“I’m proud of who I am, but I’m more than one identity”: The fight for transgender voices in 2020

The first thing Sarah McBride did after launching her candidacy for the Delaware state senate was take a deep breath and press a button that launched her campaign website. The second thing she did: hug her mom.
The first thing Sarah McBride did after launching her candidacy for the Delaware state senate was take a deep breath and press a button that launched her campaign website. The second thing she did: hug her mom.
Any candidate is likely to experience these emotions, but if McBride feels a little more anxious than other political candidates, that’s not surprising.
Twenty-eight-year-old McBride, a transgender activist who was the first openly transgender person to address a major party convention in U.S. history at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, is running for the state legislature. If elected, she would become the first transgender state senator in U.S. history.

McBride, who came out in her school’s student-run newspaper at the end of her term as American University’s student government president in 2012, currently serves as the national press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group and political lobbying organization.

Her campaign has the support of some of Delaware’s best known politicians, including former Vice President Joe Biden’s family, Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, who called McBride a “tireless advocate and trailblazer” well-known throughout the state.

“It’s no surprise to see Sarah take the next step in her continued public service. I’m incredibly proud of all Sarah has already achieved and am excited to watch the next chapters in her career unfold,” Blunt Rochester told CBS

But while McBride is on the verge of having her next “first,” she would be joining a growing movement of transgender people running for and winning elected office.

A small, but mighty wave

Of the 715 LGBTQ elected officials nationwide, only 20 are transgender. McBride is hoping to make that 21.

State Rep. Brianna Titone of Colorado, the first openly transgender state legislator elected in her state and only the fourth ever elected in the U.S., says the rise in trans politicians speaks to the community’s greater spirit of public service.

“You see so many trans people in the military, in different public service type positions and there’s a reason, we care about our community just as everyone else does,” said Titone.

Titone, who was elected last year, says that though there aren’t many trans lawmakers, that’s sure to change in the near future.

“We’re still very under the radar…doing our legislation and governing the way we feel represents our community the best but it goes to show you it doesn’t matter what identity really means, if you have the passion to do what you need to do for your community, then you’ll do it and trans people have a desire to serve their communities.”

While the trans community has made significant progress over the last two election cycles at the state, local and administrative levels, progress has been slower at the federal level. In the 2018 midterms, none of the nine transgender candidates that ran for the U.S. House of Representatives won their races.

Brianna Westbrook, Vice Chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, says that’s due in part to two major obstacles: “Many of us ran in solidly Republican districts,” for one, and and the second factor, she said, is funding.

Westbrook, Arizona’s first transgender candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, lost in 2018, and notes that of the nine trans people who ran last year, “only three of us raised more than $5,000.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, explained that fundraising woes speak to the greater economic challenges trans people face across the country.

“It’s particularly hard for trans people to have economically stable lives and it’s hard to run for office if you’re not in an economically stable place,” she noted. “But great trans candidates are going to out-hustle anybody that does decide to run against them.”

Despite the obstacles, McBride is confident that the country is ready for more trans candidates.

“I think the change we’ve seen has helped to foster a society that recognizes that diversity is our strength and everyone should have a seat at the table, no one should be left behind.”

And that spirit seems to be paying off: In the first 12 hours after her campaign began, McBride took in $40,000 — the largest single-day haul in state legislative campaign history.

Much more than a “trans candidate”

McBride says that while her advocacy work will continue in the state Senate, her run is really a chance to give back to the community she grew up in.

“For me, I’m running for a seat in a district I was born and raised in. This was a community that has supported me and sustained me in some of the most challenging moments in my life, including the death of my spouse Andy. And with the announcement of the retirement of the incumbent it felt like the right opportunity to give back to a community that helped offer me so much,” McBride explained.

“I’m not running to be an LGBTQ state senator,” she said. “I’m proud of who I am, but I’m a lot more than one identity.”

McBride says that she’s seen first hand in her own advocacy work how efforts on the state and local level produce the most action legislatively.

“The state legislature is where the rubber meets the road on public policy,” she said.

McBride is also hoping to ride the same wave Delaware’s last election cycle saw which brought in a diverse array of young and progressive candidates to the state legislature. After the 2018 elections, a quarter of the state body was made up of new members.

“I think that’s a trend we’ve seen in Delaware and it’s a trend we’re seeing nationally of more young people running for office and winning,” said McBride. “Our governments should look like the people they seek to represent after all.”

Lessons learned

The progressive advocacy organization Run for Something launched in 2017 recruits and works with young candidates for down-ballot races. That year alone, eight transgender individuals were elected to public office — a record.

