Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
20 minutes

Sarah McBride is an author, an activist, and one of the most visible voices for trans equality. She's made history, too. She was the first openly transgender woman to serve as an intern at the White House and the first openly transgender person to address a major party convention. Sarah's conversation with Commissioner Rosenworcel focuses on the importance of internet connectivity for all and how it can be a lifeline for the LGBTQ community.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations, the podcast where I get to talk to leading women who are making a difference across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You'll hear us talk about what we are working on, what's on our minds, what's important to us, and what we think is next for the future.

My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I am a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. Today my guest is Sarah McBride. Now, Sarah is an author, an activist, and one of the most visible voices for trans equality. She's also a history maker. She was the first openly transgender women to intern in the White House, and she's also been the first openly transgender person to address a major party convention.

So now, if you are wondering, Commissioner Rosenworcel, I thought this podcast was all about tech. Well, it is, but, you know, I think technology isn't just about mother boards and fiber cables. Technology is about how this tool can connect us, help us communicate, help us thrive, and really be who we are in the most authentic way possible.

So, I'm so honored to have Sarah join us today and talk about this intersection of technology, and activism, and community. So, Sarah, welcome to the podcast.

MS. McBride: Thank you so much for having me on.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, I want to roll back and do a little first things first and ask you to share your story about how you got to where you are today.

MS. McBride: Sure. To condense things, as someone who knows that they are transgender my entire life, I remember as a young person lying in my bed at night that I would wake up the next day and be myself, that my family would still be proud of me, and that I could still dream big dreams.

Because as a young person, I was a voracious reader of history. And, as I read the history books I marveled at the scope of social change that filled their pages. But, I also became very aware very quickly of the fact that no one quite like me had ever made it very far.

And, I think like so many young LGBTQ people I wondered whether the heart of this country was big enough to love somebody like me. As I became more and more aware of the fact that there was something about me that society disapproved of.

And so, I kept my gender identity inside. I told myself that if I could make it worthwhile for other people by making a difference in my community that those things would somehow fill the incompleteness and void in my life.

Eventually, though, the pain and that incompleteness became too much, and I came out first with my family on Christmas day in 2011, and then to my campus community at the end of my term as Student Body President in a post on my personal Facebook page, and then in an op ed in the student newspaper at American University.

And, that experience really pushed me into advocacy, and to trying to utilize my story and the stories of others to open hearts and minds and, hopefully, move equality forward.

So, I began working first in my home state of Delaware, and then nationally to push forward LGBTQ equality, because for as I looked around my campus, my community, and this country, it was clear that the experiences I had of a welcoming and supportive family, and the welcoming and supportive campus community, of opportunities and potential before me, that that was an acceptance, and it couldn't be a privilege to keep your family, or be able to stay in school, or be safe from violence.

And so, I wanted to make sure that I was pushing for equality, to make sure that the privileges that I have are guaranteed to everyone, no matter their gender identify or sexual orientation, and that led me to the White House, to the State Legislature in Delaware, and now to the Human Rights Campaign, where I advocate for the LGBTQ community at the local, state and Federal level.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Thank you for sharing that story.

Now, I want you to tell me a little bit how your story interacts with technology. In other words, how do you use it every day, and how has it impacted what you've just told us?

MS. McBride: You know, I think that technology has played a unique role in both the formation of the LGBTQ community, but also the progress of the LGBTQ movement.

I know as a young transgender person, very much in the closet, it was through the internet that I was able to understand more fully the identities and the facts about myself that I was struggling with. It was through the internet that I was able to gain a glimpse into the history of transgender people, and a glimpse into the community that exists in the lives of transgender people, real transgender people across the country.

I can't imagine how isolating it must have been 30/40 years ago to be growing up as a transgender person and not really have access to, one, information, but, two, examples of transgender people living and being embraced by their families, living and being loved, living and being able to pursue their dreams.

And, while the stories were few and far between back in 2010, 2011, 2012, when I was coming out, they were still there. And, I was able to access them through technology and through the internet.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's so powerful.

MS. McBride: And, I think in many ways – it's incredible, and I think it's been a lifesaving tool for the community, a life changing tool for the community, because LGBTQ people exist organically throughout society, which is both a driver of pain, but also can result in feelings of isolation, because LGBTQ people aren't, you know, typically, born into and raised by LGBTQ parents in an LGBTQ community. So, the internet is our gateway in finding one another, finding community, finding ourselves.

And, I think it's through the democratization of the microphone for social media that, you know, we, certainly, see challenges, but we also see opportunities for transgender people of all different backgrounds to have access to the microphone, when so often in the past traditional gatekeepers to media have kept us from being able to share our opinions and our stories.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow, that's such good stuff. I mean, community used to be about geography, and it's amazing how internet connections have changed that.

