Insights and Impact

Leading by Example

Delaware senator Sarah McBride makes history as the country's highest-elected transgender official 


Illustra­tion by
John Jay Cabuay

Sarah McBride

Sarah McBride, SPA/BA ’13, was homesick for a place she’d never been. It was a dull, aching feeling that grew stronger as she grew older—rarely subsiding, even during moments of laughter and joy, of which there were plenty in the McBride household.

The only reprieve came when, as a child, she played with two little girls who lived across the street in her idyllic Wilmington neighborhood. As McBride slipped into the sisters’ Cinderella gown, her blue eyes sparkled like the tulle in her skirt and the gnawing incompleteness disappeared, as if she’d been tapped by a magic wand. 

But then the clock struck midnight and it was back to another game of dress-up—one that McBride would play for 21 years of her life, until she publicly came out as transgender in a May 2012 op-ed in the Eagle. In November, the former AU Student Government president became the first openly transgender state senator in the country, winning 73 percent of the vote in Delaware’s first district, where she was born and raised. As the first trans White House intern, working on LGBTQ issues in the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs under President Barack Obama, and the first trans person to speak at a major political convention during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, McBride is no stranger to history. 

The 30-year-old only wishes she could rewrite part of it.

“Looking back, I see a child for whom life could’ve been so much different, so much earlier if someone who knew had just been able to say, ‘It’s OK. You will love, you will be loved. You’ll be welcomed, and you can do whatever you set your mind to.’ But I wasn’t out to anyone, so there was no opportunity for anyone to say that—and I don’t know that anyone in those days could have said that with any confidence.”

But today, McBride can.

“It’s my hope that my election sends a small but potentially life-saving message to a young trans person that our democracy is big enough for them, that their voice matters, and that they can dream big dreams.”

If McBride’s first life-changing realization as a child was that she was girl, the second was that she was politically inclined. The two are inextricably linked and indelible to McBride’s identity—although for many years, she believed them to be mutually exclusve.

"When you’re in the closet, you’re forced—even at a very young age—to figure out what an authentic life, a joyful life, a meaningful life, looks like. It was clear that what brought me joy and meaning was bringing about change and making a difference in my community,” she says. “Politics seemed like a way for me to build a world where people could live fully and authentically—even if I didn’t feel like I could do that myself.” 

The youngest of three children born to David, a corporate attorney, and Sally, an educational advocate, McBride was dubbed the “little president” by her elementary school teachers. (In high school, she was known as Tour Guide McBride, a nod to her unabashed love for the First State.) Fascinated by history and politics, McBride began at age six building models of the White House and devouring books about some of the presidents who inhabited it, including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And at age 11, she met her political idol, fresh off the Amtrak from DC, at a local pizza joint. 

Then Senator Joe Biden knelt down next to the speechless McBride, plucked his daily schedule—dated February 1, 2002—from his briefing book and signed it: “Remember me when you’re president.” (He later penned the foreword to her 2018 memoir, Tomorrow Will Be Different.)

In 2003, while campaigning on behalf of her father’s colleague, who was running for insurance commissioner, McBride met Jack Markell, the state treasurer with a smile as warm as hers. She began introducing the future governor at campaign events, frequently employing the line: “Whenever I’m asked who my role models are, after my parents, but before presidents, I always say Jack Markell.”

The admiration was mutual.

“Sarah made an impression on me from the first time we met,” Markell says. “I could tell Sarah has a great way with people—she is disarming and insightful. As we got to know each other, I also learned that she is strategic in her thinking and a fantastic orator. Sarah also brings people together. When she decided to embrace my uphill campaign for governor, she brought along dozens of other high school students whose efforts put me over the top.”

After interning for his gubernatorial campaign, McBride worked for Markell as a field organizer. It was her first paid political gig. She was 18. When voters sent the underdog to Dover, he took McBride with him, often leaving her alone at his desk to tweak his speeches.

Markell was McBride’s second call—after her parents—when she won the race for 2011–12 AU Student Government president during her sophomore year. The first candidate in university history to knock on every single residence hall door, McBride bested her closest opponent in a field of four by 10 points. 

