I’ve never been particularly into politics – it just does not interest me. I mean don’t get me wrong, I have my opinions and morals and I vote according to them (and to that point – I vote consistently and informedly), but I have never been overly into the processes of bills becoming laws, campaigning, lobbying, etc. (And yes, I absolutely recognize my privilege in being able to say/live that.) But after the years I spent studying public health, I really made a connection I never had previously, about the pivotal role those processes take in affecting the health outcomes of any person or community in our country. And though it didn’t cause a full 180*, I became more invested than I had before, followed things more closely, spoke out more with friends/colleagues/acquaintances. And, currently being from NC (and, really, the US), I have had ample reason to need to speak up about some of the atrocious leaders/representatives we’ve had lately/currently. So when I saw this book offered for review on First to Read, saw that it addressed a massively underserved and marginalized population (a major focus of my public health training), would address and personalize a polarizing topic (particularly in my state) AND knowing that my favorite local bookstore would be hosting the author herself at the end of the month, I knew I had to request it. And having received my copy, which I finished reading just this morning, I cannot wait to see Sarah speak and recommend this book to everyone. (*Edit here – I have since seen her speak and it was every bit as inspiring as I could have hoped/wanted.)
“This. This is what it feels like to be yourself, I thought. I had never felt this way before.”
Sarah McBride was born and raised in Delaware, where she was passionate about and involved in politics from a very early age. She went to American University in DC for college, where she served as student body president for a year and was her home when she came out as transgender. She’d known she was woman since she was a child, but she was unsure about and afraid of acknowledging and sharing that part of her. It took her until she was a senior in college to feel comfortable coming out, living her entire life up to that point as someone other than who she really felt she was. Which is honestly just…impossible to even comprehend and heartbreaking to think about. Though she tells this story herself, and much better, the long and short of it is that, after coming out she finds a way (with much support from family and friends) to continue pursuing the dreams she had thought would be snuffed out by her admission. One of those goals was to have a career in politics, which she is achieving with flying colors it seems. And the other, to love and be loved for who she is (both in general and by a special someone) also, at least for the most part, was/is being fulfilled. But in a twist that seems almost unreal, her partner and eventually husband, a transgender man named Andy, was diagnosed with and succumbed to cancer. I mean, for someone only in their late 20s, she has lived more life, been through more, than most people who have lived to the full US average of 80 years old. It’s phenomenally inspiring.
This book starts with Sarah’s coming out note, with some flashbacks to her time growing up, and follows her life through the present day. In that way, it is definitively an autobiography or memoir type book. But it is also so much more than that. Sarah is able to provide a voice for a group of people that, for pretty much always, has been voiceless. And even worse than that, actively discriminated against and silenced. She’s able to voice for a community that until recently very limited people even knew about, since they spent their whole lives hiding/lying for their own safety. And before moving on, it’s important to just note how categorically heartbreaking that is. This book is not only a beautiful story about one person’s life, struggle for acceptance (personal and otherwise), and the highs and lows of both finding love and the grief in losing it. No, it is all that and more: a spectacular primer on the beauty of the transgender community, what it means to be transgender (and the associated vocabulary and concepts), and a short introduction to the history/current events for transgender people in the United States. This is both an educational piece and a personal testament, providing the reader general background knowledge while simultaneously putting a humanizing face on it. It’s something that absolutely everyone should read…if not this book exactly, something like it from another representative of the community.
I loved Sarah’s ability to both tell her story in a straightforward way that made it absolutely impossible to avoid/deny the unbelievable challenges faced by herself during her time before coming out, the stress of actually coming out, and the post-transition experiences. While she is honest and quick to point out all the support and positivity she had in her life, she also does not hold back in sharing the fear and discrimination as well. In addition, I greatly appreciated the way she worked hard to make sure the reader knows that her own experience, for all its overwhelming difficulty, is still nothing in comparison to what many face. She did have support of family and friends and she had a stable financial situation and access to opportunities and resources that many people do not have. In fact, her ability to be a voice for the transgender community is, in fact, born from the privileges she has from where she grew up and the people she was able to meet along the way. Her descriptions of what often happens to transgender people across the country without the same support resources, or to certain groups just because of who they are specifically (for example, how much worse things are for the black transgender community) are eye-opening and very significant. Throughout everything she faces, even through the health crises and death of her husband, she never once forgets to say how much worse things could be. A line beautifully walked and admirable to the highest degree.
The one complaint I have is directly related to the writing itself. It was a bit juvenile, with basic and jumpy writing and transitions. There was nothing grammatically wrong, necessarily, it just seemed less polished and more simplistic than it could have been. And though the story and information are absolutely strong enough to overcome this weakness (in fact, for the last quarter-ish of the book, I found myself pretty constantly teary-eyed, from emotions both super uplifting and horribly heartbreaking), I feel like perhaps it could be even more striking if the writing was a bit smoother or the language a little more emotional in its own right… Regardless, as I mentioned, the emotion of the story itself broke through anyways, which, more than anything else I’ve said, truly speaks to its power.
Sarah McBride is an example of the perfect person in the right place at the right time to make a dramatic difference in our world. She had the exact combination of support, career interests, privilege, experiences and passions that could do great things. And all the credit to her for everything she’s been able to accomplish with what she’s been given. It’s not just anyone that could have taken those pieces and made them into what she has – her effort, heart, and pure bravery did that. And her positivity and continued hope for the future of our country, and what our upcoming generations and new leaders will be able to do (may I add, including herself), is encouraging. I truly recommend this book; pretty much everyone should read it (especially our nation’s, and state’s, leaders) – it’s clear, compelling, motivational, informative and will absolutely want to make you do something. It’s a moving testament to the power of people, of individuality, of pride in who you are, and of what we can make happen if we only felt safe and accepted enough to try. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story.
