Can transgender visibility improve their equality?
Sarah McBride // WTF GENDER
Sarah McBride isn’t yet 30 and she’s already a trailblazer. She famously came out in 2011 as a transgender woman at the end of her term as student body president at American University.
She successfully fought for the passage of protections like housing and employment for transgender people in Delaware. Now, McBride, who is national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, is running for Delaware state Senate. If elected, she would be the first openly transgender person to hold a state Senate seat in the U.S. As she thinks What the Future, she believes that simply knowing transgender people is a step toward equality.
WTF: More than half of American adults say that they don’t know anyone who is transgender, and those they do know more likely are acquaintances. What does that mean for gaining equality in the future?
Sarah McBride: Ten to 15 years ago, that percentage would have been in the single digits. What’s clear is that more people are coming out. More people are sharing their identities publicly and more Americans are now able to say they know someone who’s transgender. There’s obviously significant room for growth. The fact that we’re already seeing those numbers really provides an incredibly strong foundation for us to continue to build from.
WTF: With TV shows like “Pose” on FX featuring transgender actors, and celebrities like Jonathan Van Ness of “Queer Eye” on Netflix coming out as non-binary, how might that kind of visibility shape broader acceptance?
McBride: For a small community to be able to reach the number of people we need to reach, it is incredibly helpful to have outlets of mass consumption sharing stories of trans people. That helps to open hearts and change minds. While there’s no replacement for knowing someone in your own life who is LGBTQ, being able to learn about trans people, to relate and empathize with transgender people through art, that’s an important substitute.
WTF: Brands are also changing their practices to accept and represent transgender people. How might that translate to wider acceptance?
McBride: It communicates to broad audiences that transgender and gender-nonconforming people and LGBTQ people at large are part of the diversity of our society. That is a subtle but powerful message to the person who’s walking through a mall or into a store or an airplane. When [brands] have public displays that include transgender people and gender-nonconforming people in their advertisements and in their spaces, that subtle message is an important cue to any uncertain person in our society as to how they should treat transgender people.
WTF: Despite progress, many companies struggle with walking the talk of change. How can companies do better?
McBride: The percentage of major companies that have gender identity and sexual orientation-inclusive, nondiscrimination policies has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. The percentage of companies that have trans-inclusive health benefits has increased dramatically over the last decade. You can have an inclusive space, but if LGBTQ people aren’t reflected in advertisements and promotional material, the message is not sent that they are fully welcomed and valued parts of the community. Similarly, if you have LGBTQ people in advertising and promotional materials, but don’t have policies and practices that are inclusive of them, it also sends the message that they’re not fully welcomed by members of the community. You need both.
WTF: What will it take to convert visibility to actual equality?
McBride: There’s no question that public awareness is a foundation upon which to build. Too often, discrimination and barriers to employment and housing push transgender people into the shadows on the margins of society. We need more schools and workplaces to adopt policies, benefits and practices that are inclusive of LGBTQ people. We need to make sure that we pass legislation like the Equality Act at the federal level so that LGBTQ people have clear protections from discrimination throughout daily life. And we need those who either know us in their own lives or who are beginning to empathize with us … to say, “I don’t have to necessarily know someone who is transgender or LGBTQ to fight for a world where transgender and LGBTQ people are safe and able to come out.”
WTF: In your state Senate run, what would getting elected mean?
McBride: Electing more transgender people is a critical step. But it’s only a part of the solution. When LGBTQ people are walking the halls or sitting in the chamber with or sitting across the table and [caucusing] with their legislative colleagues, the conversation changes. It becomes much more difficult to dehumanize and stigmatize the person you know personally. But it also must result in tangible change, not just on issues explicitly surrounding gender identity, but all of the issues that impact each and every one of us in our daily lives.
WTF: There hasn’t been as much attention given to the discrimination and violence against transgender people, particularly black trans women, including from the larger LGBT community. What would changing that mean for the future?
McBride: All of the progress you’ve seen over the last 50 years since Stonewall is built on the shoulders of trans women of color. You have to recognize transphobia and homophobia are inextricably linked. All of our rights and dignity are inextricably linked because when we let politicians or society diminish or dehumanize any one of us, we lay the foundation for them to demonize and dehumanize all of us.
WTF: One-fifth of LGBTQ people aren’t registered to vote, per a recent Williams Institute survey. How important is getting them registered and to the polls?
McBride: It’s critical. LGBTQ adults are larger than the margin of victory in the last several presidential elections, roughly the size of the state of Michigan. If we are registered and we turn out to vote, we will make a difference in not just the presidential election, but in critical congressional races and state legislative races.
National press secretary
Human Rights Campaign
She, her, hers
What the Future is a quarterly deep dive into different aspects of consumer and social thought and behavior. Each edition features exclusive new data from world-leading research firm Ipsos. WTF explores how a single industry or behavior fits into the broader culture now and in the coming decades. Read Previous WTF Issues »
Few Americans know someone who is transgender or gender nonconforming.
|Do you know someone|
in your life who is...
|Gender fluid||Gender questioning|
|Yes, I am||5%||9%||8%||0%*||1%||0%*||1%|
|Yes, in my immediate family||7||4||4||1||1||0||1|
|Yes, in my extended family||19||21||5||2||1||0||1|
|Yes, a friend||36||39||20||9||4||4||3|
|Yes, a co-worker||20||20||8||5||2||1||1|
|Yes, a neighbor||7||11||2||1||1||1||0|
|Yes, an acquaintance||29||31||12||16||8||6||6|
|Not sure or refused||7||14||33||22||38||40||42|
(Source: Study conducted between Oct. 4 and 7, 2019 on the nationally representative Ipsos KnowledgePanel, among 1,021 adults with an additional 285 adults gathered using demographic profiles and representative of the total LGBTQ population. * Values were less than .05% and rounded down to 0%)