TOMORROW WILL BE DIFFERENT
Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality
The most stirring moments in the memoir “Tomorrow Will Be Different” are not those in which Sarah McBride is making public history, whether as American University’s first transgender student body president or the first openly trans person to speak before a major party convention. They are the private moments: when her mother tells her that she feels as if her son is dying; when she unexpectedly falls in love; when she realizes that this transgender man she plans to spend the rest of her life with will die. It is when McBride — having lived her entire adult life in public as a trans advocate and budding political figure — is finally able to shed her public persona that her narrative is most resonant. By becoming a nuanced character in her own book, she humanizes the impossibly competent, morally unsullied ideal she seems on the surface.
McBride acknowledges the difficulty of letting her guard down when she describes her advocacy of a Delaware trans rights bill before the State Senate in 2013: “A few months before, displaying such vulnerability before that body seemed impossible, but through the last several months I had found my voice.” There is a constant tension in the book between McBride’s ingrained reliance on logic over emotions, and her efforts to break through these intellectual barriers to fully reveal herself, in her book and in the outside world.
The memoir starts off with a moving history of McBride’s profound inner conflict as a child: “When the boys and girls would line up separately in kindergarten, I’d find myself longing to be in the other line”; “as I’d play in the Cinderella dress, the proverbial stroke of midnight would arrive. I’d have to take it off and return to playing the part that I’d already learned was more than just expected of me — it was ‘me’ to everyone else in my life.” Her account of the day she comes out to her college community, in contrast, is more tentative. If the language feels timeworn (“I couldn’t hide anymore”; and, once she posts her letter on Facebook, “it didn’t take long for the news to spread like wildfire”), it evokes a narrative insecurity that mirrors the nervous self-doubt she experiences while actually living through her gender transition.
By the time she finds herself arguing before the Delaware legislature, though, both McBride the character and the book’s narrative voice have gained enough confidence to passionately convince their audiences of her lifelong cause. The debate scene comes alive through the specificity of McBride’s prose. She recalls how some Republican lawmakers at first cast trans people as restroom predators, before becoming “more muted” and “almost sheepish” in their opposition after her testimony, unable to fully vilify trans people after interacting with one. As McBride sits in tears on the Senate floor, State Senator Karen Peterson is the only one to comfort her — for Peterson, who is lesbian, recognizes “the indignity of having to plead for your most basic rights,” McBride writes. The scene’s pathos underlines the absurdity of having to debate anyone’s right to a life free from discrimination.
At the same time, these extended chapters on trans advocacy, teeming with data and policy details, feel shallower than those that develop the star-crossed romance between McBride and the young transgender rights advocate Andrew Cray. From his first appearance in the book, at President Obama’s White House L.G.B.T. reception in 2012, the narrative intermingles the excitement of new love with the anticipation of its loss. “I think we’d get along pretty swimmingly,” Cray messages McBride on Facebook two months after that encounter, his significance in her life already promising to be as noteworthy as his charming use of an adverb.
Cray takes a central role in “Tomorrow Will Be Different” only when a sore on his tongue turns out to be cancer, which later progresses to his lungs. As McBride cares for Cray, his illness seems to dismantle her walls of pragmatism and perfectionism. At one point she breaks down over a malfunctioning suction machine, falling to the floor in tears and shouting, “I can’t do this!” At another, she decides to spend Christmas with her parents instead of Cray, as much as she knows it will hurt him. These flaws — these moments where she appears least noble — are evidence of this exemplary woman’s humanity.
Cray himself also buoys these scenes with his particular blend of stubbornness and charm. He insists on remaining independent from his family through his illness, only to rely on McBride as his caregiver instead. And yet, as the 27-year-old man sits in the tub and asks, “Can you wash my tush?” in a playful acknowledgment of the infantilizing force of his disease, we understand his irreverence, and how McBride fell so deeply in love. This anxiety over death’s cruel interruption of true love permeates her narrative of Cray’s cancer, their wedding and his passing, which McBride narrates vividly and without the self-consciousness that is at times distancing elsewhere in the book.
Meanwhile, trans identity in McBride and Cray’s love story never becomes abstracted from experience. McBride’s identity enables her specific life circumstances, but it cannot be reduced, codified or turned into a statistic like the one that says 41 percent of trans men and women have attempted suicide (a number the book cites more than once). Even if McBride and Cray’s were the only trans relationship ever in which one person ended up a widow because of the other’s cancer, their immediate connection — the authenticity and specificity of their love — is what inspires the greatest compassion for the universal trans experience, in all its nuance and diversity. The book’s strength lies in its portrayal of McBride and Cray as fully realized individuals beyond their transgender identities.
After Cray’s death, however, McBride’s narrative pivots swiftly back to politics without leaving either her or her readers sufficient space to grieve. This is a young woman who has just lost the love of her life at 24. It doesn’t seem quite enough for her to merely add his name, as tribute, to the list of her accomplishments to date, or to merely participate in policies that Cray helped develop. It feels as though the compromises that become routine in McBride’s advocacy — from her willingness to plead with outright bigots for her basic dignity, to her position at the Human Rights Campaign, a mainstream L.G.B.T. organization that has been criticized by the trans community for prioritizing gay marriage over trans rights — equally compromise her ability to give the reader an accurate picture of her own grief, which could have imbued “Tomorrow Will Be Different” with the enduring quality of other memoirs of loss. With a foreword by former Vice President Joe Biden that frames the book as an instructive tome for trans people, parents and the general public, the book is perhaps positioned less as a lasting literary contribution and more as a manual for tolerance that puts its writer in a good position to run for office.
The inconsistencies and contradictions in McBride’s book reflect the difficulty of trying to explain the transgender experience to a predominantly cisgender public. Some trans readers (myself included) may find themselves growing impatient with the author’s frequent quoting of dire statistics, or her Trans-101-style arguments for bathroom equality. Her case is too often predicated on the idea that the value of trans lives is even up for debate.
I gravitate to the parts of McBride’s memoir in which she relies instead on her sincere and singular identity — as a young widow who was raised as a boy surrounded by an environment of relative privilege despite inner turmoil — to continue her fight for justice. I want to believe that readers across the gender spectrum will be moved by the improbable commingling of two trans lives, and for the cruelty of having one of these lives taken away.
And yet, I confess, I’m not so sure. Perhaps a non-trans reader would appreciate McBride’s appeals to sympathy, like her concluding anecdotes about trans kids she’s encountered (when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, 12-year-old Stella declares, “The first trans president!”). But these episodes feel reminiscent of the politician’s well-worn strategy of using other people’s — especially children’s — stories to humanize contentious political and social issues, when McBride’s own life is testament enough to the validity and intensity of these obstacles.
If “Tomorrow Will Be Different” provides a vision for a future of trans equality, I hope it will be one in which the dignity of transgender individuals is not up to cisgender arbiters for approval. Such a future of true equality would breed not only full respect for the trans community, but also more deeply felt memoirs that are uncompromised by the burden of justification.