During the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, a 13-year-old in Wilmington, Del., was entranced by a state senator named Barack Obama.
The future president’s description of a tolerant America that valued diversity hit home with Sarah McBride. She was even inspired to recreate the DNC stage in her bedroom, spending hours reciting Obama’s keynote address and other historical speeches.
The teenager was wrestling with identity issues many people go their entire lives without thinking about. She had always known her female gender identity didn’t match her sex assigned at birth, but she struggled to accept it. “I would go into my bathroom, look into the mirror and say out loud, ‘I’m transgender,’” McBride says. “And then instantly, I would feel a ton of shame and say, ‘No, I’m not. No, I’m not.’”
Over the years, her passion for politics grew, but she felt that her dreams and identity were mutually exclusive. She hoped that if she could at least spend her life working toward equality, she would eventually feel complete.
“I had to resign myself to not dream anymore,” she says. “No one should be forced to not dream anymore.”
McBride was 10 when she first found out there were other people like her while watching “Just Shoot Me!” The sitcom portrayed Jenny McCarthy as a transgender character.
“Every time this character came on, it was a joke that people were actually attracted to her,” McBride says.
By the time McBride was 17, she was a leader of the Delaware chapter of Young Democrats. She worked on Jack Markell’s campaign to become governor, eventually traveling with him across the state to introduce him at events. “These elected officials cared what I had to say and emphasized to me the power of my voice,” she says.
Meanwhile, she was looking for any “socially acceptable” outlet to express her true self. In high school, for example, she used Halloween to dress up as an “everyday girl.”
“For me, having a gender identity that was different from my sex assigned at birth and that wasn’t seen by society felt like a constant feeling of homesickness — that unwavering ache in the pit of my stomach,” she says.
In 2009, McBride headed to American University in Washington to begin college. By her junior year she was elected student government president. During her term she advocated for gender-neutral housing on campus and the creation of a Sexuality and Queer Studies minor.
Still, she wasn’t happy.
“I wasn’t living a double life,” she says. “I was just not living my life.”
Thoughts about her gender identity were overtaking her mind. She started reimagining everything she did as if she were openly female for it to be “remotely bearable.” Not the highlights of her life like a fun activity with friends or a successful student government initiative, but mundane moments like walking to class.
This is torturous, she thought, I cannot continue to experience life like this.
That Halloween, she decided to dress up as an “everyday girl” again.
“When pictures started circulating on Facebook of me, people started saying, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I could do this. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.’” McBride says.
When McBride was home for Christmas that year, her mother, Sally McBride, noticed her youngest child was distracted. Sarah was wrestling with how to come out to her family. The first person she told was a friend who was studying abroad in South Africa over Gchat. Telling someone who was roughly 8,000 miles away didn’t feel very real or risky. Her friend was immediately supportive, and as Sarah continued to think about how to come out to her family, she was sure they would accepting — just as they were when her oldest brother came out as gay nearly a decade prior.
“I was living in my head. My mind was consumed by this cloud of identity and depression that was keeping me from experiencing my life,” she says.
So over her break, Sarah sat down next to her mother on the couch and in a calm voice, revealed her deepest secret.
“I told her, ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about my gender identity and sexual orientation’ — I included sexual orientation in there so she’d know I was about to come out as something and if I had just said gender identity, she probably wouldn’t have known what I was about to say — ‘and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m transgender,’” Sarah says.
Her mother dropped to the floor. She didn’t say anything. And then she started weeping.
“The adjective she doesn’t like me to use, but for me best describes how I felt, is devastation. It was like the world stopped, my stomach dropped,” Sally says. “I would never equate it with the death of a child, but it almost felt like that. It was this intense sadness. ‘Are you sure? Can’t you wait? Don’t do this! Please, this can’t be happening!’”
The spring after Sarah came out, she sat with her father, Dave McBride, in their kitchen and broke down. She decided she wanted to transition and live openly as a transgender woman, but that brought a new set of fears and concerns.
