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CPC graduate student fellow Charles Mays (left), former CPC graduate fellow Justice Collier, and Sarah McBride
Photos by Kevin Quinlan
March 1, 2018 —Charles Mays, the Graduate Fellow for the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication, and Lindsay Hoffman, Associate Director of the CPC, recently sat down with political activist Sarah McBride to reflect on the importance of finding one's voice, especially in times of uncertainty. McBride is the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. She was on campus to deliver an address for the Voices of the Divide Awards Banquet.
In 2012, McBride made national headlines when she came out as transgender while serving as student body president at American University. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, she serves on the Board of Directors of Equality Delaware, the state’s primary LGBTQ-advocacy organization. In that capacity, McBride helped lead the successful effort to add gender identity and expression to her state’s nondiscrimination and hate-crimes laws. In 2008, she worked for Governor Jack Markell (D-DE) and, in 2010, for former Attorney General Beau Biden (D-DE). Prior to coming to HRC, McBride worked on LGBTQ equality at the Center for American Progress and interned at the White House, the first out trans woman to do so. She became the first openly transgender person to address a major party political convention when she spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. McBride's book, Tomorrow will be Different, is now available for purchase.
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MAYS: This evening is all about finding your voice, overcoming adversity, and standing strong. Would you say there was a certain aha moment that led you to discover your voice?
MCBRIDE: I would! I would say that when I came out as transgender and didn't just come out, but told my story when I came out. I realized that every story really does matter and that every voice matters and that when you tell your story and meet your experience with public storytelling and public vulnerability you can educate people, you can open hearts, and change minds. I do think empathy, at the end of the day, is probably the most powerful human emotion when it's tapped into and I think that for me, coming out, sharing my story, and seeing the response taught me that my own story matters but really underscored the power of storytelling.
MAYS: And so why do you think a program like the "Voices" audio essay contest is important?
MCBRIDE: Well I think it's incredibly important to teach young people the power of their own voice and that every person has a story to share, that everyone person has an experience that they can draw from to expand compassion, educate the public, and to empower themselves. These audio essays are really a powerful example of the power of vulnerability and vulnerability transcends ideology, geography, race, religion, gender … that everyone understands what it's like to feel stigmatized, to feel hurt, and to feel othered and that no one wants that for themselves and they shouldn't want that for other people. I think, in sharing their stories and talking about those moments of feeling pushed into the shadows or mocked or ridiculed, they are allowing people to see their full humanity. So I think it's important particularly as young people to share our stories, to recognize there is a unique power in young voices, because at the end of the day when we share our experiences, when we talk about being stigmatized or facing marginalization or being hurt as young people and we bring it into the broader political context we're speaking as young people from a place of history and it's not the history of the past it's the history that remains to be written. Elected officials, adults, public business leaders, and the public at large … They understand that, so I think that this is just an incredible opportunity for people to find their story, to find their voice, and to recognize the transformational power that young voices can have.
HOFFMAN: If I could just jump in here really quick, because you're talking about young people, when I look at what's happening with the students in the Parkland mass shooting, we're seeing young people coming out and speaking in ways that I can't recall. Do you think that part of this is a generational thing, I think they are technically Generation Z or this kind of in-between Z and X, is there something about that generation that's able to identify this voice and express that voice in a way that's new?
MCBRIDE: I think that there are two parts to that answer. First, I would say that young voices have always been at the forefront of change, whether it's John Lewis or Julian Bond and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee marching across the Selma Bridge, whether it's young people in the millennial generation and those a little older than millennials talking about why all love is equal and sharing stories of their gay friends and family members to their parents and grandparents to help them open their minds and lastly whether it's young people talking about combating gun violence, I think young people have always been able to have that kind of role because I think young people have never been conditioned to think that something is impossible and they're able to imagine what for so many people seems impossible, they are able to imagine it as a reality. I also think that this current generation, that's advocating around gun violence, has been brought up in the social media age. They're sort of uniquely cognizant of the power a single voice can have in bringing up a point or elevating an idea and so I think in many ways this generation is uniquely able to figure out ways to express their opinion in a way that bridges a divide, that I think over the past 10 years previous generations haven't been able to figure out how to bridge, which is this sort of bifurcation of our news and the division in our social media where we're all living in bubbles and I think somehow this generation of high school students have figured out, and I don't know we know exactly yet how they've done it, but they've been able to figure out exactly how to create a sustained, cross ideological, geographically diverse, conversation, that we haven't seen in a long time.
Sarah McBride delivered the keynote address at the Voices of the Divide Awards Banquet on February 26, 2018.
MAYS: Going back to speaking about experiences, would you say these recent attempts to undermine trans rights have only served to embolden your activist spirit?
