Sarah McBride is national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, but she is probably best known for her historic address to the Democratic National Convention in 2016. The 27-year-old Delaware native had come out as transgender just four years earlier, as a college senior, with an announcement that catapulted her into LGBTQ activism. Three weeks later, McBride was invited to President Obama’s LGBT Pride Month celebration at the White House, where she met her future husband, Andrew Cray, a transgender man and activist who died of cancer four days after they married in 2014.
Under the Trump administration, McBride has been at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement, a voice of opposition as the administration deleted an LGBTQ rights Web page from White House site, pushed to ban trans people in the U.S. military, and rescinded Obama’s guidance that helped protect transgender people from discrimination. McBride also spoke to the clash between some activists about whether feminists are sufficiently supporting the trans community. In January, actor Rose McGowan canceled her book tour after a trans protester was led out of her event shouting “white CIS feminism” — a charge that McGowan’s activism excluded transgender women and women of color.
We caught up with McBride this month while she’s on tour for her new memoir, “Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss and the Fight for Trans Equality,” and talked to her about transgender identity, the state of the movement and what led her to activism. Our interview has been edited and condensed.
About US: In the book, you talk about “homesickness” as a way for cisgender people — those whose gender identity corresponds with their sex at birth — to understand what it means to be transgender. What do you mean?
McBride: I felt a constant ache in the pit of my stomach that would only go away when I could be seen as myself. It wasn’t that I felt that I was born in the wrong body, rather that I was not living my own life as me, and society wasn’t seeing me in my totality. When gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals come out, their friends and families, for the most part, understand what it feels like to love and to lust. Cisgender people have more of a challenge when it comes to transgender identities. I discovered that analogy of homesickness in conversations with my parents, in trying to bridge that empathy divide. It was the best emotion I could use to get them to wrap their minds around that pain that exists when you’re not living your life as who you know yourself to be.
Even though there’s a photo of you as a boy in the book, you never reveal your birth name. What is in a name, and why go to such lengths to erase it?
I’ve always been Sarah. My gender identity has always existed. I’ve always been a woman. Gay people aren’t straight before they come out as gay, and transgender people are who they are before they come out and transition. I wanted to underscore that permanency of my identity by not using my birth name. Even when well-intentioned people gain that information, you can see their minds detransition you and begin to think of you not as you are but as who society used to think you were. I wanted people to see me as me.
Many people thought there would be a backlash after the Supreme Court, in the 2015 Obergefell decision, ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Why do you think much of that anti-LGBTQ backlash has been focused on transgender people?
There was no question after Obergefell that, having lost that fight so clearly, anti-equality extremists went looking for their next one. But it wasn’t just a post-Obergefell situation. Had that not happened, we’d still see the backlash on trans rights. Each time politicians come for us, it ends up creating a national dialogue that opens hearts and changes minds. Those conversations sow the seeds of the destruction of hate. We’re in this period of unprecedented attacks on the community, but each time they come for us it only makes us stronger. Last year HRC counted at least 28 murders of transgender people in the United States, the most ever recorded.
What’s next in terms of trans activism?
The Trump-Pence administration has truly become one of the most explicitly anti-LGBTQ administrations in history. We have to continue to resist attacks. But while we do that, we are still moving equality forward — whether it’s passing more inclusive laws at the state and local level or opening hearts and changing minds through storytelling, creating space for families, workplaces and faith communities to welcome an LGBTQ loved one. When you know someone’s story, it becomes much harder to hate them.
One of the issues within the transgender movement is that it appears to clash with modern feminism. What’s your take?
I think modern feminists and young feminists understand that feminism has to be intersectional. It’s a small group of self-identified feminists who don’t really understand who transgender people are. They are seeking to preserve an unnuanced feminism. The reality is that if your beliefs invalidate a person’s humanity, then change your beliefs. Don’t undermine that person’s humanity.
Are you going to run for office? There’s talk about that in D.C. I’ve heard LGBTQ advocates discuss that.
[Former Vice President Joe Biden’s son] Beau Biden taught me that life has a way of intervening when you make plans. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years, it’s who knows what’s in store? Maybe down the road I’ll run for office, but honestly, I’m fulfilled with the work I’m doing right now.