“I was relieved everyone was supportive so far, but I did worry that, particularly my parents, wouldn’t love me as me,” she says. “And when they hugged me, I could almost feel them hugging me still thinking and feeling they’re hugging their son. It made me worry when I ended up transitioning, their love would be for someone they thought I was, not for someone I actually was.”
“And I told her, ‘That’s not true. I love you just as much now as before,’” Dave says. “But the truth was, I was still lamenting for my son. There was truth to her fear that I might not love her as much as I loved him and I knew it and she knew it.”
After Sarah came out to her family on Christmas Day, her oldest brother, Sean, and his husband, Blake, drove down immediately from Brooklyn, where the couple was spending the holiday with Blake’s family. Dave called relatives to cancel Christmas dinner under the guise that Sally was sick, and not long after, he began Googling “transgender.”
He stumbled upon the “Injustice at Every Turn” report by the National Center for Transgender Equality.
He read about how 19 percent of the survey respondents were refused housing because of their transgender status, 26 percent reported losing their job and 78 percent were harassed at school.
But the most startling statistic was the attempted suicide rate: 41 percent.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, our child’s life has just gone from wonderful to terrible in 24 hours,’” says Dave.
Sarah decided to publicly reveal her gender identity after her presidency ended in May, both to give her and her parents several months to prepare for her transition and because she worried the inevitable attention would distract the campus as she tried to accomplish her legislative agenda.
When she posted a Facebook status explaining she was transgender, which was later adapted into an op-ed for the school newspaper, she was overwhelmed by the positive response. She received countless comments supporting her both on social media and in person, including when the brothers from a fraternity she recently disaffiliated from stood in line to give her a hug and offer words of encouragement.
“Once I came out, that homesickness began to dissipate and my mind began to clear,” Sarah says.
Just weeks after coming out publicly, Sarah was already experiencing something she previously considered impossible: roaming the White House as her authentic self. She was invited to the reception celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month after her op-ed garnered national attention.
“Since coming out,” Sarah says, “I’ve consistently been surprised at the things I thought would be impossible and ended up not being impossible.”
Andrew Cray fell hard and fast. He had recently gotten out of a relationship, which left him “somewhat downtrodden,” says Fitz Fitzgerald, a close friend, when he literally bumped into a stranger in the White House. What he soon realized, though, was the stranger was a minor celebrity in the LGBTQ community — a 21-year-old named Sarah McBride.
Cray had just turned 26 and was an emerging leader in LGBTQ healthcare advocacy. His work was cited several times in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex. Research he co-authored revealed discriminatory practices designed to deny health-care coverage to transgender people, which contributed to the White House eventually honoring him as a “Champion of Change” in 2014.
But Cray, a transgender man who got his undergraduate diploma at Northwestern and law degree at Michigan, was taken aback by McBride’s beauty and brilliance. He didn’t know how, exactly, to re-introduce himself, so he worked feverishly on a Facebook message that Fitzgerald helped him craft.
“It was a very intense process,” Fitzgerald says. “It took quite a long time to get it to the point where we were happy. It was a labor of love, for sure.”
About two months after their initial run-in, a message landed in McBride’s inbox from someone she vaguely remembered. (“It was really adorable,” she says.) They bonded over movies — he loved “Star Wars” and she loved that he shared a hometown (Chippewa Falls, Wis.) with Jack Dawson from “Titanic.” Eventually, they went out for dinner, which McBride now calls a “great first date.”
“When he came to pick me up in his car, I remember he looked so suave with his dark-rimmed glasses,” McBride says. “I was still relatively new to coming out and I was in awe of the confidence he carried himself with as a trans person. He saw me as me. It was one of the first times I felt that.”
He also had a relentless sense of humor, unsurprising for someone who learned to read from his father’s collection of comics. He loved to cook his signature dish — salmon with Dijon mustard coating and several spices — and he eventually became the “big bean” to her “little bean,” a play on how she was a few inches taller than him.
