Posted: June 13, 2013


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

One of the first calls Sarah McBride made outside the family, after she was "trans," was to the governor. He took the call.

They went way back to the days when Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, was the state treasurer. He spotted McBride as a 13-year-old, volunteering for Matt Denn as he was elected the Democratic insurance commissioner in 2004. By the time Markell was on his way to governor and Denn to lieutenant governor in 2008, Markell had poached McBride for his own campaign.

Back then, McBride was Tim. He was a precocious political talent, a skinny kid always in a jacket and tie with ears like Barack Obama's, a smile like Jack Kennedy's, a love of the public arena like Bill Clinton's, and he was going places.

"This could be her desk," Markell said Wednesday from the governor's office in Legislative Hall.

Now at 22, Sarah McBride is the most prominent voice in the state for transgender rights.

She has been making the case in Dover for the General Assembly to grant transgender Delawareans -- the "T" in LGBT for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people -- the same civil rights as everyone else by prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public places and by making violence against them a hate crime. It follows a brand new law legalizing gay marriage.

The transgender rights legislation, Senate Bill 97, was passed by the Senate last week by a bare majority and awaits debate in the House of Representatives. Naturally Markell will sign it if gets to his desk. As he wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this week, "It is past time to make things right."

McBride is a native Delawarean, the child of David and Sally McBride, who live in Wilmington. That is Dave McBride, the lawyer with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, and not Dave McBride, the Senate's Democratic majority leader. Sally McBride was a guidance counselor and a founder of the Cab Calloway School of the Arts, where Sarah McBride went to school before she was trans.

McBride's connection to Matt Denn came through Young Conaway, where Denn was practicing law as he ran for insurance commissioner. It worked out so well that McBride interned with Beau Biden's campaign to become the Democratic attorney general in 2006 and then was hired as a field staffer for Markell in 2008.

So much for Denn. "It's what first caused my nickname for him [Markell] -- 'Steinbrenner.' He has proceeded through the years to cherry-pick the best volunteers and staff members for himself," Denn quipped.

No doubt people will remember that Markell got to be the governor through a primary, which traumatized Democratic voters. It forced them to choose between him and John Carney, then the lieutenant governor, who was to recover two years later by becoming the state's lone congressman.

Nine months before that tense and difficult primary, Markell's wife Carla was with him as the campaign took shape and McBride showed up with 60 friends to volunteer. Sixty friends.

"Carla says, when you win this primary, it's going to be because of him," Markell said.

All of this, and McBride was not out of high school yet. After graduation in 2009, it was off to American University and a stint as the student government president, but also to increasing soul-searching about a sexual identity that had been troubling since the age of six.

As Tim, McBride thought he had everything mapped out, what office he wanted to run for and when, but it was just not right.

"I thought if I could make being Tim worthwhile for other people, it would be worthwhile for me to be Tim. A life in pursuit of position or power is not a life well-lived or in service to others," McBride said.

Sarah McBride came out to her parents in 2011 and then to her closest friends. She decided to tell Markell in March 2012 and e-mailed Brian Selander, one of the governor's aides at the time. They had gone to New York City for Markell to appear on "Morning Joe," and Selander said to him on the train home, "While you're sitting down . . ."

Then McBride called the governor herself. "He picks up the phone and says, well, that's big news. From the start, just like with my parents, it was total support, total love. He said, you are the exact same person Carla and I know and love," she said.

"I'm really lucky. In so many ways my experience has been so positive, but the sad part of it is, that's the exception. Most people don't have their family supporting them, let alone the governor."

Since then, McBride had an internship at the White House and earned a degree in political science as of May. She expects to look for work in Washington, but in the meantime, she is home and deeply involved with Equality Delaware, the leading gay advocacy group here, on the transgender rights bill, as are her parents.

Their presence and familiarity with state politics have helped in big ways and small.

Greg Lavelle, the Senate's Republican minority whip, recalled meeting McBride pre-trans about four years ago, when the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce was giving Lavelle an award and McBride a college scholarship.

"I remember the kid. He was bright, personable, a good talker, and I told him, if you really want to impress me, why don't you try to get a Republican elected in Delaware?" Lavelle quipped.

Lavelle had voted "no" on gay rights, he voted "no" on civil unions, he voted "no" on gay marriage, but he went "not voting" on transgender rights. It was essentially a distinction without a difference, but it was a gesture, and it mattered.

So Sarah McBride is getting used to being Sarah McBride and all it means. At one of her first political coming-out events, she spoke at a fund-raiser for Equality Delaware in March at her parents' house.

Markell was there. Denn was there. Biden was there. It was so overwhelming, McBride said she was afraid she would cry.

"It's the hormones," her mother teased.