And, in the community you are discussing, that's just really profound change. It also really speaks to just how powerful it is to make sure that we are all connected with broadband.

And so, could you just talk a little bit about the power of broadband and having those connections when you are part of the LGBTQ community.

MS. McBride: Yes. You know, access to broadband was critical to me. I was fortunate enough to be an LGBTQ person who was raised in a family who had early access to broadband.

But, one of the challenges so many LGBTQ people face is that as LGBTQ people, as I mentioned organically exists throughout the country. We exist in families of every economic background, including families in poverty. After we come out, we might be more likely in many instances to be living (indiscernible), particularly, transgender people that the overall general population were organically interesting throughout communities, including in many rural parts of the country.

And so, for so many LGBTQ people access to broadband is still not a reality. They are still not able to access that community in the same way that so many of us have been fortunate enough to have access to broadband, have been able to.

And so, there's so much work to make sure that we extend the ability to access that community to everyone, no matter their economic background, and no matter where they live in the country.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, hear, hear.

And, you know, it's not just that broadband is democratizing, having access to wireless devices is also a part of that.

And, the FCC has had this program for a while, called Life Line, and it helps lower the cost of phone service to their individuals who cannot afford to pay. And, it's really based on the idea that it could be a life line just to have communications. And, I know that having something as simple as a phone can really help vulnerable and under-served populations get access to help assist in housing, medical care. And, I think of this as becoming especially important for LGBTQ youth, and as you probably know, there is a high population of homeless LGBTQ youth. And, many of them rely on this program called Life Line.

So, to the extent you are familiar with it, I'd love it if you'd talk about the ability of a phone to really be a life line, and the FCC's program, and why it's so important.

MS. McBride: Yes. You know, your question is an important one, because as you mentioned, a large portion, as many as 40 percent, of homeless youth are LGBTQ, and that's a mix of a number of different factors, it's a mix of family rejection, institutional barriers to employment, and (indiscernible).

And, access through wireless communication can be lifesaving and life changing, for so many people, particularly, those who find themselves facing housing insecurity, living on the street, or finding themselves in unsafe conditions.

Access to a wireless device is the access to the gateway into finding employment that can help you ensure that you are able to get services and goods that you need to live and thrive.

It can also be access to your safety and sanctuary. So often we know when an LGBTQ person on the street that they are going to be calling around, seeking, particularly, for transgender people, seeking shelters that are inclusive of all people, because so many LGBTQ people often times will face discrimination in homeless shelters, you know, you can't just walk around and go to different shelters on a given day and ask them what your's policy.

So, being able to call in advance to make sure that it's going to be a welcome safe place for someone who is homeless, be able to access that information is critical.

And then finally, the LGBTQ community, particularly, transgender people, are facing an epidemic of violence. It's violence that (indiscernible) and influence. In many cases, it's violence that is the result of, particularly, transgender people, and, in particular, transgender people of color, being pushed into circumstances where they are more likely to be isolated, alone, and at risk for violence, because of a need (indiscernible) a vital economy, survival underground economies, because they've been pushed out of stable employment.

And so, access to a wireless device might be a person's sole access to the structures in society we've created to protect the health, safety and well-being of people, because they don't, necessarily, have access through other kinds of institutionalized regulations and support systems that help protect their safety.

And so, when you are pushed into underground economy, having access to that phone is critical if you find yourself at risk of violence.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. And, you know, that conversation you just brought up feels so modern, but I think what's really interesting is in the very first sentence of the Communications Act, which dates back to 1934, it talks about communications for the safety of life and poverty. And, to me these are just really fundamental, we just have to make sure they apply to everyone.

MS. McBride: Absolutely. Absolutely. It is, without question, access to information, access to other people, it's at the heart of our democracy and it's at the heart of our ability to live our lives, whether that's in pursuing our dreams, or whether that's in accessing the goods and services we need, or whether it's ensuring that we have access to safety and protection from the structures we've created to serve us.

And so, having access to the phone, particularly, for communities that are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, disproportionately likely to face housing insecurity and homelessness, that asset is integral and lifesaving.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Now, let me move from access to openness, because I want to go there, and I want to talk about net neutrality. And, of course, that's the idea, that your broadband provider can't block websites, throttle your speed, or censor online content. And, I'm a supporter of net neutrality, and we know that it's an important principle for connecting people, building movements, for sharing stories, and I'd love it if you'd talked a little bit about how net neutrality might be significant for the kind of work you are doing.

