'She's just like me': Transgender kids across Delaware see themselves in Sen. Sarah McBride

Joy Ashford
Delaware News Journal

Devin Brymer has been studying politics for four years, but he’d never heard of a trans politician like him until Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride.

Neither had high schooler Alex Sygowski, who said because of the lack of public figures or information, he had to rely on word of mouth and “googling stuff over and over again” to answer questions as he transitioned.

“I felt like I didn’t have anyone to look up to, transition-wise,” agreed Anthony Gelacio, a 25-year-old trans man. “Just being able to go to someone with questions while trying to figure out what I was before I even knew what transgender was. Being able to explain my symptoms to somebody.”

University of Delaware student Devin Brymer

Amid that lack of representation, the recent election of McBride as the first-ever openly transgender state senator in the country not only made waves nationwide, but had an immeasurable impact on her local young constituents. For the first time in history, young trans people in Delaware have a politician who can understand a key part of their identity and advocate for their rights in a way an outsider can’t. 

Sygowski said it was hard to believe such a historic first could happen in his home state of Delaware.

“I knew Delaware was progressive and accepting for the most part, but I was just like — no way," he said. "This is such a big moment, I couldn't believe it at first.”

For 17-year-old Trinity Neal, she was “ecstatic” to hear of McBride’s win, but not surprised.

“I was like: See America, I told you that we can actually do this,” she said.

Trinity Neal listens to her history Zoom class from her couch at home Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

But as they shared that joy, they also stressed that one person can’t represent an entire community — and they hope that McBride’s victory is only the beginning of positive change for the state.

'I can be a powerful woman, too'

McBride’s election resonated especially with young trans people across the state because she gave them a positive image of trans joy and success — something they say is far more difficult to find than it should be.

Newly elected State Sen. Sarah McBride, left, is sworn into office by Superior Court Judge Jan. R. Jurden, right, during a virtual ceremony in front of friends and family at the Claymont Community Center Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

Many of the kids interviewed for this story struggled to think of a single role model they have who looks like them. High schooler Neal says she has only two role models, and McBride is one of them. 

“When you see trans women in movies, they’re a punchline or you know something bad is gonna happen to them,” said Ashe, a high school student who requested to be referred to by her first name only to protect her privacy. 

MORE TO READ:Peppermint, McBride & other transgender Delawareans on trans life in the First State

For McBride, she felt the impact of that same lack of representation when she was a kid.

“It’s difficult to be what you can’t see,” McBride said. When she was younger, “the idea that you could be out and trans and find love, or [be] pursuing your dreams — those seemed mutually exclusive.”

A lack of role models finding success and happiness doesn’t just affect the imagination and hope of young trans kids, but also influences how they’re treated by their peers.

“Since we don't get a lot of representation, a lot of people assume that trans people are some kind of aliens that live among us,” Ashe said. 

Democratic candidate for state senate Sarah McBride, right, embraces her mother Sally McBride after the Associated Press announced her victory Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at Wilmington Brew Works. McBride became the first out transgender person to be elected to a state senate seat in the United States.

High school senior Milo Watson echoed a similar sentiment as he described what it was like to spend his K-12 years at the same small private Delaware high school. Watson sensed an awkwardness and discomfort around him from his classmates, who he felt were “afraid of saying the wrong thing” or “didn’t know what to do with” him after he came out – an experience he described as isolating.

MORESarah McBride becomes first openly transgender state senator in the nation, elected in Delaware

Even for those in larger schools where they are able to find like-minded community, representation is a crucial part of encouraging young queer kids to take the step of coming out, according to these students – and providing hope for what will be waiting for them on the other side.

For Alex Sygowski, who shared that he “didn’t have a super rough time coming out,” it’s important that kids like him hear stories of trans people being supported and affirmed as their authentic selves. 

Sarah McBride, center, and her campaign manager Phoebe Lucas, left, greet friends and family after McBride claimed victory in the race for state senate seat 1 Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at Wilmington Brew Works.

“Portraying only the bad stuff gives a negative mindset of — don't come out, it's super scary, you might get hurt or something might happen,” he said.

Sygowski said that hearing only negative coming out stories can keep kids in the closet — which can sometimes be even more harmful. He found a strong support system and many friends through coming out and joining an LGBT group at his high school.

“Seeing people who have gone through self-doubt and succeeded and are now living a happy life as themselves gives you hope to keep going and keep figuring yourself out, keep pushing to find yourself, so that you can also hit that point and have a happy life,” he said.

