'I'm a Senator.' Sarah McBride Takes No Prisoners, No Guff - OZY | A Modern Media Company

'I'm a Senator.' Sarah McBride Takes No Prisoners, No Guff

'I'm a Senator.' Sarah McBride Takes No Prisoners, No Guff

By Isabelle Lee


Because telling the truth is a heavy lift in the best of circumstances.

By Isabelle Lee

When contacted by an internet troll asking whether she was a girl or a boy, proud Delaware native Sarah McBride had a pretty epic clapback: “I’m a senator.” See, the newly elected McBride is the first transgender state senator, and she’s already making waves as a fierce advocate for the state she calls one big neighborhood. The self-described “political nerd” comes to The Carlos Watson Show to discuss her road to self-acceptance, the importance of service and overcoming fears. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Loving Politics: Let Her Count the Ways

Carlos Watson: Now, what about political nerdom — and I say this as a political nerd myself — what delightful, political nerdom excited you as an 11-year-old? What were you all talking about?

Sarah McBride: Oh, well, I don’t know how delightful I was. But I got involved in politics, I got interested in politics, I actually think because of my own journey to self-acceptance. I was very young, I was particularly interested in architecture as a kid. I still love architecture. I think it’s the most beautiful form of art that exists. I thought I wanted to be an architect. So, as a 6- and 7-year-old, I was reading about all these different buildings that I found beautiful, and I stumbled across some books about the Capitol and the White House.

After reading those books, I discovered not just the buildings, but the history that occurred within those buildings. And I saw that government and politics can be a place where people come together to really change and improve their communities and their country and their world.

As a young person, not just struggling with who I am, but struggling with how I fit into this world and seeing that the world that I was currently in wasn’t ready for someone like me, I found a lot of hope in reading about the history in those buildings. And then increasingly just the history that people in politics had helped deliver in expanding on quality and justice and dignity for more and more people. So, I developed that love of politics because I found hope in the social change that filled the history books’ pages.

Living the Life Authentic

Watson: When did you, either to yourself or to others, speak your truth?

McBride: It was during my junior year at American University. I’d been elected student body president in my sophomore year and I served throughout my junior year. And it was in that experience that I had this opportunity to bring about change in a community I cared about.

I had always told myself that if I could do that, if I could help bring about change, if I could make life a little bit easier, including for maybe some trans folks in my community, if I could make life a little bit easier, perhaps that would be so fulfilling that it would fill the void in my life, that it would heal the pain and that it would be a sacrifice of staying in the closet that would be worth it. And it was in that experience, as student body president, I had this first opportunity to really make a meaningful difference in a community I cared about, that I saw that all of the things I rationalized would make that pain go away, wouldn’t.

Simultaneously, it was through that experience and the criticism and all of that, that comes with being in a leadership role and particularly that leadership role at that college where it’s the most politically active campus in the country. Being student body president, you’re in the hot seat, and between the sort of thickening of my skin and the experiences I had, I finally was able to really just come to terms with the fact that there’s no path out of this. There is nothing that will make this better, short of accepting it and living it.

So I first told a friend or two that I was struggling with my gender. I thought maybe I’m nonbinary, or genderqueer was really the term at the time, sort of stepping out and seeing how people would respond.

Then I actually started dating a guy, right? At this point, I had been perceived as a cisgender nontransgender straight boy. So I started dating this guy and I saw through this one step of breaking a stereotype of sort of deviating from the norm that my world didn’t come crashing down. Once that happened, it was … I’m an impatient person … it was a pretty quick process from that. I mean, a matter of weeks to then sitting on a couch right before Christmas with a friend, and I said, I think it’s just a matter of time until I come out. And it was really only a matter of time. Two days later, I came out to my parents.

Watson: And by then were you nervous? Were you excited? Were you relieved? Were you in a rush? 

McBride: All of the above. I think more than anything else, I was scared. What that process of coming to terms with my truth and coming to terms with the fact that I needed to come out, that process in many ways was a grieving process. I had to grieve any kind of vision of myself moving forward that would find love, that would be able to live in this community that I love, and a future that included me working on things that I loved.

So I had to go through that process of grieving, those stages of grieving, the final stage of grief being acceptance. And that acceptance of a loss of a future coincided with the acceptance of myself.

The Duality of the Trans Woman’s Experience

Watson: Talk to me about what you discovered after you transitioned and after people began perceiving you and seeing you as a woman. Was there a meaningful difference? Were there things that surprised you?

McBride: It’s, I think, first, important for me to preface this by saying the world perceived me one way for the first 21 years of my life. And I certainly benefited from a lot of the privileges that came with the world perceiving me a certain way. That also doesn’t mean that I wasn’t internalizing a lot of the sexism and misogyny. A lot of the shame that a trans person, particularly a trans woman who is in the closet, feels is a shame for knowing who you are, knowing that you’re a woman and the societal messages of inferiority.

You internalize that. So I think it’s important to recognize that while the outside world perceived me and provided me certain privileges, internally, I wasn’t … my experience wasn’t the same as a cisgender boy’s experience. But I think to the point that you asked and to the point that I just made, there were dramatic differences in how the world perceived me.

As someone who really did think a lot about the phobias and the isms in the world before I came out, even with that, I think it is very hard to understand just how pervasive these prejudices are until you experience them firsthand. And when it comes to misogyny and sexism, it is a world of double standards, right?

You’re treated like both a delicate infant and a sexualized idol in the exact same moment. You are facing a world that dismisses your thoughts, dismisses your emotions, dismisses your experiences almost out of hand. I don’t think people understand until they experience it, just how dehumanizing it is for strangers to feel entitled to comment on your body merely because you have the audacity to walk past them on the street, right? And again, this isn’t an experience unique to women. This is an experience that is common across marginalized identities, that sort of public ownership of the body and that public entitlement to comment and regulate that body.

So I think it was incredibly eye-opening. And again, I talked about that intersectional lens. I think street harassment is the perfect example of this, right? Because as a woman, I’m walking down the street, and I might walk by a group of men who catcall.

In that instant, in that moment, I’m fearful as a woman, I’m dehumanized as a woman. And in the next split second, I’m fearful as a trans person because I know one of the most dangerous things for a trans woman is a cisgender straight man who maybe is a little bit insecure about who they are and their identities and their sexuality, realizing that they’ve been catcalling a trans woman.

You can’t separate those fears and those experiences. They’re happening at the exact same moment. But I think you see that very clearly after you come out.

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