“Sarah was a dedicated leader who just radiated enthusiasm and charisma,” says Andrew Toczydlowski, director of student development and services at the Kogod School of Business, who met McBride when he was working with politically affiliated student groups in the Office of Campus Life. “She set the bar for what leadership at AU looks like.”

During her tenure, the political science major championed gender-inclusive housing that allowed LGBTQ students to select their roommates, rather than being assigned based on their legal gender. McBride also advocated for full transitional care for trans students on the university’s insurance plan. In 2013, AU became the first institution of higher education in DC to adopt the expanded coverage.

Despite all her success, however, feelings of self-loathing and homesickness—that constant ache in her gut—were becoming more unbearable. McBride realized that making space for others to lead more authentic and joyful lives wasn’t enough. She needed to claim some of it for herself. 

On Christmas 2011, McBride’s parents watched as she unwrapped a button-down and tie. 

“It felt like a symbol of the stark contrast between where I was and where I wanted to be,” McBride writes in her memoir, “between how I was perceived and who I knew I was, and between my parents’ hopes for the future—a happy, successful child—and what I knew they would fear with my news: rejection. Rejection by friends, by neighbors, and, most certainly, by jobs.” 

Thirty minutes later, she revealed the secret that she’d held deep inside for as long as she could remember, a secret that she’d masked for years with shirts and ties, and that 100-watt smile. McBride didn’t know it at the time, but she was offering her parents a present that morning around the Christmas tree: the gift of their child living her truth, without shame, regret, or apology. 

Are you sure? David and Sally pleaded, their faces registering their shock and urgent concern for McBride’s safety and her future. 

“I know this as much as I know that I love you two,” she recalls saying. 

Days of tears and questions followed, as the McBrides mourned the “death” of their youngest son and began to embrace their only daughter. 

“They struggled with the knowledge that there was a pain in my life that they didn’t know about,” she says. “They had all these cherished memories that now [felt tarnished]. I had to reassure them that there was fun and joy in those moments. Was that incompleteness there, that pain? Yes, but it didn’t change the fact that those were cherished memories for me, too.”

As her parents’ anguish gave way to acceptance and, finally, affirmation, McBride slowly began coming out to a small circle of friends, including Markell, who was unwavering in his love and support. Buoyed by the realization that “some of my fears, while understandable, were unfounded,” she decided it was time to share the news with the AU community. On April 30, 2012, with the click of a button on Facebook, she did.

Today, I ended my term as AU’s student body president. Being president has been an unbelievable privilege for me. I have learned and grown so much over the last year, both personally and professionally. As proud as I am of all the issues we tackled together as a campus community, the biggest takeaway, for me, has been the resolution of an internal struggle. You see, for my entire life, I’ve struggled with my gender identity.

It was only after the experiences of this year that I was able to come to terms with what had been my deepest secret: I’m transgender.

The response was immediate—and unequivocally supportive.

“AU takes pride in McBride,” replied one student.

“This is one of those times when I’m incredibly proud to go to AU and be part of such an accepting community,” wrote another.

Minutes later, Eagle editor in chief Zach Cohen, SIS/BA ’14, who worked in a nearby office in Mary Graydon Center, knocked on McBride’s door. He was on deadline and wanted to know if the stories slated for the next day’s issue about her tenure as president should include her chosen name and pronouns. A few weeks into the job, Cohen also asked if he could run a shortened version of McBride’s coming out note. 

“I’ll never forget watching as Sarah sat next to me in the Eagle office, painstakingly finding ways to trim her thoughtful coming-out story to fit the limits of precious column inches for a weekly newspaper that had largely been written and laid out already,” says Cohen, Senate correspondent for the National Journal. “But I’m grateful she did. She told her own story better than any news report could have.” 

The next day, “The Real Me” appeared on page 25 of the paper, under the byline Sarah McBride.

With every birthday candle extinguished, with every penny thrown, my wish was always the same. I am now blessed with the opportunity to live my dream and fulfill a truth I have known since childhood. . . . I now know that my dreams and my identity are only mutually exclusive if I don’t try.