As much as they cared for one another, they also challenged each other intellectually. They debated and discussed the silly, serious and supernatural. They fought over the remote (she preferred “The Bachelor,” while he favored “Small Town Security”), whether or not closeted LGBTQ officials who endorse discriminatory policies should be outed (she hated the hypocrisy, but his compassion convinced her no one should be outed against their will) and they bonded over a shared fear of death.
They grew to be inseparable, especially after Cray joined McBride’s family on a vacation in Barbados, where they first said I love you.
“The concern I had for her the most is will she find someone who loves her?” Sarah’s father, Dave says, pausing to find the right words. “Andy was such a godsend. It was a dream come true.”
In the spring of 2013, a stranger threatened to stab Sarah McBride. She was in Dover, the capital of Delaware, lobbying for the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act, when a random woman asked her if she had “the surgery.” When she declined to answer, the woman mentioned what she would do to McBride if she ever saw her in a bathroom.
“I had gotten used to comments behind the keyboard that were violent, but to your face — that’s jarring,” McBride says. “It is something that stays on your mind.”
That threat came during her last semester in college, just after she finished up a White House internship that made her one of the first openly transgender people to work there. When she thought about how she wanted to eventually return to Delaware, she realized that her home state offered no protections against a transgender person being fired, denied housing or thrown out of a restaurant because of their gender identity.
So she called Delaware Gov. Markell, whom she grew close to when she helped him get elected, to pitch the legislation.
“You don’t want to make all your decisions in elected office based on anecdote, but you certainly ought to be open to growing based on the people that you meet,” Markell says.
“[Sarah and her family] made me think differently about the issue, because I knew them. [Not prioritizing it before is] not something I’m necessarily proud of, but my relationship with them raised it to a different level in terms of priorities for me. … This is the kid who you want your kid hanging out with.”
McBride scheduled her classes so she could leave D.C. on Wednesdays to advocate for the legislation every Thursday. She constantly met with legislators to advocate for the bill with her mother and her father joined them when he was able to. Both parents say it was incredibly difficult to watch her testify in front of legislators about such a personal issue.
Her mother, Sally, remembers opponents testifying about how transgender people are “freaks.” Dave recalls a minister calling Sarah “the devil incarnate.”
“Listening to that was demeaning and dehumanizing for my child,” Sally says. “That was probably the hardest thing I ever had to sit through in my life. It was depressing and saddening. I still have a hard time coping with that.”
Sarah continued lobbying for the bill through her college graduation until June 2013, when the legislation passed without a vote to spare. The act added the term “gender identity” to the list of prohibited practices of discrimination and hate crimes in Delaware and increased punishment if someone targets the victim of a crime because of the victim’s gender identity.
Sarah’s advocacy for the legislation is a significant reason she — along with others who fought for its passage — eventually received the Order of the First State, the highest honor the Governor of Delaware can bestow.
“I don’t think it would have happened without her. I just don’t,” Markell says. “The role she played putting herself out there and advancing an agenda of equality will benefit people for generations to come.”
Pacing back and forth under a flickering fluorescent light near the back door of her D.C. apartment building, Sarah spoke to her parents on the phone one night in late 2013 about how her world was suddenly crumbling around her.
After months of complaining about a sore on his tongue, Andy finally went to the doctor to get it checked out. The next month, he had a procedure to remove it, but halfway through, the doctor stopped because there was more of the sore than he initially thought. The doctor delivered the news a week later: Andy had oral tongue cancer.
“He was terrified,” says Wesley Garson, a close friend of the couple. “He didn’t want to die.”
When Andy was released from the hospital after undergoing a 12-hour surgery and a week-long post-surgery stay, Sarah broke down in the bathroom in their apartment. She had to periodically suction Andy’s tracheostomy tube so he could breathe, but on her first attempt at home, she couldn’t figure it out and feared he was going to suffocate to death right in front of her. “It was overwhelming for both of us,” Sarah says. “He couldn’t help but worry I would bail. I think it was always there in the back of his mind.”
