Midway through 2016, I was just about to come out publicly as a trans woman, leading a double life as a boring male banker by day and moonlighting as a burgeoning journalist and advocate for trans rights. I was sitting in a chain restaurant in Danvers with my trans mom, a term we in the trans community use for a mentor figure who teaches us how to begin surviving as a trans person, and she kept gushing about this amazing trans woman and advocate, Sarah McBride. I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of her at the time.
In the nearly two years since that day in the restaurant, McBride’s profile has risen to previously unseen heights. I cried when I heard her speech before the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the first time a trans person had spoken at a major political party convention. I’ve since had the chance to interview her many times in her role as the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, and not only is she incredibly sharp and informed on the key issues, but she always takes time to speak off the record with me about how to survive as a prominent and visible trans woman.
Sarah has a new book, Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality, out next Tuesday, March 6, and she’s coming to the Boston Athenaeum for a Q&A and a book signing on Thursday, March 8. Ahead of her visit, I had the chance to speak with McBride for DigBoston about her book, how to exist as a publicly admired trans woman who also has a personal life, how the loss of her husband to cancer informs her activism, and the state referendum in Massachusetts this fall.
Start off by telling us a little about your book.
My book is the story of my own journey as a transgender person and as a transgender advocate. Tracing my story from coming out [as trans] as student body president at American University to fighting for equality in my home state of Delaware to having the chance to speak on stage at the Democratic National Convention and continue to the work on a national scale.
But it tells the story of that journey as a transgender woman and a transgender advocate in large part through my relationship with Andy, who was a transgender man and my later husband who passed away from cancer shortly after we married. So it’s a book about fighting for equality, but it’s also a love story. A love story that has profoundly changed me and transformed me as a person and an advocate, and I hope that these stories together can help open hearts and change minds.
The thing that I’m most excited to read is the juxtaposition between going through really difficult personal circumstances while also seeing your profile and career rise to unprecedented heights for a trans woman in advocacy. Can you tell me what it was like to deal with that pain while also having to put on a public face?
[There are] two major lessons that I’ve taken from my relationship with Andy and all the challenges I’ve been through in my personal life as I was advocating.
One, every day matters when it comes to building a world where every person can live their life to the fullest. Andy’s passing underscored for me that change cannot come fast enough and made me truly feel what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now. Acknowledgement takes time. … at the same, even acknowledging that, we must never lose our patience, we must never allow ourselves be tempered into incrementalism. We must always be demanding change and change now.
And then the second thing: The pain of that relationship taught me and in many ways has allowed me to get through the last year and a half with more optimism and hope than I otherwise would, is that when Andy was dying, my brother, who is a radiation oncologist, said to me that even in this tragic time I should look around and take stock in acts of amazing grace that I see around me. For me, that amazing grace as Andy’s health declined was everywhere, whether it’s our family and friends organizing a rooftop wedding for us in five days, or Andy rallying and surviving and making it to the wedding even when by all accounts he shouldn’t have. That beauty in tragedy has allowed me even in these dark political moments to look around to find hope, and courage, and comfort.
Let’s talk about the last year and a half. Tell me a little bit about the whiplash of going from the heights of the Obama-era to what we’re dealing with now, which is an all-out assault on trans rights nationwide.
In many ways from a governmental advocacy perspective, we’ve gone from a presidency of progress to a presidency of prejudice. We have seen an administration intent on rolling back our progress, and they’re going to succeed on some fronts, but they’re also going to fail on many fronts. We know that once equality comes in many cases it becomes much more difficult to undo it.
As we transitioned from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, and as we go through this all-out assault on trans rights, what brings me comfort is that throughout those eight years of legal progress, because so many people came out and so much progress was made, we also gained an alliance of allies that are ready to stand with us, ready to fight with us, ready to march with us and are not remaining quiet as this administration tries to target transgender troops, kids, and patients. They aren’t going to close the hearts that have been opened and revert back the minds that have been changed.
You’re coming to Boston, and the big issue in Massachusetts is the referendum on trans public accommodations coming up in the fall. How important is it for the trans community to get a positive result from that vote?
I think Massachusetts has always been at the forefront of social progress and social change and the stakes could not be higher with the upcoming referendum. If they were to be successful in repealing the existing protections for transgender people in the public square, it would have tangible negative consequences for trans people throughout the commonwealth. It could embolden and inflame discrimination against transgender people in restaurants and stores and schools, really throughout public life, and it would communicate a really dangerous message to far too many transgender people, particularly trans young people, which is that should the referendum pass and the protections [be] repealed, it could communicate to them that the heart of the Commonwealth isn’t big enough to love them too. And that’s never the message we want to send any person.
The eyes of the nation will be on Massachusetts with that referendum, and a negative result could embolden anti-equality activists and politicians across the country. It’s incredibly important, but I am hopeful that those working on it will be able to stave off this attack. Massachusetts residents want to continue to be known for being on the forefront of equality and progress.
Sarah McBride reads from Tomorrow Will Be Different at the Boston Athenaeum on Thu 3.8 at 6pm. $15 for nonmembers.