Once again, the response to the op-ed, which made national headlines, was overwhelmingly positive. It affirmed for McBride—and showed the world—that American University “is an inclusive, welcoming, and progressive space.”

“AU attracts civically-engaged, service-oriented students with a keen sense of history. They understand that the through line of history is a deepening of our empathy, a more profound understanding of ‘we the people,’ and a widening of the circle of opportunity, which allows people—when confronted with something that they don’t know much about—to respond with love, empathy, justice, equality, and fairness.” 

Three weeks later, when McBride opened the invitation bearing the gold seal of the president of the United States, she had no inkling that a chance encounter at the White House’s Pride Month reception would change the entire course of her life.

The mood in the East Room was celebratory as McBride, champagne in hand, made her way to the lectern for President Obama’s remarks. “Oops, I’m sorry,” she said, as she bumped into a handsome trans man.

A few months later, after a few more run-ins, Andrew McCray’s name appeared in McBride’s inbox. “If you’re interested in getting coffee or drinks or something sometime, let me know,” wrote the 26-year-old attorney. “I think we’d get along pretty swimmingly.”

On their first date in fall 2012—tapas in Adams Morgan—the laughs came easily and the chemistry was palpable. The two shared a love of reality TV and Star Wars, and a deeply personal commitment to the fight for LGBTQ equality. But even more than that, McCray was the first person who looked at McBride and just saw Sarah.

“In the three months since coming out publicly and living as my authentic self, I had never genuinely felt seen until that point,” writes McBride. “In every other interaction, I still felt as if others saw me either as the person they previously had perceived me to be or, entirely, a trans person at the beginning of my transition.” 

Although McBride’s White House internship, which coincided with the start of her senior year, kept her busy, she and McCray were inseparable by the beginning of 2013—just as another love affair was hitting a rough patch.

Ask McBride where she’s from, and the answer’s always the same: Delaware, the greatest state in the union. She had always hoped to move back to her beloved “state of neighbors,” but Delaware—like most other states across the country—lacked nondiscrimination protections based on gender identity. That meant a transgender person could be fired, evicted, or denied service in a restaurant without question or recourse. 

As is her way, the changemaker set out to change the law. 

After graduation, McBride joined the board of Equality Delaware and helped spearhead the Herculean effort to pass marriage equality and gender identity protections in the same year—something other states had tried, but failed, to do. The former passed first, but the latter proved to be more of a battle. 

To help put a face on the issue—some lawmakers who opposed the bill made the ridiculous claim that they didn’t have any transgender constituents—McBride, then 22, addressed the Delaware General Assembly that she’d join a mere eight years later. “My name is Sarah McBride and I’m a transgender Delawarean,” she said as her parents proudly looked on. “I’m here . . . to ask to simply be treated fairly.”

On June 19, Governor Markell signed the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act into law, while McBride looked over his shoulder, beaming. During the news conference, he thanked his friend for “her tireless advocacy for passage of this legislation, [which] has made a real difference for all transgender people in Delaware.”

McBride felt invincible. She had helped make history—again—in her beloved Delaware. She had started a new job at the Center for American Progress, where McCray also worked as an advocate, and the two had recently moved into their first apartment together. 

Then came the call. 

In September 2013, as McBride pulled into the parking garage at work, McCray rang her cell from the doctor’s office. The sore on his tongue, which had been bothering him for a few months, was cancerous. The surgery and chemotherapy that followed were successful, but by summer 2014, the cancer had spread to McCray’s lungs.

“If it turns out to be terminal, would you marry me?” he asked McBride as they sat on the couch in their DC apartment.

It was, and on August 24, McBride did.

Even with barely a week’s notice, the intimate rooftop ceremony came together swimmingly. Under a perfect blue sky and surrounded by 50 friends and family, the couple pledged their abiding love to one another. There was no mention of sickness or health—they had long ago taken that solemn vow.

Four days later, Andy McCray, husband, advocate, fighter, passed away.

McBride still wears her wedding ring—the simple silver band a reminder of the other bond she and McCray shared: an unwavering commitment to building a more equitable and just world for everyone. 

