One Person Can Make a Difference…Just Ask Sarah McBride
I know that I sound like a broken record when I say it takes intentional acts to create an inclusive world. Wilmington native Sarah McBride’s announcement that she was running for Delaware’s 1st Senate District qualifies as a very big one. Should McBride be elected next year, she would be America’s first openly transgender state senator.
Openly gay South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is also bucking conventional wisdom as to who is qualified to run for office by seeking the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States. Even if both candidates fail, the ripple effects of these singular acts will reverberate for generations to come. Sound familiar?
The election of Barack Obama shattered long-held beliefs that an African-American was not capable of winning the highest office in the land. While some continue to debate his impact as a president, no one can argue that he gave African-Americans a reason to be optimistic about the course of our nation.
Greater visibility of LGBTQ people in all walks of life, combined with rulings like the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, have helped to dispel negative stereotypes. More importantly, it has shifted how American voters evaluate candidates: more on what they have to offer and less on their sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, a recent NBC News poll showed that a combined 68 percent polled are either enthusiastic (14 percent) or comfortable (54 percent) with a candidate who is gay or lesbian.
Which brings me back to Sarah McBride and her decision to run for state level office. In her campaign launch video, Sarah speaks about growing up in Delaware and a desire to fight for affordable and accessible health care for all. There is no mention about being transgender.
But, because of her advocacy work for transgender rights over the years—including currently serving as the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign—much of the news coverage has made her gender the headline of the story. Some might say this is progress while others feel that focusing on who she is diminishes what she brings to the table as a candidate.
I have been aware of Sarah’s journey from her days as a student at American University (AU). At the time, Sarah was also a fraternity brother of my husband Greg’s nephew, David, and the student body president. At the end of junior year, Sarah revealed in an Op-Ed in the student newspaper, the Eagle, that she was transgender and now identified as a woman—introducing herself to the campus community.
I can still remember the nonchalant way David shared the news with my husband Greg and me, which I attributed in part to the fact that his “Guncles” have been part of his life since birth. This was a far cry from my own experience while at Georgetown when my best friends asked me to move out of our house after learning I was gay.
Like the rest of us who have already come out, news reports state that both McBride and Buttigieg feared close friends and others would reject them after knowing their truth. For Sarah, quite the opposite occurred as she spoke about in a June 2012 interview. “Between winter break and May 1, when I came out in the Eagle, I told about 115 people, most of them peers, some of them former teachers, professors, and administrators at AU, and everyone met my news with excitement, happiness, relief, and acceptance,” McBride said.
To gain greater perspective, I reached out to Palak Gosar, who first met Sarah freshman year when they were members of College Democrats. Palak grew up in a smallish town outside of Houston and had little interaction with LGBTQ people. It was not until he arrived at American University that he formed a friendship with an openly gay person let alone someone who was transgender.
Over the next two years, Gosar and McBride became friends, in part, because they shared a passion for progressive ideas. At the end of sophomore year, McBride got elected student body president and was widely liked across campus and within Sigma Phi Epsilon.
During his one-on-one conversation with Sarah, she provided a safe space for Palak to ask any questions he had about what it meant to be transgender. To this day, he attributes the American University community’s broad support of Sarah for her willingness to be as open as possible during this process.
What Sarah and Mayor Pete have in common is they intentionally made a decision to live their lives openly and honestly and in doing so, helped to educate those around them about sexual orientation and gender identity. While I know they prefer not to be called heroes, their honesty provides a beacon of hope for others like them who struggle with their own identity. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality and opportunity in the workplace and the community.