MCBRIDE: Yeah, I think that's a great question. I think one of the things I always say is that every time they try to legislate discrimination or legalize discrimination against the transgender community it ends up serving as a conversation point that further opens hearts and minds and ends up making their political positions even more untenable. They end up sowing the seeds of their own political destruction with the pursuit of these discriminatory policies. We saw that in North Carolina, and we have seen it in response to the transgender troop ban. So I think it not only emboldens us as a community and as advocates but actually, it only serves as an entry point that helps to educate the public more broadly and continues to move equality forward in the face of those attacks.
MAYS: Well speaking about the bathroom bills or the transgender troop ban, we've seen with this current administration numerous attempts to undermine the integrity and the rights of transgender people. So what are some of the upcoming challenges you foresee or are concerned about at the national level or even at the local or state level?
MCBRIDE: Well I think we are going to continue to see attempts by this administration federally to try and roll back the clock on progress, to try to legalize or grant licenses to discriminate in as many ways as they can. They're continuing to try and fight us on preserving the transgender troop ban, despite the fact that everyone in the Pentagon opposes it. I think to your point, many of the battles we are going to face as a community are going to be at the local and state level. Last year we saw 130 anti-LGBTQ introduced in 30 states and we were able to defeat the vast majority of the bills, but that proliferation of legislation we anticipate only continuing in years to come. At the local level, we're so often seeing a small group of extreme activists being able to cause controversy in local school boards or in city councils and because it's so localized that small group is able to have an outsized influence on utilizing discrimination. So, we're seeing a number of attacks particularly in school boards against trans youth, attempts to roll back anti-discrimination policies or push out anti-bullying programs and I think we're going to continue to see that.
MAYS: At the federal level have there been attempts to engage the current administration in a dialogue about trans rights? And is there a willingness of the current administration to accept that invitation?
MCBRIDE: We're always engaged with folk across the ideological and partisan spectrum, particularly in Congress, where there are individuals on both sides, certainly on the Republican side of the aisle who have been open to having conservations, and many have been champions of trans equality, a couple of whom are retiring, unfortunately. This administration has been pretty clear about where they stand. They know where our resources are, they know where we work, and their willingness to engage is only going to go as far as they want and frankly it's been pretty clear what their agenda is. That agenda is to push extreme anti-LBGTQ policies at pretty much every turn and so I would say there is really not much willingness by this administration to engage and there's certainly not much willingness to actually listen.
MAYS: Looking more specifically, this past year we witnessed an unfortunate loss of many trans persons, specifically trans women of color, either taking their own lives or being the victims of crime. How are you using your position and voice to bring attention to this issue?
MCBRIDE: That's a great question. Well first off, I think there's the extreme problem of hate violence in America, which we are seeing is on the rise right now. The FBI, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Violence Project have all reported seeing a rise in hate-based violence against the LGBTQ community. 2017 was the deadliest year on record for the transgender community. You mentioned the vast majority of victims were trans women of color, that is a byproduct of the fact that when transphobia or homophobia mixes with misogyny or racism it can have deadly consequences. So, a couple of things that I am doing, and that the Human Rights Campaign is doing to address this epidemic of violence is to make sure that we're pushing for inclusive hate crimes laws across the country, that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes in hate crimes and non-discrimination laws, because a lot of times violence is occurring in circumstances where people have been pushed out of work or their homes and onto the streets and into the underground economies. So much of that is because of housing discrimination, employment discrimination, and public accommodation discrimination. So by having access to stable shelter, by having access to goods and services, by having access to potentially homeless shelters, and access to employment in ways that everyone else can, we can reduce the numbers of people exposed to that kind of violence. If we want to address this we also have to speak out on racial justice, making sure we're meeting our work on sexual orientation and gender identity with work around racial equity, gender equity, immigrant rights, combating things like Islamophobia because if we don't, then a lot of members of this community are going to be left behind. So there are a number of steps that need to be taken, legislative steps, policy steps, regulatory steps, and just also, broader social awareness.
MAYS: As my last question, you are someone who is obviously passionate about politics and who is an excellent public speaker, so do you have any future political aspirations?
MCBRIDE: That's a good question. I would say that when I was younger I definitely wanted to go into politics but it was always because I wanted to affect change, I wanted to make a change in my community. I feel like I have the opportunity to do that right now in the job that I have, I feel like I'm making change at a really important time in this movement for equality. At the end of the day maybe down the road sometime, elected office might be something I want to explore because I think politics is truly the place where every avenue of society converges and where you can make and affect change on a multitude of different issues … but right now I'm focused on the work that I'm doing right now, and I have a book that's coming out that I'm very focused on, and I've learned throughout my life that when you make plans life as a way of intervening.