In a season of surprising election wins, an American University and SPA alumna stands out for an additional cultural and representational victory at the ballot box. Former SGA president Sarah McBride (SPA/BA ’13) has won the state senate seat (with 73% of the vote) in Delaware’s 1st District, to become the nation's first openly transgender state senator.
McBride, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, teacher, author, and activist, began this journey at 13, learning about local issues and the political process while assisting a family friend with a state-level campaign.
“As a young person struggling to figure out who I am and how I fit into this world,” said McBride, “advocacy in government and politics seemed like the place where I could make the most change . . . to create more space for people to live openly and authentically. And I told myself, even if I couldn't do it for me, helping to do it for others would make my life worth living, and compensate for a life lived in the closet.”
This early campaign, in her native Delaware, introduced her to local, state, and national elected officials who listened when she spoke. “Having them demonstrate that my voice mattered . . . instilled in me at a young age the knowledge that I can participate in our politics,” she said.
“So, I got involved. But, you know, for a while, up until my time at American, I figured that ultimately my ability to participate in our democracy and my ability to live authentically were mutually exclusive. Like so many people, I kept my gender identity buried deep inside, thinking that that that it might dissipate with time and I could compensate for it with professional fulfillment.”
McBride arrived at AU in 2009 and immediately sought out opportunities for advocacy and service. She interned at the Obama White House and the Victory Fund, organized for Young Democrats and other political groups, and, in her junior year, was elected student body president. She soon realized that something was missing.
“I told myself [advocacy] would heal the pain and the incompleteness. Not only did it not fill that void, it actually accentuated it. It was during [this] time that I gained the insights, the courage, and the confidence to finally accept this truth about myself. I came out to my parents during winter break of that year, and at the end of my term, I came out to my campus community more broadly in an op ed in the AMA in The Eagle,” she continued.
McBride had a strong support system in place at AU, including a powerful mentor in Margaret Marr, who was then an SPA professor and head of the leadership program. “I remember when I came out to her, she said to me, ‘Don't give up on your dreams. You can do this. You can live truthfully and still have opportunities to lead and make change.’”
Even so, she was not fully sure what to expect from her public proclamation. “It was 2012,” she said. “It was before what Time magazine called the transgender tipping point. But the incredible thing was that from the moment my note posted, every single message that came in was a message of love and support. And more than that: a celebration, a celebration of the diversity of our campus, a celebration in the response to my coming out, celebration that on that night we were sending a small but important message to this country.”
The piece gained international media attention, leading to high-profile features on NPR and The Huffington Post, and a congratulatory message from then-Vice President Biden. On this wave of support, in 2013, McBride advocated for the passage of Delaware's gender identity non-discrimination act, which was signed into law that year. She went on to work for LGBTQ issues through the Center for American Progress and the Human Rights Campaign, give her own TED Talk, and push for Medicaid expansion. In 2016, McBride became the first transgender person to speak at a major party convention, addressing the Democratic National Convention.
In 2018-19, McBride found another meaningful avenue for advocacy, signing on to teach LGBTQ public policy courses at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute. “The students were brilliant, passionate, [and] pragmatic in all the right ways, sort of the perfect mix to deliver meaningful results and real change.”
“Generally speaking, the public policy components of LGBTQ equality, such as nondiscrimination protection, are fairly straightforward. I wanted to diversify their understanding of what public policies matter to the community, but also [discuss] the strategies that advocates and activists and elected officials are utilizing to achieve these ends. One of the things that this election has reinforced, what public policy reinforces, what the course that I taught reinforces, is the importance of having all voices at the table. You can't have a strong and healthy democracy if you don't have a government that reflects the full breadth of the communities that you seek to serve.”
McBride credits her time at American University for propelling and amplifying her story, which she detailed in her 2019 book Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality. While high-profile internships and her coming-out story made the headlines, her most formative experiences were far more intimate extracurricular activities. She encourages AU students inspired by her trajectory to take full advantage of these opportunities.
“College Dems and student government provided me not just a community, but also very real and tangible opportunities for change through meaningful leadership roles. The experience that allowed me to come out and live authentically [taught me] how to effectively advocate to legislatures and City Hall and Congress. Running for student body president helped to teach me how to run for office.”
Courses on voter behavior with SPA Professor Danny Hayes further prepared her for life on the campaign trail, but that trail that looked much different in the age of COVID. Traditional door-to-door canvassing quickly gave way to cold calls, phone- and textbanking, hand-written postcards, and contact-free literature drops. “I am a big believer in the efficacy of digital [targeted ads] and the ability to get messages to voters where they are,” she said. “Unlike other kinds of paid media, you aren't spending money on people who aren't in your district.”
McBride campaigned on the importance of paid family and medical leave, and looks to immediately sponsor legislation to expand protection and benefits.
“No one should have to give up their income in the face of illness. I believe that we have a responsibility, a duty to care for one another when times get tough. And we know that that that paid family medical leave is not only morally right, it's economically smart.”
McBride considers her victory a mandate to deliver for her constituents on a range of issues. “Obviously, I feel a strong sense of responsibility,” she continued. “I feel a responsibility first and foremost to the residents of this district. I feel a responsibility to the folks who put time and energy into this campaign. To the LGBTQ community, to be the best state senator possible. I know that that is the only way that I can honor whatever symbolic message my campaign and my victory helped send.”
It was a victory, said McBride, that could not have been possible without the AU community. Her campaign team featured six alumni, and current students and faculty helped amplify her message. “This was really a campaign that was fueled by the passions of the students. Friendships have been right by my side throughout this campaign as sounding boards and points of support,” she said.
AU, continued McBride, provided talent, volunteers, and, most importantly, a vision for what might be possible. Its inclusivity (it received 4.5 out of 5 stars in the most recent Campus Pride Index of college campuses) has opened doors for LGBTQ students and professionals and opened minds among the community at large.
“I always have said that if America was a little bit more like American, we'd be in a much better place.”