If HB 2 accomplished anything good, it was this: the legislature’s decision to target a marginalized population for political gain, and the lawsuits and White House directives and international ignominy that followed, put trans issues firmly in the spotlight. And the Democratic National Convention hasn’t shied away from LGBTQ issues or criticizing HB 2 directly from the main stage.
Some perspective: there are 4,766 delegates in Philadelphia this week. Of them, twenty-eight are transgender—including North Carolinian Janice Covington Allison, who was escorted by police out of a women’s bathroom in a Charlotte government building in April 2015 at protesters’ behest. (“All this bathroom business started with me,” Allison told me earlier this week.) Johnston County Commission candidate Wendy Ella May, who is also transgender, is an alternate delegate.
For comparison, last week in Cleveland, there were eighteen African-American delegates to the Republican National Convention. Let that sink in: the Democrats have more trans people at their convention than Republicans had black people.
And now, on the final night of the convention, the DNC, for the first time in American political history, will put a transgender person on stage to speak to the nation. It won’t be a long speech—just three minutes—but it will be an important one, both in terms of symbolism and in calling attention to the fact that transgender people are, in fact, people, worthy of empathy and dignity just like anyone else.
At least, that’s what Sarah McBride hopes to accomplish tonight. I sat down with twenty-five-year-old Delaware native, who is currently the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign—the group Pat McCrory thinks is more powerful than the NRA—but formerly worked on LGBTQ issues for the Center for American Progress, on Tuesday afternoon, just before the roll-call vote that made Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for grammar and clarity.
The INDY: Tell me about how you got here?
- Photo by Jeffrey C. Billman
- Sarah McBride
Sarah McBride: Sure. So I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, the greatest state, and …
That’s the first time I’ve ever heard Delaware described as the greatest state. I’ve heard the “first state” a few times.
That’s certainly one of the descriptions. But ‘greatest’ is definitely up there. I grew up in Wilmington, and I’ve been involved in politics really since I was ten or eleven. At the same time, I’ve always known that I’m transgender. And I, for the longest time, kept that inside. I told myself that if I could make my life worthwhile by doing something big in my community, making my parents proud, those things would make me feel complete. Obviously, that didn’t work out. Sophomore year of college I was elected student body president, and during that experience I finally came out to my family and my friends. I came out four years ago as student body president at American University. And I received nothing but support from my college, nothing but support from my family and friends. I went back to Delaware, passed nondiscrimination protections with the help of advocates there, gender identity protections, worked at Center for American Progress doing LGBT advocacy, and now I’m at the Human Rights Campaign doing communications there.
You said you always knew you were transgender. Was there a moment where you realized it?
It’s always been present. I can’t point to sort of a single moment where I figured out that I was trans. I think there were more defining moments in the sense of knowing that I had to come out and live my truth. But really, throughout my entire life, the way I describe it was, it just felt like there was this constant homesickness, and it only went away when I could be seen as myself, when I was acknowledged as myself, and eventually, I think, it was my experience being student body president that I think demonstrated that on a microscale, and I think it was that experience that sort of led me to finally come out. Because I thought that if I could do things that made my parents proud of me, if I could make my friends proud, if I could make a little difference in my community, that those things would make me feel complete, and experiencing that on a microscale, having the chance to work on issues of equality and making my campus community better. It was that experience that was like, no, these things that you’ve been telling yourself, they not only will not make you feel complete and fill that void, but they’ll actually only highlight your own eternal struggle even more.
So you were at the Center for American Progress for a couple years. Were you working on trans issues there?
Yeah, I was on their LGBT team. I did LGBT issues there and do the same thing now at HRC. Again, I had done LGBTQ advocacy a little bit in high school, and in college, when I was student body president, it was part of my agenda, and then back in Delaware in between coming out and working at CAP, I did the gender identity nondiscrimination bill.
Tell me about that.
I went back to Delaware during the last semester of my senior year every day I could, and then, after I graduated, I just moved back and went down to the legislative hall every single day and met with legislators, one by one by one.
What was the reception like when you went into the legislature in Delaware and started pitching this thing?
