06/09/2018 08:00 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2018

Sarah McBride: 'Queer To Me Is Not Just My Identity. It’s An Action.'

McBride talks to HuffPost about being a public figure of trans experience, how she takes care of herself and her own idea of a queer future.
Sarah McBride speaking at the Human Rights Campaign 2018 Gala Dinner in Los Angeles.
Rich Fury via Getty Images
Sarah McBride speaking at the Human Rights Campaign 2018 Gala Dinner in Los Angeles.

Sarah McBride is living, breathing history.

Six years ago, she came out in an extremely public way while serving as the student body president of American University. Four years later, she became the first openly transgender person in U.S. history to address a major party convention.

Today McBride serves as the press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest LGBTQ civil rights groups in the world. And there doesn’t seem to be any stopping her.

“I just try to remember that all of us ― myself included ― all of us are powerful just by being,” McBride told HuffPost. “And the knowledge of that power, the fact that we take it with us from the scariest places to the safest places, brings me comfort in whatever I face.”

Earlier this year, McBride released her memoir Tomorrow Will Be Different, with a foreword written by former Vice President Joe Biden. In the past several months, she’s traveled the world sharing her story with people from all walks of life, becoming the first openly trans person many individuals crossing her path have met face-to-face.

HuffPost caught up with McBride to hear about her strategies for self-care when facing harassment, her advice for young people who feel disempowered by the current political climate, and the ideal, compassionate future she dreams we’ll all share one day.

You first came came out as transgender when you were student body president at American University. Can you take us back to this moment, your headspace and your decision to come out in such a public way?

Well, coming out publicly as transgender at the end of my term as student body president at American University was 21 years in the making. I had come out to my parents on Christmas Day six months before, and with the courage that my family and friends gave me, I decided on the last day of my term as president of the student body to come out publicly first there on Facebook and then almost immediately following that in the student newspaper. And I did it for two reasons. 

The first is, I felt like I had platform and with it a responsibility to try to educate whoever would read my note ― whether friends in Delaware, classmates on campus or people outside of those spaces ― to educate them a little bit more about what it means to be transgender, what it’s like to be transgender, and then to finish work of the transgender community.

Additionally, the second reason why I decided to come out publicly is that I wanted to get my news out on my own terms, in my own words. I knew that it’s not every day that the student body president comes out as transgender, that people would be talking about it, and that if I could explain it and talk about my own journey in my own words, that I’d hopefully be able to tap into what I believe is the most powerful human emotion, which is empathy.

How do you deal with being such a public figure of the trans experience? What are the strategies that you engage in to take care of yourself?

I think it’s certainly a constant struggle. We all, I think, talk about this, the need for self-care, and find ourselves probably not actually not making space for it in our own lives. But it’s been a process to really get to a place where I could deal with the hate and the harassment that comes my way. And I’ll never forget the sort of moment where things changed and clicked for me. It was right after I posted a selfie of myself in a bathroom in North Carolina that I was technically barred from being in, and the level of hate and the heinous threats that came in really shook me to my core. And I wondered whether I could continue to do this work, whether I could continue to be a public voice in this fight. And it was a really traumatic experience. Reflecting on that experience and researching, I came away with a lesson that for me helped me cope with the hate and harassment that comes my way as a public advocate.

In a sense, everyone deals with something that they’re insecure about. Everyone deals with something that society has told them they should be ashamed of, whether it’s their gender identity or sexual orientation or how they look, what they do, where they come from, what they sound like. Whatever it is, all of us deal with an insecurity. And the thing about LGBTQ people, and particularly LGBTQ people who have taken the steps to live authentically and to do so with pride, is that the bullies see that power. They see that individual agency that we’ve exercised in taking the fact that society has told us we should hide, and claimed it not just as our truth, but as a source of pride. And they’re jealous of that power. 

Sarah McBride on "Late Night with Seth Meyers" in April.
NBC via Getty Images
Sarah McBride on "Late Night with Seth Meyers" in April.