MS. McBride: One of the, one of the old faves, that we can reach everyone, everywhere, is for all of us to have equal access to each other's information and why when we put them out there on the internet. So, many aspects of the change we've seen as a community has been a byproduct of the fact that people have been able to access films, and stories, videos, and the written word, that have reinforced the simple fact that LGBTQ people are people, that have added nuance and complexity to our humanity and our lives.

Because when you know someone, it becomes much more difficult to hate them.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely.

MS. McBride: You feel this glory, it becomes much more difficult to want to stand in the way of happiness, and safety, and dignity for them.

And so, ensuring that everyone has equal access to all of those different tools for social change is critical as we continue to have conversations as a country on issues of LGBTQ equality.

The risk of censorship is particularly significant for the LGBTQ community, because so often we see these conversations deemed as not worthy of broad conversation, but as too mature, or too limited, or, excuse me, too often we see these conversations deemed as too mature for everyone to access.

Too often we see, including political leaders, you see people push these conversations to the side and say, this isn't appropriate for the broader community. And, we know that at the end of the day no one's humanity is too mature for everyone to hear. No one's humanity is too -- is inappropriate for all of us to understand.

The diversity of our society, the diversity of our community, if these are appropriate no matter who we are talking about. And so, when we are talking about net neutrality, when we are talking about the ability to access without increase need to pay or any kind of censorship, we are talking about the ability of everyone to be able to access information on the full diversity of our humanity.

And, for our community, given the importance of the internet in opening hearts and changing lives is a critical issue.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that's so beautifully stated. I just love the way you captured all of humanity and talking about some issue before this Agency. Very well done.

But, now I'm going to take you to something terribly mundane, because before you go I want to ask you a few questions that I ask everyone before the end of our time together, and this is my question.

Do you recall what the first thing you did was on line or on the internet?

MS. McBride: I think the first thing I did on the internet was, there are two things that come to mind.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You can do two. You can totally do two.

MS. McBride: I'm gonna do two.

I mean, the first thing on my mind that I remember was, obviously, opening up email, which was a powerful tool years later for me to reach out to folks, and to my friends in particular that I wanted to tell before I posted my note publicly to share my information, to share my story, to come out for them.


MS. McBride: And, some of the first memories I have, as probably an eight or nine year old, was opening up in here, opening up AOL and hearing, You've got mail.

But, the second thing that really sticks in my mind is, going online and searching the word transgender. You know, I came of age as the internet was becoming available to the masses, and one of the first things I did was to search out this word that I had heard whispered and mentioned under folks' breath before. And for me, that was incredibly important in my own wife, and in my evolution of a person. The internet gave me the words that I can use to describe who I am. It gave me the hope and understanding that there was something I could do about this thought that I had known about myself. And, it gave me access to an incredibly beautiful diverse community of people.

Even before I was ready to enter into it as my authentic self, I could see that there was hope that I could live my truth, be loved, and dream big dreams all at the same time.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, my goodness. So, I introduced that by saying to was mundane, and you just went and you hit it. That was so powerful.

Let me try one more time by asking you this one. What was the last thing you did on the internet? I mean, it can be online shopping or the weather, you can go there if you like.

MS. McBride: The last thing I did on the internet was I was also doing emails.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, some things never change, right?

MS. McBride: Some things never change, particularly, as you get older and you start working and you have to do emails constantly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know they multiply exponentially, right?

MS. McBride: Even with my colleagues.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. All right.

Now, here I want you to go big, which you seem really good at doing. So, what do you want the future of the internet and digital life to look like.

MS. McBride: My hope for the future of digital life is for us to figure out how we as a society can ensure a truly equitable and free marketplace of ideas for all of us, to bring our whole selves to.

I think the challenge we face right now is that, we democratize the microphone, which is critical, and I think so important particularly for communities like the LGBTQ community. But, I think we have to figure out as a society how we ensure that every person feels safe and comfortable and welcome into that marketplace of ideas, because I think the flip side of what we've achieved is that we allowed for, in many cases, bullies, and individuals with hate enough to have an increased platform to target, to ridicule, to mock and defame at discrimination.

And so, I think we as a society have to figure out how do we harness the positive potential of the internet and of fiducial aids in having important conversations and allowing people to be heard who haven't been heard, who have bene pushed aside, who have been unseen and visible to society for too long, how we harness that potential, while mitigating the risk of creating an environment where people of different backgrounds don;t feel like they can bring themselves to that marketplace of ideas, because of discrimination, because of ridicule, because of bullying and harassment. And, I think that that's one of the most fundamental questions before us as a society and as a democracy.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, no, I agree. I also like your optimism, but your recognition that we have work to do, because we do.

So, that wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you for being here, Sarah. Thanks to everyone for listening.

Take care.