The group worked with Danica Roem, a trans woman who unseated a long-term incumbent for a Virginia House of Delegates seat in 2017. It also worked with Titone, who credits Roem with inspiring her to run a win a state representative seat in Colorado.

Amanda Litman, the founder of Run for Something, told CBS News that after Roem won in 2017, about a dozen transgender candidates reached out to the organization to ask for its help.

“It’s one of those things where once one person breaks down the barrier, it opens the door for so many others who didn’t think it was possible before,” Litman said.

Titone agreed.

“I know a few people that are running or plan to run in Colorado. It’s happening all over and I think we’re going to see more people, even for myself, I didn’t realize I couldn’t even win until Danica won at the state level,” said Titone.

Democratic leaders are gratified to see the rise in diversity in the party.

“I’m proud to be leading the work to protect and expand the most diverse House Majority in American history,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Cheri Bustos told CBS. “Members of our caucus from Chris Pappas to Sharice Davids have broken through tired stereotypes of ‘who’ can flip swing seats and ‘where.’ And let me tell you this — we’re just getting started.”

But what viable candidates like McBride have learned since is that identity politics alone won’t get more trans people elected.

“All the current state representatives who ran and won, ran on issues that were important to local people,” Keisling explained.

“Sarah [McBride] doesn’t hide her trans identity,” said Kiesling, who pointed out that “Nobody in Delaware is sitting and thinking ‘I hope to vote for a trans person.’ They are voting for someone who will improve their lives.”

Dr. Andrew Flores of UCLA’s Williams Institute agreed that for trans politicians, focusing a campaign around issues rather than identity is a big help at the ballot box.

“What seems to be the case is that candidates who are transgender focus on the issues pertinent to their constituents, and it’s their opponents who tend to focus on the fact that the candidate is a transgender person,” said Flores.

“While studies do suggest that people are less likely to support a political candidate who is transgender, yet we’ve seen, and I suspect will continue to see, transgender people win.”

What’s at stake

Across the board, trans politicians and advocacy groups say that issues like health care, including adequate access to transition-related services, and discrimination rank high among trans voters.

According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans people said that their top political priorities were addressing violence against transgender people (25%), health insurance coverage (15%), and combating racism (11%).

With increasingly strict voter ID laws across the country, trans people may also face barriers during elections — both because of difficulties in obtaining an ID that’s accepted, or because they might run into bias or misunderstanding of the law when it comes to their gender.

“The trans community, in particular, is arguably the most disproportional affected by strict voter ID laws because changing your photo identification, poses unique obstacles because it is not only costly but quite time-consuming,” Westbrook explained.

Advocacy groups have gone so far as to create “voting while trans” checklists in hopes of avoiding any voter suppression efforts.

McBride’s advocacy is credited with helping pass legislation in Delaware banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, housing, insurance, and public accommodations, something she says she’ll continue to fight for.

But as Keisling points out: “Trans people are importantly just people,” adding, “They care about taxes and gun control and reproductive rights, everything that everybody else cares about. Those are trans issues.”

Looking ahead

Beyond state elections, advocates say that outreach to the trans community is vital for every 2020 candidate. According to HRC, the LGBTQ vote is larger than the margin of victory in the last presidential election and larger than the margin of victory in down-ballot races in 2018.

“Representation is the only thing that really matters, and the people that are running that are not trans but are supportive of what we need — we’re going to be very particular about who we choose moving forward to make sure we’re not forgotten about,” said Titone.

Keisling, meanwhile, says in light of the Trump administration’s “disastrous” policies that impact the trans community directly, including the takedown of the Affordable Care Act and gutting of anti-discrimination protections, trans voters will be looking to counter Trump’s candidacy out of “sheer terror and disgust.”

“I’m not going to elect someone who only cares about trans issues, but I want to know they’re not going to attack me like me like Donald Trump has,” said Keisling.

“The sky is the limit”

For McBride, her run is a bittersweet one. After losing her husband Andrew Cray to cancer in 2014, McBride said not a day goes by without thinking: “What would Andy do?”

“I wake up every day and every decision I face, every thing I do I ask myself that,” she said.

“One of the most vivid conversations I had in the last month of his life was how scared he was of death and how sorry he was that he wouldn’t be here for me and wouldn’t be able to tell me that he’s proud of me,” McBride recalled, holding back tears. “It left so vividly in my mind him saying, ‘I love you and I’m proud of you’… I just hope he’s saying that right now.”

McBride said the road ahead to 2020 will be a long one, filled with countless door-knocks and town meetings, but her message to those with dreams just as big, trans or not, is this:

“Who you are and your dreams are not mutually exclusive. The heart of this country is big enough to love you, too, and the fact that you exist today, the fact that you’re living your truth and living your dreams demonstrates how far we’ve come.”