Seeing a transgender character portrayed on TV as the butt of jokes was “soul-crushing” for a 10-year-old who grew up to be elected the nation’s first out trans state senator, that politician, Sarah McBride, recalled in a recent interview.
McBride, who was elected last month to the Delaware Senate, talked to Forbes about her history-making election, getting involved in politics at an early age, and how seeing bad trans representation on TV as a kid affected her life.
In the interview, McBride remembered that when she was just 10 years old, an episode of the sitcom Just Shoot Me featured a trans woman character played by cisgender actress Jenny McCarthy, with the character serving only for shock value and as a target for jokes.
When McBride asked her mom if there were people like that in the real world, and her mom said yes, the youth knew immediately that her life was never going to be the same.
“I thought, Oh, my God, I’m going to have to tell you this someday, and you are going to be so disappointed,” McBride told Forbes. “And what could have been a life-affirming moment of finding out that there were other people like me, and that I wasn’t alone in this world, was really in many ways soul-crushing, because at 10 years old, you don’t know a lot, but you know you don’t want to be a joke.”
Seeing the first trans person she’d ever seen on TV be nothing but a cue for the laugh track left a lasting impression on the young McBride.
“And every time that laugh track would cue, I knew, or at least I thought I knew, that there wouldn’t be a place for me in this world,” she said. But that realization also stoked her early passion for politics. “Even if I couldn’t personally benefit … I think I got involved in politics because I thought if I could help others in their pursuit of authenticity and happiness, that it would somehow fill the incompleteness and the pain in my own life.”
That was once an all too common experience for trans people, with negative trans portrayals in movies such as The Silence of the Lambs and Ace Ventura, and countless cartoons where a man in a dress is a punch line, undoubtedly leading many to stay in the closet. Since then, trans representation in entertainment media has gotten much better, with shows like Pose, Saved by the Bell, Sense8, 9-1-1: Lone Star, and The L Word: Generation Q.
McBride, who won her Senate election with nearly 75 percent of the vote, will be sworn in to office in January, although technically the terms of Delaware state senators and representatives begin the day after Election Day. She succeeds Sen. Harris McDowell, a fellow Democrat who is retiring. She has most recently been national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, and in 2016 she became the first out trans person to address a major party’s national convention, in her case the Democratic National Convention. She has also worked for the Center for American Progress, interned in President Barack Obama’s White House, and held staff positions in the Delaware governor’s and attorney general’s offices.