‘We’ve seen an incredible sea change’: Trans author Sarah McBride reflects on progress of equality

"It is a unique challenge to have to prove to others that you are, quite simply, a person."

CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

In her 27 years, activist and author Sarah McBride has already experienced many significant life events. Her new memoir, Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality documents the whirlwind that has been her past six years.

In 2012, she came out as transgender as she finished her term as student body president at American University. She went on to become the first openly trans intern at the White House, the face of the fight for transgender equality in Delaware, and in 2016, the first openly trans speaker at a national political convention. Along the way, she fell in love with another young trans activist, Andrew Cray, taking care of him through a grueling fight with cancer that he ultimately lost — just days after they married.

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Both McBride and Cray worked at the Center for American Progress (CAP) and collaborated with ThinkProgress on many occasions. McBride, who now serves as National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), spoke with ThinkProgress Monday about the kinds of conversations her book is sparking, the legacy of Cray’s work in LGBTQ health care advocacy, and the state of the transgender movement.

CREDIT: Noam Galai/Getty Images
CREDIT: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Zack Ford: One of the things I remember us working together on was a conversation about how inappropriate it was for Katie Couric to ask trans model Carmen Carerra questions about her body and her transition. I think we’ve come a long way in the four years since then, and certainly Katie Couric has, but as someone who’s out there doing interviews in part about your own coming out journey, what have you noticed about how the conversation on transgender issues has changed even in that short period of time?

Sarah McBride: That’s a great question. I think over the last five to six years we’ve seen an incredible sea change in the way we talk about trans equality, particularly nationally. As more and more transgender people have come out, as we’ve debated these issues in the public square more and more, we’re seeing that journalists and the broader public are better able to engage in these conversations in respectful ways.

I think that in many cases, folks like Katie Couric have allowed themselves to provide teachable moments to the broader public. I think that moment with Katie, Carmen, and Laverne [Cox] was actually a pretty significant moment in national media and I think it taught a lot of reporters how to go about reporting on transgender people. But I think the reason why is: Every single time we have a conversation nationally on trans equality — whether it’s the byproduct of a positive development or the byproduct of a politician trying to legalize or legislate discrimination — it ends up creating a dialogue that opens hearts and changes minds.

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Because the more we talk about trans equality — the more we talk about trans people — the harder it becomes for anti-equality extremists to demonize us, and the more journalists and the public as a whole see us as whole people.

Have you personally seen different kinds of questions than you might have expected or had different kinds of conversations with the book coming out than you expected?

Yes, thinking about some of the questions I got from the media during the fight for equality in Delaware, when we passed the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act [in 2013]… Back then, I remember getting asked questions about my body pretty frequently on the record. When I would push back and say that, to me, my personal medical history is just that — it’s personal — reporters that I talked to were incredulous that I wasn’t willing to answer that question. Whereas now, it’s rare that I have a journalist cross that kind of boundary with me.

I also think that we’ve gotten to a place — it’s pretty incredible — where, six years ago, five years ago, there was such a knowledge gap on trans issues that you had to provide just a basic definition at the start of a conversation, whereas now, people generally enter those conversations or enter those pieces with a baseline level of understanding, and maybe even now, increasingly, a personal reference point for transgender identity. And again, that base level of knowledge and increasing base level of personal experience has transformed the way we talk about trans identities and transformed our ability to move past the “Trans 101” conversations.

You talk a lot about Andy [Cray] in your book, and when Andy worked at CAP, he collaborated with ThinkProgress on occasion, stressing important issues like respecting that transition is medically necessary for many trans people, promoting the way Obamacare helps protect LGBTQ people, LGBTQ veterans’ health care, and the way “religious freedom” is used to justify refusing LGBTQ people health care. Your book preserves Andy’s reputation in a profound way, but how would you describe the legacy of his work?

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I think, in short, Andy’s work was lifesaving. Andy, I think, viewed access to health care as sort of a first basic right — that if you can’t access the kind of health care you need to live and thrive, all of the other rights fall away, because if you can’t live, then you can’t pursue happiness, you can’t have liberty. And so, in many ways, I think Andy viewed his work as foundational, that it was a first step in creating a world where every person can live their life to the fullest.

I think as much as people understand the challenges and the fact that transgender people face far too much discrimination and stigma, I don’t think people fully understand just how pervasive that can be in medical settings — and because it’s so pervasive in medical settings, just how consequential that discrimination and stigma can be in health outcomes.