And so, I just try to remember that all of us ― myself included ― all of us are powerful just by being. And the knowledge of that power, the fact that we take it with us from the scariest places to the safest places, brings me comfort in whatever I face. And through it all, I try to remember that whatever I’m experiencing, whatever hate or harassment, unfortunately it pales in comparison to the experiences of so many people in the trans community, and I think it’s always important for me not just to understand my own power as an LGBTQ person, but also my own privilege as an LGBTQ white person, able-bodied person, person of economic means, and recognize that there are so many people who have many more challenges and experience far more troubling hate than I do.

What is your advice for young LGBTQ people who may feel disempowered in the face of our current political and social climate?

What I always say to any LGBTQ person, or just a really young person who’s feeling scared, is: One, the lesson that I’ve learned throughout my advocacy about our own power that we all inherently hold as LGBTQ people. The strength and the agency that we’ve exercised. But I also try to reinforce for anyone who’s feeling alone, who’s feeling scared, who’s wondering if what is at the heart of this country is big enough to love them too, that no matter the conversation around the dinner table, no matter the bullying they face on the playground, that there are millions of people ― transgender people, LGBTQ people, and allies ― who see them, who love them and who are fighting every single day to make sure that they’re treated with the dignity and fairness that every person deserves. That they’re never truly alone, that we are all with them in every moment.

And it doesn’t always feel that way, and it certainly isn’t gonna stop every act of discrimination or violence or bullying, and it certainly won’t always alleviate the pain, but it is a fact that remains true, and my hope is that the knowledge of that comforts, the knowledge of that solidarity can help them continue to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

What does pride mean to you in 2018?

Pride for me, particularly right now, it means resistance. It means fighting back. It means returning to our roots, which is a movement that was launched in response to police violence in the late ’60s. It means resistance. And I think for several years prior to this current presidential administration, there was probably a feeling in many corners for many people that we were on this sort of inalterable, entirely linear path towards justice. And I think the last couple years have reminded many of us in the community that our progress comes in fits and starts. It’s often two steps forward and one step back, but the only way we move a little bit more towards justice is through resistance, is through fighting back against injustice, is through speaking out, is through mobilizing and organizing. And I think for me, pride this year, pride last year, and pride in the years to come will be and must always be about resistance to the forces of hate and love in the face of injustice.

And I think if we continue to do that, if we continue to stand together as a community and as a movement, we’ll not just defeat the politics of hate, but we’ll move equality forward in every corner of this country for every person in our community.

McBride holding her memoir <i>Tomorrow Will Be Different</i>.
Gotham via Getty Images
McBride holding her memoir Tomorrow Will Be Different.

Our theme for Pride this year is #TheFutureIsQueer. What does a queer future look and feel like to you?

So, it’s funny that you ask this question, ’cause I actually was on a panel yesterday called “Queering the Classroom” and the question was “What does that mean to us?” I think, to me, that kind of future is a future where every single person, including LGBTQ people, are free from discrimination, harassment and violence. Where everyone is free from the fear of discrimination and injustice. It means a world that is constantly, constantly challenging ourselves to find, to see and to support those who have for too long been in the shadows or passed aside. A world that is constantly expanding our understanding of “we the people.”

Because I think queering, to me... “Queer” to me is not just my identity, it’s an action. And I think that what I want to see in our future is not a world of complacency. It’s not a world that is static. It’s a world that understands that we’re never gonna be perfect, that there is always room for improvement. Whether it’s folks living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, whether it’s folks who are struggling to make ends meet ― no matter who we’re talking about, the world that I wanna build is a world that’s constantly evolving, that’s constantly looking around and trying to figure out who’s not at the table, who’s not being supported, who’s not being seen.

And it’s through a world that is exercising that kind of introspection and progress every single day that I believe we’ll be able to move toward a more perfect union, and a more inclusive world. 

For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.

#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.

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