After a term of devoted advocacy for the LGBTQ community, American University’s student body president made national headlines when she came out as transgender in 2012. It wouldn’t be the last time Delaware native Sarah McBride showed the world the meaning of courage. In the following years, McBride would emerge as an icon within the modern LGBTQ movement.
Life in office
McBride credits her time as student body president for giving her the thick skin and resilience to tackle life’s challenges.
“It was an experience that allowed me to embrace my whole self,” McBride said. “If I was not student body president, I’m not sure that I would have had the courage, the confidence, or, frankly, the insights to come to terms with my identity as a transgender person and finally come out to the people in my life — my friends, family, and my broader community.”
McBride recalls several accomplishments during her term that positively impacted her student body; her work for the LGBTQ community stands out as her proudest achievement.
“We dramatically expanded our gender-inclusive housing options. We started a process that eventually led to the removal of a discriminatory ban on our student insurance program that targeted transgender people,” she said. “We started a queer studies minor that has helped a lot of students see the world in a more nuanced way.”
Empowering others to advocate for causes became a defining characteristic of her presidency, with each member of her cabinet taking personal responsibility for initiatives that led to improved quality of life for students from various backgrounds.
“I always encouraged students to not ignore the change in front of them. If we want to change this world we should start with our community. If we can’t change our own college how can we change the country?” she said.
After graduation, McBride set out to change the hearts and minds of the nation. As the first openly transgender White House intern and lead advocate for hate crimes legislation for transgender Delawareans, she harnessed the power of her voice to spur change. Wielding a message of immense optimism, McBride inspired young people across the country, delivering TED Talks and speeches at college campuses, reminding others not to feel disheartened by the current political climate. Despite her own hardships — McBride lost her husband, an accomplished LGBTQ advocate in his own right, to cancer in 2014 — McBride stays motivated to drive societal change.
“I stay motivated by thinking about the stakes. Lives literally depend on this work. Lives depend on us to defy and resist any kind of hate in this country, from the White House to the state legislature to homes across this country,” McBride said.
In the fight for a more loving and compassionate world, McBride asserts that it is a sign of a healthy democracy when advocacy institutions look like the people they represent.
“I think it is important for us to step up,” McBride said. “I would say to any LGBTQ young person thinking of running for office, whether it is student body president or United States senator, that if we aren’t at the table we are on the menu. We need people of diverse backgrounds, people of all identities to step up. They are worthy of any office that they dream of.”
Stepping up to the plate is exactly what McBride did one stormy Thursday in Philadelphia. That night, another former student body president would become the first woman to accept a major party nomination for president of the United States. But Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only woman to strike cracks into the glass ceiling. As the first trans woman to speak at a national political convention, McBride made history.
“I was certainly nervous but the moment I walked out and felt the love, warmth, and support, I was at ease,” she said. “Throughout the entire speech I could see the entire delegation from my home state of Delaware standing just off to the right of the television cameras. And standing with the delegation were my parents. It was a profound experience for me, to see them, see that space, that arena applaud their child and their child’s identity and people like their child just four years after being convinced that we would be rejected in every sense of the word.”
Thunderous applause followed McBride’s speech, the arena erupting in appreciation of her moving address. When she stepped off stage, McBride was met with a long embrace by an older trans woman, someone she had met a year earlier.
“While she was holding on, I couldn’t help but think of all of the history this woman had seen. All of the pain, the heartache, the fighting and marching all of the years that she had thought there was no way society could embrace her for who she is,” she said. “But here she was, one of 28 openly transgender delegates at a national political convention — the most in history — just having seen a young transgender person stand on stage and declare that they are a proud transgender American. I was moved by how far we have come, by all the people that have fought and given so much to get us where we are.”
The force of her words would not stop at the doors of the convention center. Her message would soon reach millions of LGBTQ youth in the following days, as the gravity of the moment continued to captivate airwaves, newspapers, and magazines.
“Somewhere out there, there is a young person who is struggling with who they are and instead of seeing their identity reflected to them as a joke in a comedy or dead body in a drama, they were seeing someone stand on stage and declare that they were proud of who they are and that they are proud to be transgender. That was really an honor to be a part of a moment like that,” McBride said.
Her current role as the National Press Secretary at the Human Rights Campaign underscores that the work isn’t over for McBride after one monumental speech or one term as student body president. McBride credits LGBTQ icons such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson for driving her daily activism. In recognizing the intersectional history of the movement, McBride seeks to center the voices of people of color and underprivileged.
“The change that we have witnessed in the last several years gives us hope for what we can and will achieve moving forward. I'm not giving up [...] because I know things will be different if we fight for it and work for it,” she said.
This article is a part of a series covering amazing women paving the way for others to achieve. NCLC and Running Start are cohosting a national summit in February designed to celebrate the work of women student body presidents and inspire more women to run. There is still time to register for the Campus Women Lead summit! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and you, too, can gain the tools to become a more effective woman student body leader.