But she didn’t. They hadn’t even been dating for a year prior to his diagnosis, and she already envisioned marrying him one day.
Following Andy’s surgery, he faced six weeks of daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy, leaving him tired and achy for months. At times, just breathing felt like he was getting stabbed in the throat. He picked up a minor lisp, sounding as if he had a cotton swab in his mouth, and became increasingly lethargic as he lost weight. Throughout his recovery, the couple celebrated the small achievements — putting his shirt on two weeks after his surgery, eating solid foods after a month and going out to eat after two months. Despite the pain, Andy wanted to hold on to whatever normalcy he could. He asked his friends to never stop joking around with him, even about his cancer, and he continued his advocacy when possible. In March of 2014, he wrote an op-ed to encourage people to sign up for health insurance.
The next month, Andy got the news the couple had been praying for: He was cancer-free. He celebrated by getting pizza and milkshakes with friends. He also resumed working at the Center for American Progress with Sarah, advocating for better health-care options and outcomes for transgender people.
But a few months after his cancer was declared to be in remission, Andy developed some chest pain and a bad cough. An X-ray suggested there was something around his lungs, which his primary care physician suspected was pneumonia. Still, they were nervous, so he got more extensive scans.
That’s when the doctor delivered the news: His cancer was back and had spread to his lungs.
Before a follow-up appointment where they would learn whether or not Andy’s cancer was terminal, the couple sat on their big brown, overstuffed ‘L’-shaped couch in their living room.
That’s where he popped the question: “If it turns out that this is incurable, would you marry me?”
It was July 2014 when the doctors told Andy he had one year to live.
The couple planned to get married on a farm in Charlottesville, Va., in October. But within weeks, Andy was a shell of himself.
Sarah stopped working to take care of him and Andy’s parents flew in from Wisconsin. His strength rapidly declined to the point where it became too strenuous for him to stand up and he eventually turned to ice cream — with his medicine mixed in — for most meals as it was too painful to eat.
Andy’s mother suggested that they move up the wedding, which they agreed to. They settled on Aug. 24, giving them just five days to plan it.
They immediately asked Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in The Episcopal Church, to officiate the wedding. Sarah removed all mentions of death from the ceremony, inserting “forever and ever” instead.
Shortly before their wedding day, Sarah caught Andy mumbling one phrase over and over again as he slept: “forever and ever.”
On the morning of the wedding, Sarah woke up with the same thought she had every other day after Andy’s terminal diagnosis, with one difference: That wasn’t a nightmare. This is real … And it’s my wedding day.
To get ready for the ceremony on the roof of their building — it was the only possible venue because of Andy’s condition — Sarah went across the hall to a friend’s apartment. Andy, meanwhile, was in their apartment trying to get dressed with help from family and friends. When he stood up from his wheelchair to put his pants on, he became so short of breath he passed out.
Oh my God, Sarah’s brother, Sean, says he thought, he’s going to die right here.
Paramedics came and determined Andy — who quickly regained consciousness — didn’t need to be taken to the hospital.
“We didn’t know if we had to take him to the hospital or get him married, but he was so committed,” Fitzgerald says. “He could barely talk, but he was like, ‘I need to do this. It needs to happen. I’m not giving this up.’”
With a portable oxygen tank and two close friends taking him up to the roof in his wheelchair, Andy entered the venue. Fifty guests, unaware of what had just happened, met his appearance with applause. Andy’s right thumb shot up into the sky in response, just as the elevator doors opened for Sarah to come out onto the roof behind him.
Purple orchids and blue hydrangeas populated the roof while the pergola — made by Fitzgerald out of a Rite Aid tent and white Ikea sheets — awaited the bride and groom.
“When I walked her down the aisle at her wedding, that’s when I knew I loved her just as much as I loved him, if not more,” Sarah’s dad says, fighting back tears. “I hope she knew that as well.”
