Sarah McBride’s Congress run is a beacon of hope

OPINION: If elected, McBride would bring hope to Virginians—and to trans people across the U.S.

Plenty of openly trans people have run for higher office in the last decade. There was Misty Snow in Utah in 2016, and Christine Halquist’s unsuccessful run for governor of Vermont in 2018, but so far no openly trans politician has ever won election to the highest legislative body in the U.S.: Congress. That all could be set to change in this upcoming election thanks to this week’s announcement of Delaware state senator Sarah McBride’s campaign for Delaware’s sole congressional seat.

Though nothing is for certain, many political prognosticators have already predicted McBride as the likely winner of the race in the heavily blue state, putting her on the precipice of making queer history. This run has been a long time coming for the politician, who has built her electoral power the old-fashioned way: by fostering relationships with key political figures and focusing not on her identity, but instead on her constituents.

McBride has been on course for this election from early in her adulthood, first becoming student body president at American University before her coming out letter in the school newspaper went viral in 2012. Under the Obama administration, McBride became the first ever openly trans White House intern, according to her memoir Tomorrow Will Be Different.

Later, she grew close with the Biden family after serving on Beau Biden’s campaign for Delaware attorney general, and President Joe Biden wrote the foreword for her memoir, where he reiterated his oft-quoted saying that trans issues are the “civil rights issue of our time.”

She also gave an amazing speech to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, declaring herself “a proud transgender American,” while introducing herself to the gathered crowd.

After a stint as National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, McBride successfully ran for the Delaware state senate, becoming the first-ever openly trans elected official to hold a seat in a state’s upper chamber.

I had the chance to profile McBride for Vox in 2019, and it remains one of my more memorable pieces of work from my own career. Up until that point, we had only really known one another on Twitter, but getting the chance to sit down and have a face-to-face discussion about her candidacy for state senate, the Trump administration and the trans issues of that day was fun. But interviewing former governor Jack Markell, and a bunch of other important people from Delaware really allowed me a look into her life and all the people she’s positively affected.

 

The political situation for trans people—and trans political candidates—has changed significantly since then.

The number of openly trans state-level elected officials has grown to the point where one individual trans person elected to a state house is no longer newsworthy, but an openly trans U.S. representative in 2024 would represent a seismic shift in the national conversation over the lives of trans people.

At the same time, opposition to trans lives has become the core bigotry driving the Republican base. But McBride is far from the only high-profile trans politician working today. Rather than forcing trans people to back down, the growth in Republican opposition to trans issues has motivated more and more of us to launch political careers.

Perhaps most famously, there’s Virginia state delegate Danica Roem, who ran on a platform of fixing traffic on Route 28, a prominent and aggravating local highway that runs through the heart of her district. More recently, we’ve seen the rise in popularity of Montana State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, who was censured by conservative legislators in her state for saying that an anti-trans bill under debate in her chamber would end up killing trans kids.

The stories of these state legislators have helped buoy morale within the trans community, even under the dark legislative regimes now in place in red states. When I talk to other trans people about trans politicians, a common sentiment comes up: we have people in the room where it happens. There is at least some comfort in knowing we are represented in rooms where laws that seek to limit our rights are being debated.

“Having someone in the room who understands what it means to be trans, who has their own personal stakes in the highly political discussion, is power.”

While the presence of a trans official doesn’t necessarily prevent transphobic bills from being introduced, now, at least, some state legislators who wish to curb trans rights have to look across the aisle and acknowledge a trans representative as they pass these heinous laws. And that, in and of itself, has power.

Having someone in the room who understands what it means to be trans, who has their own personal stakes in the highly political discussion, is power.

Many Republicans in Congress have made a name for themselves, and brought in campaign fundraising, by further driving the moral panic against trans people. They spread myths and misconceptions about us trans women in particular. If McBride is elected, at least some of these politicians will have to work alongside her.

I’m not looking forward to the transphobic stunts some Republicans might try to pull against McBride, or whoever ends up the first openly trans congressperson. Decorum rules in the chamber mean that representatives are referred to in official business as “gentleman” or “gentlewoman” from whichever state they’re from, offering conservatives a chance to troll and misgender any trans colleagues.
I have no doubt that if anyone is equipped to deal with such conduct, it’s the imminently cool-headed and professional McBride. But beyond inevitable Republican histrionics, the election of McBride would instantly become a beacon of hope for a trans community who desperately need it.

If she could make it in the intimidating marble halls of Congress, mixing every day with the most vehement merchants of hate against our community, then trans people can achieve anything. Little trans kids who have faced the full-frontal assault of a society in panic can look to her and realize that there just may be some light at the end of the long tunnel.

McBride likely feels that she’s running to represent the interests of the great state of Delaware, and there’s little doubt she’d excel at that, but for trans people, she would be our representative as well.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

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