Making History Would Be Just a Bonus for Sarah McBride

Sarah McBride Campaigns In Delaware To Be First Transgender Member Of Congress
Photo: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Delaware state senator Sarah McBride knows she could make history this fall if she’s elected as the first openly transgender member of Congress, but she would rather talk about the challenges that keep her neighbors up at night. Her mind is on access to affordable health care, increasing the minimum wage, gun-safety measures, and protecting reproductive rights. In her four years as a lawmaker, she’s already sponsored a paid family and medical leave bill that was the largest expansion of Delaware’s social safety net in decades and led the effort to outlaw the “LGBTQ+ panic” defense in the state. Not too bad for someone who is only 33! Still, it’s not lost on McBride that a victory would carry significant weight against the backdrop of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation sweeping the nation, and that being effective in Congress would open doors through which others could follow.

“I’m not running to make history, I’m running to make a difference,” she tells me. “That’s how we guarantee that more and more people from various backgrounds are able to not just run, but win and serve.” McBride spoke with the Cut about the link between anti-trans policies and the loss of other rights, making allies out of her Republican colleagues, and what she wants to accomplish on Capitol Hill.

What is the first issue you would like to tackle if you’re elected?

I’m hoping to go to Congress to make progress on all of the issues that I’ve been working on at the state level that require federal action and investment. That means building out our care infrastructure and making sure that no one in our society has to choose between their family and their job, between their health and their paycheck. That means affordable child care for every family. It means paid family and medical leave for every worker. It means universal health care for every patient. Those will be my priorities.

We are at a time where LGBTQ+ rights — specifically transgender rights — have been under attack across the country. What’s it like to be an elected official in a time like this?

The attacks hurt. It hurts to see so many anti-equality politicians targeting not only trans people writ large, but trans young people. If we’re not at the table, then we’re on the menu. I have seen the power of proximity throughout my career as an advocate at the federal level. When we are present, policies and priorities change. We make the job of anti-equality politicians harder and more difficult. Trans people are part of the beautiful fabric of our society; we are people who have the same hopes and dreams that everyone else has. I believe that representation is key, but even more so we can prove that when trans people win, they are effective legislators and they can do the job just like everyone else.

Obviously the political environment in Delaware is very different than, say, Oklahoma, where we just saw the case of Nex Benedict. What are the concerns that you’re hearing from the trans community in your state, specifically young people and their families?

So far, Delaware is the only state in the country where an anti-trans bill has not been introduced yet. That has taken a lot of work and it might change at some point. But the fact that we have been able to hold off any anti-trans bill this legislative session is a real testament to the values of my colleagues and the advocates that I’ve been able to work alongside. Nevertheless, families of trans people in Delaware remain scared of a toxic political climate that has inflamed hatred and fomented discrimination and violence. They’re scared of anti-equality politicians convening the levers of power at the federal level and implementing their agenda nationally. Regardless of whether you live in a red state or a blue state, none of us will be safe from a regressive agenda that seeks to not just license discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, but also  adopt the Alabama and Texas agenda on reproductive freedom, and undermine the right to vote even further at the federal level. It only reinforces the need for us to elect officials with courage, compassion, and the understanding that governing is the art of addition. We need to have conversations across our political disagreements to continue to open hearts and change minds.

You’ve been able to do that in the State Senate. For example, last summer you led this effort to repeal the state’s “LGBTQ+ panic” defense. That measure was co-sponsored by your Republican colleagues as well. How would you continue bridging that gap with your colleagues like that in Congress, which is obviously more polarized than ever before?

There are absolutely Republicans in Congress who will not work with any Democrat. But there are Republicans who are still willing to meet with and collaborate with us. In the Delaware State Senate, I have introduced and passed dozens of bills — all but one have passed with bipartisan support. What I have seen is that when we allow ourselves to be contextualized in our full humanity, it can open the most closed of hearts and minds. And so as a member of Congress, I’ll continue to find opportunities to collaborate with Republicans on issues ranging from access to affordable health care to early childhood education. It’s in those opportunities and moments where you’re collaborating on issues that aren’t necessarily related to LGBTQ+ rights that we can over time — slowly, but surely — soften the most hardened opponents and gain unlikely allies.

And look, we might not win over every person. We certainly won’t have the Republican members of Congress leading the Pride parade tomorrow. But even if they don’t vote with us, even if they don’t support our rights and our dignity, our presence should at least make their job harder. When we are there, it becomes much more difficult to look us in the eye and attack our community. It becomes much more difficult to call us names and stoke the fears that they can stoke so readily and so easily when no one like me is  in that chamber.

You’ve known the Biden family for a really long time. Some people credit you for being one of the advocates who have helped the president shape his agenda on transgender rights. What are some of the LGBTQ+ policies you would like to see him implement or work with him on if both of you are elected?

I would never claim credit for this president’s big heart. That’s who he is. There are many people in his life throughout the LGBTQ+ community who can attest to the fact that this president comes naturally to his support for equality. If elected, I look forward to working with him to pass the policies that he’s been fighting for throughout his administration, like the Equality Act, so people are clearly and undeniably protected from discrimination throughout daily life under federal law.

You’ve talked about the importance of representation. You were the first openly transgender person to work at the White House, to speak at the DNC, to become a state senator. If you are elected, you will become the first transgender member of Congress. What do you think about breaking these barriers?

My job is to guarantee that while I may be the first, I’m not the last. Being first is a responsibility and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I am also mindful that I am lucky that I have had these opportunities to make change, to serve my state, and to serve my country in ways that never would have seemed possible to me as a young person. That knowledge only reinforces my resolve to live up to those responsibilities and to bring down any barriers that stand in the way for other trans people to fully and equally participate in our democracy. Diversity in government is critical. This election, we have the opportunity to send a message to every trans young person across this country: Our democracy is big enough for them too.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Making History Would Be Just a Bonus for Sarah McBride