I think Andy’s work is something the community still feels today. It’s rare that I don’t come across someone who talks to me about their expanded access to health care under the Affordable Care Act or their ability to access medically necessary transition-related care and how much they know Andy’s work impacted their ability to access that kind of care. So it’s work that lives on, and in many ways, reflecting on Andy’s legacy and his life reinforces to me that we all do live on in our words and in our deeds and Andy most certainly lives on in the lives of the transgender people who are now able to live more wholly and fully because of the work that he was proud to be a part of.

Of his accomplishments, are there certain things that you think have stood the test of time better than the others? Are there things he was fighting for half a decade ago that we’re still fighting in the same way now? How would you assess the work he was doing in the current climate?

I think in many ways Andy was ahead of his time. Andy was building the foundation for a lot of the arguments that we saw utilized after his passing when the Obama administration issued a regulation protecting transgender people and same-sex couples from discrimination in health care under the Affordable Care Act. That was a byproduct of legal theories, legal philosophies, and legal thinking that Andy had pioneered in local work with states across the country in banning exclusions against transgender people in health insurance plans when it comes to transition-related care.

“When a person lives at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, the bigotry and animus that they face can oftentimes lead to fatal violence.”

So I think Andy was a pioneer and he was on the forefront of an issue that ended up peaking in many ways after he passed, which I think is a testament to his skill and his mind.

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What do you currently see as some of the top priorities in transgender advocacy? In particular, is there anything that might not be on a lot of people’s radar that is central to your work?

I think frankly the two biggest issues that the trans community faces are two issues that get far too infrequent attention. The first is that in a majority of states and at the federal level, transgender people and LGBTQ people more broadly still lack clear and explicit protections from discrimination. Eighty to 90 percent of the public thinks that discrimination is clearly illegal against LGBTQ people because they understand how offensive and wrong it is, but they don’t realize that those protections do not explicitly exist yet. As I talk about in the book, from my time at CAP through my time at HRC, passage of the Equality Act remains of the utmost importance to the LGBTQ community.

The second issue that gets far too infrequent attention is the epidemic of violence that targets transgender people and particularly transgender women of color. We know of almost 30 transgender people who were killed last year alone. The stories and the faces we have are likely an undercount of the reality of the violence that occurred.

That violence is the byproduct of the toxic combination of transphobia, homophobia, racism, and misogyny and the fact that when those prejudices are combined, when a person lives at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, the bigotry and animus that they face can oftentimes lead to fatal violence. It is an epidemic of violence that does not get enough attention, and it needs more attention not just by the public but by lawmakers and policymakers.

Much of your own journey has been marked by being a transgender person working on transgender issues in a prominent spotlight, such as being the first trans White House intern, being the first trans person to speak at a national political convention, and, of course, your work as the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. What is it like to do work that is tied so closely to your identity?

Well there’s no question that the political is personal. When the work you’re doing every single day is so directly about who you are as an individual and who you are as a person, it can be both exhausting and empowering in different moments.

One of the things that I talk about in the book is the experience of advocating for protections in Delaware, and — as empowering and hopeful as it was at the end of that process — in the moment, as you are trying to explain your basic humanity to people over and over again, it can be dehumanizing. I think the broader public doesn’t fully realize just how (at times) demoralizing and dehumanizing it can be to have to prove your basic humanity to a world that so often sends the exact opposite message: that you aren’t worthy of dignity, that you aren’t worthy of respect, that you aren’t a full and equal person. So whether it’s the work I’m doing, or whether it’s the hard work so many people are doing across the country on trans equality, it’s hard work. It is a unique challenge to have to prove to others that you are, quite simply, a person.

“I think the broader public doesn’t fully realize just how … demoralizing and dehumanizing it can be to have to prove your basic humanity to a world that so often sends the exact opposite message.”

Having said that, in this work and in this advocacy, you often get to see the best of humanity. In my view, the best of humanity is in our exercise of empathy and compassion. It’s when we challenge ourselves to walk in the shoes of someone whose pain or plight might seem so different than yours that it’s almost incomprehensible. Time and time again, we have seen a growing alliance of allies who are willing to stand with trans people, who are educating themselves on trans identity and trans equality, and who understand that our lives are worth celebrating and that our cause matters. When those moments happen, when that progress occurs, it’s absolutely without question a more profound and powerful experience than the moments of hardship or difficulty or demoralization.

