, Sarah has worked at the White House, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and serves on the board of Equality Delaware. I would like to discuss with her the role of transgender women in US politics. Hello Sarah!
Sarah: Hi Monika! It is great to talk to you!
Monika: Why such a young lady as yourself is interested in politics?
Sarah: I’ve been interested in politics since a young age. As an observer, I think politics, government, and history are fascinating. It describes and shows us who we are, at our core, as a people and tells us the story of where we’ve been and where we are going.
I’m an active participant in politics because I genuinely believe that there is no more effective way to change and improve your world than through civic engagement. As they say, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Monika: You have already achieved great success being instrumental in the passage of the Delaware transgender rights bill …
Sarah: Thank you, but I was just one part of a state-wide, grassroots effort to pass the bill. Our success was due to so many transgender Delawareans coming out and telling their stories, the allies who worked for years to pass this bill alongside transgender people, and the compassionate elected officials who chose to be on the right side of history.
The help of national partners like the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force also enhanced our efforts. That’s the combination that has helped similar bills pass in 16 other states and the District of Columbia.

Monika: While campaigning for the Delaware transgender rights bill, you got a lot of support from your mother.
Sarah: I got a lot of support and help from both my parents. They were incredible. They came down to Dover to meet with legislators and to testify for the bill in both chambers. It was really helpful to have parents talking to legislators, many of who are parents themselves, from that perspective.
I think it helped legislators relate to the issue. It helped show the reality of transgender people: that we are part of communities just like everyone else, with family, friends, hopes, dreams, and needs. It is harder for legislators to ignore you when you demonstrate the personal side of an issue.
Monika: American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful in general is the transgender community in this respect?
Sarah: I think this is a really exciting time to be active in transgender equality. The last decade has seen the solidification of an effective mainstream movement for transgender equality. In that time, you’ve seen organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force doing amazing work for transgender people from Washington and state transgender and LGBT equality organizations matching those efforts in the individual cities and states.
There is no doubt that the transgender community isn’t in the same place as the push for gay rights, but we aren’t too far behind. It is my hope and belief that within the next decade we will be where the gay rights movement is now. It’s heartening to see organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, which was indispensable to our bill in Delaware, taking on a more active role in transgender equality.

Speaking at the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act
bill signing with Governor Markell on the left.

Monika: You were following quite closely the US last presidential campaign. Was there any difference in the way the Republicans and Democrats addressed the needs and rights of the transgender community?
Sarah: A huge difference. Barack Obama went around the country speaking against discrimination based on “who you are or who you love.” That statement was a direct reference to the entire LGBT community and is helping to change attitudes.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was openly hostile to LGBT Americans. The national Republican Party has a long way to go before it should even be a remote possibility for LGBT people to support.
Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Sarah: Barack Obama has done more for LGBT Americans than any U.S. President. The public is well-aware of his efforts for gay and lesbian Americans on issues like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and marriage equality, but he has achieved some important policy goals for the transgender community.
Under his administration, the State Department and Social Security Administration have updated requirements for documentation changes for transgender people, they have protected the rights and safety of transgender defendants and inmates, issued an executive order adding gender identity to the federal government’s non-discrimination policies, and passed the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which expanded access and protections for transgender patients.
These accomplishments, coupled with a host of other advocacy achievements, do not receive as much attention in the media as DADT and marriage but make a real difference in the lives of transgender Americans.
There is certainly more to be done. I’m not the only one who would like to see the President issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity with any company that the federal government has a contract with.

Briefing Governor Markell as the bill made
its way through the General Assembly.

Monika: What are the current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda?
Sarah: Where do I start? I think the biggest issue that needs to be addressed is non-discrimination protections. There are currently no national laws that protect transgender people from workplace discrimination.
In 33 states, it is perfectly legal to fire, deny someone housing, or throw a person out of a restaurant simply for being transgender.
We need basic protections from discrimination in all 50 states and from the federal government. Access to quality and affordable health care, including transition-related care, is another big issue that needs to be addressed.
The transgender advocacy agenda, however, should not stop with issues that specifically include “transgender” or “gender identity” in the description. We need to include the rights and well-being of women, people of color, persons with disabilities, people in poverty, and every single marginalized group. If we don’t tackle the rights of everyone in our time, then we will only solve the problems of the most privileged in our community.
Monika: You are involved with Equality Delaware and the LGBT advocacy group’s Board of Directors The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Sarah: I’m lucky to live in Delaware, where we have some incredibly enlightened and inclusive LGBT organizations. Equality Delaware, under the leadership of Mark Purpura and Lisa Goodman, is a model advocacy group for the entire LGBT community. Over the last six months, they have successfully passed both marriage equality and gender identity protection.
It’s a truly historic period of success. Mainstream LGBT organizations can always do a better job of diversifying and addressing the issues of LGBT people of color, transgender people, bisexual people, and lower-income people, but Equality Delaware is conscious of that and constantly seeks to do and be better.

