Delaware’s Sarah McBride Makes History as First Openly Transgender Senator

Sarah McBride made history Nov. 3  when she won her campaign to become a Delaware state senator. She will be Delaware’s first openly transgender elected official and the country’s highest-ranking openly transgender elected official. /Photo by Joe del Tufo

McBride, who now holds the state’s District 1 seat, enters her first term focused on issues that impact residents in her district and across Delaware.

For 18 months, Sarah McBride was on a mission with friends, family and staunch supporters who helped her canvas, knock on doors and round up enough votes to elect her to the Delaware state Senate.

Now, McBride, 30, holds the District 1 seat formerly occupied by Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington North, who finished out his 2020 term and retired. In Delaware, legislators’ terms begin the day after Election Day with their swearing in ceremony typically held the second Tuesday in January. She brings her experience working on the campaigns of former Gov. Jack Markell and the late Attorney General Beau Biden, along with her more recent role as press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign.

In a race against Republican candidate Steve Washington, McBride clinched the position with 73.3 percent of the vote. Amid an election year that has seen a wave of LGBTQ candidates, the win makes McBride the first openly transgender person elected to office in Delaware. As a state senator, she is also now the highest-ranking openly transgender elected official in the U.S.

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“It’s surreal that it’s finally over, but I’m sure over the next few days, the reality will sink in even deeper,” McBride says the morning after her election, noting that she’s eager to get to work and create real results for her constituents.

McBride speaks to volunteers as the group prepares to canvas a Claymont neighborhood in October 2019./Photo by Suchat Pederson

As Delawareans and supporters throughout the country celebrate McBride’s victory on social media, the state senator says she believes the gravity of her historic win bodes well for transgender youth and the LGBTQ community.

“I know how much it would have meant to me growing up to see this, how life-changing and life-affirming it would have been,” she says. “And so I am I’m proud of who I am and I’m proud in this election we were able to sound a simple but profound message of comfort and hope to young people.”

Campaigning for more

McBride says her campaign was truly a grassroots effort that allowed her to talk to real people about real problems, even as everything around us changed. When the coronavirus pandemic halted life as we knew it beginning in March, McBride’s campaign continued to have conversations with voters through phone banking, virtual communication and safe, socially distanced in-person events.

“When the pandemic hit, I felt that I had a responsibility as someone who was looking to serve in a leadership capacity…to model safe and responsible campaigning,” she explains.

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McBride first came out while attending American University, but she’s quick to remind you that she’s a woman who ran for a state Senate seat who just happens to be transgender, not a transgender state Senator.

“I am running not as a trans candidate, not as a LGBTQ candidate,” she said during an interview with Delaware Today in October 2019. “I’m running on health care, I’m running on improving our public education system, I’m running on making sure that we build a modern economy that works for everyone.

“I think one of the things I’ve learned and seen very clearly in the work that I’ve done here in Delaware and nationally in the fight for LGBTQ equality is that at the end of the day, that fight is not about some abstract principle,” McBride continued. “It’s about making sure that everyone has access to a good-paying job. It’s making sure that students can go to a safe school where they are best prepared to get the jobs of the future. It’s about making sure people have dignity and safety in their communities. And that’s what that fight is about.”

While canvassing a Claymont neighborhood on a Saturday in October 2019, McBride talked to residents about these issues specifically. Young families, older couples and single people all voice concerns that begin to repeat themselves the longer she walked door to door.

While canvassing a Delaware neighborhood on a Saturday in October 2019, McBride speaks to residents about issues like health care, education and more./Photo by Suchat Pederson

These conversations didn’t stop when the campaign went virtual. McBride says her campaign was likely able to reach more people through phone banking. The issues they heard at voters’ front doors felt even more pressing on the phones as Delawareans stressed their concerns when the COVID-19 pandemic showed how fragile some systems had become.

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“The crisis that we’re in has compounded and deepened those issues,” McBride explains. “They’ve reinforced the need for health care for every person, they’ve reinforced the challenges and highlighted the need for the challenges in public education and the need for strong public schools.” 

Plus, the conversation around racism and the Black Lives Matter movement shows there’s more work to be done on social justice. McBride says the country is at a historic inflection point as Americans face a devastating public health crisis, a crushing economic crisis and a historic call for racial justice. All combined, they’re requiring a reimagination of American life. And McBride saw that there was no time to waste.

“We have to meet this moment with meaningful process,” she says. 

Constructing a Passion

McBride is a Delaware native to her core.

The graduate of Cab Calloway School of the Arts grew up in the Senate district she ‘s representing in the Highlands on West 17th Street. There are eight- and 10-year age gaps between her and her two older brothers.

“I was a happy accident, I think,” she says, laughing.

The siblings were raised by parents Dave and Sally McBride. Dave is an attorney at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor LLP, and Sally was a guidance counselor who got involved in advocacy, helping found Cab in the early 1990s.

As a child, McBride thought she’d become an architect. But through reading about the history of famous buildings and structures, she came across the White House and the Capitol.

“I think, in many ways as a young person who was finding themselves, in reading the history books I found a lot of hope and inspiration,” McBride says.