At the altar, Sarah and Andy exchanged vows as the sun began to set. Sarah already shortened what they each had to say to three sentences because Andy could barely talk, and they had to shorten it even more due to the scare he had just endured.
“When I came out, I wondered whether I had a future not just professionally, but romantically. Would I be able to find someone who loved me?” Sarah says.
Two days after the wedding, Andy went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to begin chemotherapy. The doctors warned him that if he wasn’t healthy enough for the treatment, it would almost instantly kill him.
He was increasingly dipping in and out of consciousness and experiencing shortness of breath as each day passed.
A doctor eventually asked, if necessary, whether Andy would prefer his life to be continued in a vegetative state or if he’d want natural death to occur.
It was the first — and only — extended conversation Sarah and Andy would have as husband and wife.
Although Andy was rarely awake, roughly 15 to 20 people stayed in the hospital while he was there. The waiting room turned into a de facto campsite, with some sleeping on the floor, including Garson, who calls it “the most beautiful and most painful time” of his life.
While different friends and family members almost constantly held Andy’s hand throughout the day, Sarah held her husband’s hand each night at his bedside.
On the whiteboard in Andy’s room, nurses wrote a message for the newlyweds each day.
Happy second anniversary. Happy third anniversary. Happy fourth anniversary.
“It was really sweet,” Fitzgerald says, “but also really sad.” Although Andy couldn’t move much anymore, he frequently touched his wedding ring.
The next day, when Andy woke up at one point, Sarah had a feeling it’d be the last time he’d be awake, so she simply said, “I love you.” In the last words he’d speak, he responded: “I love you, too.”
After Andy’s passing in 2014, Sarah continued her advocacy with a renewed sense of urgency. She continued her work at the Center for American Progress, where her work focused on expanding non-discrimination protections and went on to work for the Human Rights Campaign.
“I was so angry after Andy died that he didn’t have more of his life as his authentic self,” she says. “I was mad that people wake up every morning and choose to hate and build a world that prevents people from living their truth. For me, there was a fire that was lit of wanting to make sure no one has to hide anymore because we never know how long we have. That’s a huge motivator for me every day.”
In April 2016, Sarah took a selfie in a North Carolina bathroom she was technically banned from to protest the state’s controversial law restricting which public restrooms transgender people could use. The photo went viral.
A few months later, she was offered one of the biggest opportunities of her life: a time slot to speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, making her the first openly transgender American to address a major party convention.
As she took the stage, she heard strangers chanting her name and saw her parents in the crowd.
“My name is Sarah McBride and I am a proud transgender American,” she said at the start of her speech. In the following four minutes, Sarah explained why she thought Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Donald Trump, but what brought people to their feet — and to tears — was when she talked about Andy.
After the speech, hundreds of notes poured in from people Sarah had never met before, but it was one of the first ones that hit her the hardest. The mother of a transgender girl passed along a picture of the back of the 7-year-old’s head looking up at Sarah on TV.
Since then, Sarah’s advocacy work has reached new corners, most recently when she published a piece in BuzzFeed detailing the sexual assault she experienced in college.
After the onslaught of #MeToo social media posts of people recalling their experiences being sexually harassed and assaulted, Sarah felt empowered. In addition to touching on reasons many stay silent about such experiences, including how some don’t believe sexual assault victims, she detailed additional challenges those in the transgender community face.
“While many survivors are met with disbelief and doubt when they share their stories, trans survivors often also face a different kind of disbelief — one rooted in the perception that trans people are ‘too disgusting’ to be assaulted,” she wrote.
The story also reflects one ever-present part of Sarah — her hyperawareness of her own privilege. She notes how she benefits from race, money and family support in ways others don’t. She recognizes that while her story and successes represent progress for people in the transgender community, it also reflects her privilege.
The story also represents part of what makes Sarah a successful advocate — her willingness to be open and vulnerable about deeply personal things. It’s why her DNC speech was moving — everyone, regardless of gender identity, can relate to love and to loss — and it’s why Delaware state legislators were receptive to her lobbying — she put a human face on the issue.