I think it was actually pretty positive. There were certainly a lot of questions, there was not much information out there that these legislators had seen, so it was mostly me telling my story, talking to them about what it means to be transgender, at least for me, what it’s like to be transgender, at least for me. And trying to put a face to this. And I think that, throughout my entire advocacy career, one of my goals has been to try to demonstrate that behind this national conversation, behind this conversation, North Carolina, are real people who hurt when they are mocked, who are hurt when they are discriminated against, and who just want to be treated with kindness, respect, and fairness.
I’ll come back to HB 2 later, but one of the things that has stood out in this debate is that, I don’t know that a lot of the people who are the most fervent supporters of HB 2 have ever encountered a trans person. It was the same thing with the evolution of gay rights and gay marriage: when you get beyond seeing someone as an abstraction—“you are a trans person,” rather than “you are a person who is trans”—I think that goes a long way toward provoking empathy. So, in your advocacy, what is important in generating empathy? Because I think empathy for trans people, empathy for marginalized groups, it tends to lead towards reform quicker than anything else.
Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of the power of empathy. One, it means telling my story and talking to folks with questions, talking about what it means to be transgender, what it’s like to be transgender. I think one of the things that gay, lesbian, or bisexual folks have is that the straight population can empathize with what it’s like to love and lust. And it’s hard for people who are not transgender to wrap their minds around the feeling of what it’s like to have your gender identity not seen and respected and the pain that can cause. And so I think one of the things we have to do, and I try to do, is I try to explain to folks what that feels like and what that means. The second [thing] is, through my own personal story and helping other folks with their own personal story, is demonstrating that transgender people have the same hopes and dreams and aspirations, that we laugh, we cry, we fear, we hope, just like everyone else, and utilizing personal stories to demonstrate that. And that's one of the things I’m going to try to do in my speech is try to share a little bit of things in my own personal story that I think demonstrate that trans people, again, love and cry and laugh and hope and fear just like everyone else.
It occurs to me that there’s a not-insignificant amount of the population that believes that gender dysphoria is a mental illness. Like you said, it’s hard for somebody who’s not trans to understand what it’s like. It’s hard for me to imagine what that feeling is like. So how do you get beyond it?
I think there are a couple things. One thing is that the emotion, the feeling, the sort of ache in the pit of my stomach that I felt when I was in the closet, that I felt was constantly like a feeling of homesickness. You know, if you’ve just moved to a new place, if you’ve just moved into your dorm room in college for the first time, and that is your home, you still miss the place that you know you belong. You still miss that. Now, for most people, that homesickness goes away. For me, and I think for a lot of trans folks, that homesickness not only stays the same but only increases with time. Another example that I’ve heard is folks saying, “I’m right-handed. Try to write with your left hand. What does it feel like? Well, it doesn’t feel right. Why doesn't it feel right? It just doesn’t feel natural. Why doesn’t it feel natural? It’s just, I’m not good at it. Well, you can better at it, but like, what is it?” At least for me, that’s how it felt. It just never felt right, it never felt natural, and, on top of that, there was a pain and an incompleteness and a homesickness that only went away when I could be seen as my true self.
A decade or so ago, it became not a big thing to come out as gay. The trans movement is a couple years behind that, I think. So tell a little bit about what coming out was like.
I think I was really scared because I didn’t know what to expect. You know, I knew my family was loving, I knew they’d support me, but I also thought I’d be disappointing them. Because I knew they’d worry about what their friends and my friends would say. We’ve been blessed that all of our friends, their friends, my friends, have been nothing but supportive and affirming and loving. Even four years ago, even [before] we reached what people are calling a transgender tipping point, I had an entirely positive experience. I didn’t lose a single person in my life because they chose not to accept me.
My understanding is that’s fairly unusual.
It is. And if not unusual, it’s certainly not universal. A lot of trans folks lose their family, lose their friends, lose their job, lose their home, simply because they’ve decided to take their lives into their own hands and live their truth. I’m very lucky, and I think my ability to participate in this convention is a reflection of that support system and those privileges I’ve had that, at the end of the day, shouldn’t be privileges. It shouldn’t be a privilege to keep family, it shouldn’t be a privilege to go to the restroom without fear of discrimination and harassment.
You alluded a second ago to a tipping point. I think that HB 2 served as that. It brought it all out of the shadows, really quickly—even though, quite frankly, my sense is that they used the bathroom thing to try to ram through other things they’ve been trying to do for years. What was your read on HB 2 when you first heard about it?