Stumbling across history sparked her deep interest in politics.

“It felt like an outlet for me to take some of the struggles I was dealing with and push them into actions to create a better world if not for myself, for other people to live their lives to the fullest,” she says.

McBride began working in politics at a young age, aiding the campaigns of former Gov. Jack Markell and the late Attorney General Beau Biden./Photo by Suchat Pederson

The first campaign McBride was meaningfully involved with was Matthew Denn’s run for insurance commissioner. She was 13. Helping with Denn’s campaign allowed her to combine politics and film; sometimes she’d hand out literature and other times she’d shoot footage, which led to McBride and a group of friends creating a documentary about the candidate for school.

During the campaign, McBride met Markell and Beau Biden. She went on to help with Biden’s 2006 campaign for attorney general and intern for Markell’s gubernatorial campaign in 2007. In 2008, she was a Markell campaign field organizer for the 4th District. She later worked for Biden again during his reelection campaign as a volunteer coordinator and field director.

Markell, who first met McBride when she was only 12 years old at the Democratic State Convention in Dover, saw something unique about her immediately. Today, Markell credits much of his success to McBride’s continued work with his campaign. “I don’t think I ever would have been elected governor without her,” he says in an interview with Delaware Today in 2019.

He had no doubt she would one day run for a political seat.

“She’s the whole package of caring about the issues, putting other people’s interests before her own,” he says. “It was never about her. She has this deep commitment to actually serve and make life better for others, and she’s got this natural charisma.”

Changing Delaware

Five years after first helping with Markell’s campaign, McBride stood behind the governor as he signed the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act in 2013.

McBride had advocated for the bill, which ensures equal legal protections for transgender individuals in Delaware. The bill makes discrimination against a person on the basis of gender identity illegal and provides for increased punishment of a person who intentionally selects the victim of a crime because of the victim’s gender identity.

“That was a really cool opportunity to see those hopes come full circle,” she says.

Working on the Markell and Biden campaigns, McBride saw firsthand how a successful campaign isn’t about the candidate but instead is about the voters they’re representing.

She strived to make her candidacy about the voters since the beginning, focusing on community issues including paid family leave, health care, education and criminal justice.

Paid family and parental leave are deeply personal for McBride: She was the primary caregiver for her late husband, Andy Cray, who died of cancer in 2014. Even with a flexible job and the support of family and friends, that period of her life was difficult, she says.

“That’s a driving motivator for why I’m running—because I believe everyone should have the kind of support I had in those trying moments in my own life,” she said in 2019.

McBride in October 2019 with canvassing volunteer Ryan Nowaczyk./Photo by Suchat Pederson

McBride wants Delaware to offer a universal paid family and medical leave plan as a benefit, rather than a cost and staffing burden, to small businesses. With such a plan in place, Delawareans could sustain an income even while going through challenging times.

“No one should have to give up their income in order to start a family or in order to take care of their health or the health of a loved one,” she says.

As a state Senator, McBride says she’s ready to work with the General Assembly and Gov. John Carney. The most important issue remains the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s important to remember how many things impact one another.

Her governing philosophy follows an Audre Lorde quote: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

“We know that all of these issues intersect in the personal lives of residents across my district and across the state of Delaware. And it won’t be enough for us to solve just some of their problems. We need to try and make progress on all of the challenges they face.”

A Wedding Band

Becoming the first openly transgender person to serve as a state Senator in the country is something McBride doesn’t take lightly.

“I take the potential of being the first openly transgender state Senator as a responsibility to make sure that I make the communities I call home proud,” she said in 2019. “That includes the community that I live in, that includes the communities throughout this district and of course it includes the LGBTQ community.”

Indeed, McBride says her most defining experience in her life isn’t being transgender, it was being a caregiver to Cray. She continues to carry on his legacy by effecting change through policy.

“I feel closest to him and I feel that he’s alive when he’s continuing to make change [through our work today],” she says.

McBride and Nowaczyk canvas a Claymont neighborhood pre-pandemic./Photo by Suchat Pederson

When facing decisions, McBride says she asks herself what Andy would do. She remembers their long conversations about being bold in politics and having big ideas. In his final weeks of life, the couple talked about his fear of death and how he wouldn’t be there to celebrate the small and big moments. But on one specific night, she recounts, Cray was upset—not about what he himself would miss out on but rather what he wouldn’t be able to do for other people. Among those things was being able to tell McBride he loved her and was proud of her.

“Almost perfectly that conversation is seared into my memory, which means that I can hear him say ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m proud of you,’” McBride says.

Early on in her candidacy, McBride didn’t know how she would honor her husband if she won the election, she says. His family would be there because they remain close, but she’d also honor him by continuing to wear her wedding ring.

After her victory, McBride recognizes the world looks very different now from how it looked then. And while she hasn’t thought about how exactly she’d celebrate, she knows Cray was there during the entire campaign. She constantly tried to channel his optimism, kindness and conviction that everyone deserves healthcare.

“And that’s what I’ll be thinking of when I take the oath of office,” she says.

Published as “Civic Pride” in the December 2020 issue of Delaware Today.

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