Speaking at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund
 annual fundraiser. The Victory Funds seeks to elect
openly LGBT people to public office in America.

Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Sarah: That is a good question. I think America is at a turning point in how we view and treat transgender women. We still face a good deal of caricatures, stereotypes, and mockery from the media to day-to-day life, but we do see more positive examples in the media, less tokenism, and, at long last, real and complex portrayals of transgender women in art and pop culture. 
During our push for transgender rights in Delaware, we were certainly confronted with a lot of negative and unfounded beliefs that transgender women face. The opponents had no problem with transgender men in the men’s restrooms but treated transgender women in women’s restrooms as potential predators, abusers, and liars. Luckily in Delaware, enough legislators saw through those offensive arguments.
Monika: Do you think transgender women could make a difference in politics?
Sarah: I think transgender women already have. Nationally, Mara Keisling, a transgender woman, has demonstrated that. Transgender women have been elected to state office in Hawaii and positions in California, Oregon, and other states.
President Obama has appointed openly transgender women to positions in the State Department and the Defense Department. The future of transgender women, and transgender people in general, from politics to business to art, is bright.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live until the day when a transgender lady could become the US President?
Sarah: I think we certainly have a way to go before that’s possible, but I think the last six years have demonstrated that anything is possible. Not many people would have thought that forty years after Washington DC, and other cities, burned following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that we would have an African American President now residing just ten blocks from those same burning streets. America has evolved before and I think we are evolving now.

With her parents together with the first
openly LGBT U.S. Senator.

Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Sarah: I came out at the age of 21 as a junior in college. It was certainly the hardest thing I have ever done, but I still had an easier time and more support than a lot of people.
I never had to worry about the support and love of my family and all of my friends have been affirming. If this process has shown me anything, it’s that those blessings should be rights for all and not based on luck or privilege.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Sarah: When I came out, I had done a lot of research on what it is to be “transgender,” but I wasn’t really aware of many transgender people out there. Since coming out, I’ve gained a lot of role models, people like Mara Keisling, Amanda Simpson, Dylan Orr, Chloe Schwenke, Chaz Bono, Janet Mock, and so many others who have set a positive example and been trailblazers for transgender people. All of us are standing on their shoulders.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Sarah: Like I said, I was incredibly lucky to have a relatively smooth transition. I think the hardest thing was my concern that I would be disappointing people, including my family, by revealing my truth. I found out, however, that as hard as it was at first, my family and friends are as proud of me and love me just as much as before.
Monika: It has been two since your transition. Did you expect to be so successful not only as a woman but also as a trans-activist?
Sarah: I honestly did not know what to expect when I came out. I worried that my professional life was over. I’ve had some amazing and inspirational opportunities over the last two years, but I owe those successes and opportunities to my friends and family who have stood behind me the entire way. I would have never been able to work at the White House or help pass this bill had it not been for the people who had come before me.

Monika: What would you recommend to young trans women wishing to be so successful in politics as yourself?
Sarah: That your dreams and your identity are only mutually exclusive if you do not try. I would also say, though, to not rush into anything. Be sure to take care of yourself first and it is always okay to say “no.” It’s okay to be uncomfortable with something. You do not have to do everything that everyone asks of you. You are the best advocate when you are happy, healthy, and safe.
Monika: Sarah, thank you for the interview!
Sarah: Thank you! Great questions!

All the photos: courtesy of Sarah McBride.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

On 13 January 2021, Sarah McBride was sworn in as a member of the Delaware Senate in January 2021 to become the first transgender state senator in the history of the USA. What a day! Congratulations Sarah!!!!  

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