For Watson, McBride had been one of those positive inspirations for him for a long time. His mom had read McBride’s memoir “Tomorrow Will Be Different” several years ago and recommended it to him when, as he described it, he still had “a lot of internalized shame about being trans.” 

Then a middle school science teacher gave the book to him as a gift, and he finally decided to read it and loved it. Watson described how McBride’s optimism radiated through the book, and was thrilled not only when she became senator, but when she ran such a well-received campaign, he found largely free of anti-trans bullying and hate. 

It showed Trinity McNeal that she could also dream big.

"She’s just like me, basically,” McNeal said. “She’s a powerful woman. It makes me happy that I can be a powerful woman, too.”

'Hope comes from a collective'

Beyond serving as a vital story of success and joy for trans kids, McBride is also someone they trust can “truly, actually understand” and lend urgency to the fight for their rights, Sygowski said.

Many kids shared their fears over a wave of new bills this year that could ban gender-affirming care for minors and block trans kids’ participation on sports teams, among others.

As Milo Watson put it, “younger trans girls are currently at the center of a really big national debate about whether or not they deserve to be trusted.”

In many states, new laws will require young girls to “prove” their womanhood by undergoing invasive genital inspections or hormone tests to use the correct bathroom or compete on a sports team.

State Senator-Elect Sarah McBride stands for a portrait in front of Legislative Hall in Dover, Del. Monday, Jan, 11, 2021. McBride will be sworn into office Tuesday, Jan. 12.

Seeing the state entrust a trans woman with political power sends the message that trans girls’ womanhood – and wider value to society – shouldn’t be questioned, Watson said.

Similarly, Sygowski highlighted the “Save Adolescents from Experimentation” Act, which just passed in Arkansas in March and bans gender-affirming care for anyone under 18, regardless of parental consent. 

Several of the medical interventions that fall under the bill, like puberty blockers – which delay, not stop puberty – and hormone therapies are already safely used for other reasons like early-onset puberty or low estrogen levels and embraced by the American Psychological Association and American Medical Association.

This is the first of these bills to pass, but 15 other states are considering similar ones.

MORE TO READ: As Arkansas bans treatments for transgender youth, 15 other states consider similar bills

“If every single major medical organization has been like ‘please don’t do this’ and you’re continuing to be like ‘this is the way to go’ – you’re not trying to protect kids,” Watson argued.

Bills like these come, in large part, Sygowski said, from “a lack of education.”

“A lot of people don’t want LGBTQ people and queer people to exist because they don’t understand us,” he said. 

He echoed many others interviewed by Delaware Online/The News Journal in emphasizing that trans kids just want to be treated like any other kid.

“I want [being trans] to be a normal thing,” said 17-year-old Jessica Lee. “If you show that — hey, these people are not only normal, but can have completely happy lives, it lets kids know who may have never experienced that, that you can still have a happy life, no matter what people say about it.”

MORE TO READSarah McBride reacts to historic win

By living their ordinary lives in the public eye, queer politicians have the ability to show to the wider community that there is nothing broken or dangerous about being trans, according to McBride. But that visibility – personal life choices, romantic partners, even things like clothing choice and presentation – becoming a political statement brings with it a tremendous amount of pressure. As McBride puts it, being the only openly trans politician comes with a lot of “soul-baring.”

From talking about finding and losing her beloved husband, Andrew Cray, in 2014, to her highly publicized coming out in college, McBride has put much of her life on public display – and, by extension, vulnerable to attack.

“I feel really strongly that our politics shouldn’t have to rely on people having to bare their soul in order to be able to be treated with dignity,” McBride said.

And yet, for now she said public vulnerability is a necessary sacrifice to lend urgency and humanity to bills that threaten the safety and dignity of trans people. 

But one person's story isn't enough.

Sarah McBride speaks during a roundtable with Human Right Campaign's Parents for Transgender Equality National Council at the Cannon House Office Building on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

MORE TO READ:Sarah McBride made transgender history. Here's her agenda as a lawmaker

“I think we as a society tend to lump all trans people into the same category and be like ‘if I know one trans person, I understand trans people,'” said Milo Watson.

But there are still so many trans people in the state — including many of those interviewed for this story — who look nothing like McBride.

Those kids deserve to see themselves represented in government, too, McBride said, and to have representatives who know what it's like to be a trans person of color or come from a low-income background.

“Hope doesn’t come from a single example," she said. "Hope comes from a collective.”

Contact Joy Ashford at jashford@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @joy_ashford.