There were about a million quotes/passages that I highlighted while reading. Seriously, it was like I was trying to highlight and reproduce the whole book here in my “sections I particularly loved” part… So basically, skip this and go read the book. But if you are dead set against that option, for some reason, please enjoy this ridiculously long selection that I tried, and mostly failed, to cut down from where it started…
“Being me appeared so impossible that changing the world seemed like the more realistic bet. And the thought of doing both at the same time was, in a word, incomprehensible.”
“‘The best way I can describe it for myself,’ I told them, ‘is a constant feeling of homesickness. An unwavering ache in the pit of my stomach that only goes away when I can be seen and affirmed in the gender I’ve always felt myself to be. And unlike homesickness with location, which eventually diminishes as you get used to the new home, this homesickness only grows with time and separation.’”
“…for me, gender is a lot like language. Language, too, is a social construct, but one that expresses very real things. The word “happiness” was created by humans, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that happiness is a very real feeling. People can have a deeply held sense of their own gender even if the descriptions, characteristics, attributes, and expressions of that gender are made up by society. And just as with happiness – for which there are varying words, expressions, and actions that demonstrate the same feeling – gender can have an infinite number of expressions. We can respect that people have a very real gender identity while also acknowledging that gender is fluid and that gender-based stereotypes are not an accurate representation of the rich diversity within any gender identity.”
“Soon enough, I hoped we would all come to the place where she could ask the same question, ‘What are the chances?,’ out of awe and not out of self-pity – a place where my parents could see that they had raised children who were confident and strong enough to live their truths and whose different perspectives enhanced our family’s beauty.”
“Each of us has a deep and profound desire to be seen, to be acknowledged, and to be respected in our totality. There is a unique kind of pain in being unseen. It’s a pain that cuts deep by diminishing and disempowering, and, whether done intentionally or unintentionally, it’s an experience that leaves real scars.”
“It is this trend that links the fight for gender equity with the fight for gay rights with the fight for trans equality: ending the notion that one perception at birth, the sex we are assigned, should dictate how we act, what we do, whom we love, and who we are.”
“I was so focused on the transphobia I might face after transitioning that I didn’t full realize just how pervasive the sexism and misogyny would be.”
“There are few things more dangerous to a transgender woman than the risk of a straight man not totally comfortable in his sexuality or masculinity realizing he is attracted to her.”
“Having certain privileges does not mean that your life is easy or that you do not face challenges. It just means that you don’t experience specific kinds of obstacles or barriers face by someone with a different identity or background. And our empathy should require us to acknowledge the plight of others in both its similarities to ours and in its differences.”
“It is easy to deprioritize something that feels abstract.”
“It’s easy to rationalize and find seemingly altruistic reasons for betraying a moral imperative, but that’s exactly when our principles are most important.”
“A government cannot be ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people,’ if wide swaths of the people have no seat at the table, if large parts of the country feel like there is literally no one in their government who can understand what they are going through.”
“For all the talk of sexual predators accessing restrooms, these senators were holding transgender people’s right to safely access a restroom to a higher standard than the current ability of actual, certified sex offenders to access restrooms.”
“To put it simply, a service is being provided to everyone but trans people. That is a textbook example of discrimination. And it’s pervasive.”
“I have been asked: Why would you need to change your body if you say gender is removed from anatomy? Acknowledging that the two concepts are distinct does not preclude them from ever interacting. And no one would expect cisgender people to defend their individual feelings about their own body parts.”
“There’s also righteous anger, the kind of anger that, when checked with hope and mixed with a cause, can help change the world.”
“None of us know how long we have, but we do have a choice in whether we love or hate. And every day that we rob people of the ability to live their lives to the fullest, we are undermining the most precious gift we are given as humans.”
“Through exhaustive efforts, each generation has broadened the nation’s perception of ‘we the people.’ But despite this progress, too many Americans are still left behind, excluded from the country’s most basic legal protections.”
“The kind of hate I experienced was an occupational hazard. At least for the time being, it was a reality of the world we live in.”
“Surely not everyone who bullies is in the closet. But everyone does hold some kind of insecurity. Whether it’s your sexual orientation, gender identity, how you look, what you sound like, what you do for a living, or any multitude of characteristics, everyone struggles with something that society has told them is wrong. But as LGBTQ people, we have had the courage to embrace something that many think we should be ashamed of; we have stood up and decided to live our truth, not just from a place of authenticity, but so often from a place a pride. We have exercised our own individual agency and power to overcome what was once an insecurity to hold our heads high and proclaim: ‘This is who I am and there is nothing wrong with me.’ And the bullies see that. They see our power and they are jealous of it. They envy the agency we have been able to exercise and the clear power we hold. So often that is where their hate and vitriol come from. We are powerful.”
“The first was that, despite our progress, a lot of work remains in the fight for LGBTQ, and specifically trans, equality. The second point, and, frankly, the main one, was to remind people that behind this national debate on trans rights are real people who love, fear, laugh, cry, hope, and dream just like everyone else. So often we lose sight of the humanity behind these issues.”
“‘Will we be a nation where there’s only one way to love, only one way to look, and only one way to live? Or will we be a nation where everyone has the freedom to live openly and equally? A nation that’s stronger together?’”