“Andy taught me how to love and be loved, and how to live the values I fought for in my life,” McBride says. “My relationship with him also underscored for me the urgency of change—what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’—and that every single time we ask people to sit back and allow for a slow conversation to take place before we treat them with dignity and ensure them opportunity, we are asking people to watch their one life pass by without the respect and fairness that everyone deserves.” 

A month after longtime incumbent Harris McDowell announced in 2019 that he was retiring, McBride declared her candidacy for the Democrat’s seat. The hallmark of her progressive platform was paid family and parental leave—an issue deeply personal to her, after serving as McCray’s caregiver for nearly a year.

McBride is keenly aware of her privilege, not only as it relates to her trans identity but also to her experience as a caregiver. Even with flexible jobs and an army of family and friends, “Andy and I were just able to keep our head above water,” she says. “If you took away any one of the multiple layers of privilege and support, it would’ve been a much different experience.

“I constantly think about folks who face hardships with less support than we had, or that I have. It’s a motivating factor for me,” she continues. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to do as much good as I can, for as long as I can do it, and to ensure that the privilege I enjoy is no longer a privilege for the few, but a right guaranteed to everyone no matter their background or identity.” 

Like trailblazer Danica Roem, who won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, McBride ran not as “a transgender candidate,” but as a candidate who happens to be transgender. Championing a politics rooted in equality and empathy, she called for affordable health care, universal pre-kindergarten, and a boost to the minimum wage. 

“Most of the issues that matter to us are handled at the state level, and state legislatures are uniquely positioned to be laboratories of democracy for big ideas that meet the scope and the scale of the challenges we face,” she says. “I carry the hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns of my community with me every day.”

McBride’s authenticity and agenda resonated with voters, who on November 3 handed their native daughter a resounding victory.

“The voters of this district have shown what I have known throughout my life: that they are fair-minded people who look at candidates based on their ideas and their experience, not their identities,” McBride said later that night. “We also know, though, that the work isn’t finished. As wonderful as tonight is, the real hard work begins tomorrow—to not just recover and rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis, but to reimagine our community, not as it was, but as it could and should be. To make sure we more fully live up to our values as a state of neighbors. I have never been more confident that we can write that chapter in Delaware’s history.”

Happily rooted in the community that raised her, Sarah McBride is homesick no more.

Good with Names

When Björkstén (they/them/their) arrived at AU from their native Wyoming in fall 2019, they knew they’d finally found a safe environment to come out as a nonbinary person who goes by surname only. But because Björkstén’s legal first name still showed up on class rosters and in their email address, professors “would mess up a lot, mostly when they first met me.”

During the first few days of classes, Björkstén, CAS-SOC/BA ’23, found it easy enough to say, “I use my last name and they/them pronouns,” but they still had concerns about classroom power dynamics. “I didn’t know how to correct [professors] appropriately,” the anthropology and film student says. 

Updating their name and pronouns manually in each campus application proved “time-consuming, tedious, and a little disheartening,” because the changes didn’t always stick. Every few months, one defaulted to the first name Björkstén had previously replaced with a period. 

A new technological process at AU, launched in January, ensures that won’t happen again. Period. Students on main campus can now select a name, gender, and pronouns that will appear across multiple systems, including on Canvas and Engage. The pilot will expand to WCL students, then faculty, staff, and alumni over the next two years.  

Björkstén is relieved. “I don’t have to catch everything anymore. The system figures it out for me.”  

Philosophy professor Perry Zurn (he/him/his), a member of the working group behind the pilot, knows that for some students, “being able to trust that their name and/or their pronouns will be used in a classroom makes the difference between participating in class or not.” If we respect each other’s names and pronouns, Zurn says, “we have more of a chance of digging into content and grappling with deep social justice issues.” 

But displaying pronouns on class rosters has limitations. Gender-fluid students, for example, may use different pronouns on different days. Faculty, Zurn says, shouldn’t let technology “take the place of having pronoun-sharing practices” and, most importantly, “checking with students about what they want.”—MJL