How has the Trump administration changed that experience in terms of the political being personal?

There’s no question that we’ve gone from a presidency of progress to a presidency of prejudice in the Trump/Pence administration. This is an administration that, despite the fact that Donald Trump said that he would be a friend to the LGBTQ community when he ran for office, has spent their entire administration attempting to roll back the clock on our progress and target and legislate and legalize discrimination. From the earliest weeks of this administration, they have targeted, in particular, transgender people and transgender youth.

We saw that with the rolling back of guidance promoting the protection of transgender students. We saw it recently when the Department of Education said they would outright reject discrimination complaints coming out from transgender kids if the discrimination occurs in restrooms. We have seen an administration that is in a word: cruel. They have been heartless and discriminatory time after time in the policies they’ve sought to implement.

But as I said before, I think that in each instance, this administration has been surprised by the pushback that they’ve received. I think the time has come for anti-equality politicians to begin to understand that targeting transgender people for discrimination is not just morally wrong, it’s bad politics. I think this administration has seen that, whether it’s in response to their attempts to discriminate against trans students or their attempts to discriminate against transgender troops. When we create this national conversation, it only serves to open hearts and change minds, and in so doing, sow the seeds of the destruction of the politics of hate and the policies that they seek to implement.

This administration has been in many ways the most explicitly anti-LGBTQ administration in history, but it’s also proven that no presidency and no election will, in the end, halt the momentum of our movement and stand in the way of our progress.

You’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot as part of your work. What have you learned about the queer people across this country and the lives that they’re living?

One of the things that I think is most profound and so often lost in our debate is that the LGBTQ community is as diverse as this nation. We are women, we are Muslim, we are immigrants, we are people of color, we are people with disabilities, and the challenges we are facing as a community cannot just be limited to issues of gender identity. They also include access to health care, economic opportunity, a criminal justice system that is stacked against particularly people of color.

There are so many challenges we face as a community, and when I travel around the country, that’s what I hear: that transgender people need change and they need change on all fronts. And that’s one of the reasons why, in my work, and in the work of my colleagues at HRC and at so many advocacy organizations, we approach this work with an intersectional lens and understand the Audre Lorde quote that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because no one lives single-issue lives. I think that is abundantly clear to me as I travel across this country, as I do this work, as I meet more and more LGBTQ people — it’s that our fight cannot be siloed.

One of the great things about meeting the community is I get to meet a lot of young trans kids, who in many ways give me an incredible amount of hope in these political moments. They are the personification of our progress because they are doing what seemed so impossible to me growing up. They are both living their truth and dreaming big dreams all at the same time.

When I see them march into the Texas state capitol or when I see them marching in a Pride parade with their parents, I see that they are able to hold in one hand the knowledge of all of the hate that exists in this world, but hold in the other the knowledge that their identities are worth celebrating their lives matter. If those seven-, eight-, nine-year-old transgender kids are able to hold those seemingly contradictory concepts within their souls and within their bodies and move forward, then I think the rest of us can do so too.

Your book struck me as sort of being a period for the last chapter in a series of many significant life experiences in your mid-20s, one after the other, with the book itself being one of them. Do you feel a sense of closure from that, and if so, how do you look at your future? What’s next for Sarah McBride with all of this neatly packaged in the book and the future sort of laid out before you?

I feel really privileged to have been able to write this book and to have, throughout the process, reflected on experiences over the last six years and drawn lessons and hope from those experiences. They are lessons I carry with me in my own advocacy.

Right now, I think this is a really critical moment in the fight for trans equality. I think this next election is of the utmost importance to the LGBTQ community. This is our ability to stop the politics of hate in its tracks, to elect more pro-equality candidates up and down the ballot, and right now, that is my focus: to make sure that we are pushing back against the politics of hate, while continuing to open hearts, change minds, and amplify diverse stories from within the trans community.

In the long term, who knows? I’ve always loved politics, but for me, politics has always been about fixing society and changing society. My interest in politics was always a byproduct of my desire to make change, and I feel like I get to make change every single day in my job right now. But down the road, who knows what life has in store for me?

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last six years — with every single year being different than I expected — it’s that when you make plans, life has a way of intervening.

Tomorrow Will Be Different is now on sale.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.