We were anticipating a whole host of anti-LGBT bills to be introduced this past session in states across the country. I think, for a lot of us, when we saw the North Carolina bill, we were like, wow. We were used to seeing bad bills, but this one was, without question, not only the most anti-LGBTQ bill ever passed, because it both preempted [local ordinances] and had the restroom discrimination in it, but it also had the whole host of other things that hurt other marginalized communities, you know, workers and North Carolinians outside of the LGBTQ community, and so I think we all collectively went, Wow, this is a uniquely hateful, hurtful bill.
Most of the other similar ones—Indiana, for example—are always framed around religious freedom. This one didn’t really make any pretense of that. It was just, all right, we’re coming for you.
To some degree, these so-called religious freedom bills are an attempt to insulate people from a change that they’ve admitted has already occurred. With the trans-rights movement, I think there are a handful of Republican politicians that are attempting, while it still is potentially politically possible, to codify discrimination. And HB 2 is an attempt to do that before things change, which they know they will. I don’t think those who supported HB 2 anticipated the backlash, and I think what happened is that people learned from the fight for marriage equality and the fight just broadly for gay rights that even if you don’t understand this issue, even if you’re still wrapping your mind around it, learning about it, discrimination never wears well in history. And those people rightfully didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history again.
HB 2 prodded the Obama administration to come out a sweeping directive on bathroom access. There are lawsuits ongoing. What do you think happens next?
Obviously the lawsuits are going to continue to make their way through the courts. I think those lawsuits underscore the stakes in this election for the transgender community. Donald Trump is committed to appointing anti-LGBTQ judges to both lower courts and the Supreme Court, which eventually may be deciding this issue, but I think, more broadly, with the election of Hillary Clinton and a pro-equality majority in Congress, we’ll see advocacy for the Equality Act, which would provide firm and clear nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people nationwide, without leaving any question up to the courts as to whether these protections exist.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there was previously an attempt to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, and part of the difficulty was whether it was going cover gender identity.
It was 2007, so it was two years before the Obama administration was in office, and that did happen. But there is something I can say without any hesitation, without—I think so often in politics, you shy away from these absolute statements, but I can say this absolutely—that there’s no conversation anymore as to whether discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community would include gender identity, we’re well past that. And I think also Congress, and members of Congress, have learned quite a bit in that time about the need for trans protections and what it means to be transgender. And This entire convention is a reflection of that. [The Democrats’ platform is] one of the most pro-LGBTQ platforms passed by a major party, probably the most pro-LGBTQ record, with the most LGBTQ delegates, a record number of trans delegates. And I think my [speech] demonstrates that commitment to trans equality.
So tell me about the speech came about. Did they just call you?
Yeah, more or less. The LGBT caucus on the Hill was allotted six minutes. And they decided that they wanted to spend half of their six minutes breaking that barrier and having a transgender person speak from the main stage at a national convention. I think that was a result of a lot of conversations in the LGBTQ and trans movement, about what’s next around the convention for trans people, and that was to have a transgender speaker. How they landed on me, I’ll never know, and I think that there are a lot of people who could do just as good if not a better job as me—and I mean that in all honestly—but I’m just incredibly excited to have this opportunity to play a small role in what I think will be a big story Thursday night.
You have three minutes. I imagine you have a lot more to say than can fit into three minutes.
That’s definitely a fair statement.
How do you narrow it down?
I think there are two goals in my speech. One is to underscore the unfinished work of the LGBTQ equality movement and that Hillary Clinton is the champion we need to deliver that change. But the second is to demonstrate the humanity behind this issue, to utilize and share my personal story in a way that can help show folks that there are real people behind this issue.
I think it’s very significant that a trans person is speaking—and not only speaking, but speaking on Thursday night. There will be a large audience. What does that mean for the trans movement?
My hope is that trans folks see this as a message that their voices matter, that they have an important role to play in the American story and in our political arena. My hope is that if there’s someone watching who’s struggling with the question of whether this country has a place for them, whether this country will allow them to pursue their dreams and live their truth at the same time, that they’ll see this being at least a little bit of comfort, a little bit of security, that the leaders of their country and prospective leaders of their country have their backs.