As the first openly transgender woman elected to a state legislature, Virginia Delegate Danica Roem blazed a campaign trail for the LGBTQ community. Here, she talks about what it’s like to be a “first.”
What got you interested in politics? I went to college when George W. Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality in 2004. I wanted to understand how government functioned to figure out why something like that would come up—and to learn what I could do about it. From my junior year in college through when I was a reporter for the Gainesville Times in 2006 and The Hotline in 2009 covering federal and state politics in Washington, D.C., and on, I dedicated hours every day to reading about politics.
How did reporting prepare you for serving on the state legislature? I developed a reputation. If you were coming to one of my interviews, you’d better know your shit, especially on transportation policy. And when Delegate Rip Sullivan recruited me to run in 2016, I made fixing Route 28 my champion issue. No child should be the last one to get picked up from school, like I was as a kid, because their parents are stuck in traffic until 7 o’clock. Even through the Democratic primary, when talking about red-meat issues, I said, “Well, Democrats get stuck in traffic too. Transgender people get caught in traffic too.” LGBTQ people don’t just get to jump on the back of a unicorn and fly over traffic. We get stuck in it just like anyone else.
VIDEO: Danica Roem Makes History as the First Transgender State Lawmaker
How has your gender evolved since childhood? By fifth grade I thought I was trans. But if I came out, I would’ve had the crap kicked out of me, so I stayed closeted until I met women friends at St. Bonaventure University in New York. They were my absolute lifeblood. But I was still too afraid to come out to everyone else. Then came a point, after dealing with it for 18 years, after my heavy-metal band [Cab Ride Home] was done touring the U.K., when I decided to call a psychologist. I started therapy on November 21, 2012, and my friends threw me a transition party in November 2013 at Town, a gay dance club in Washington, D.C., where my favorite drag queen, Jinkx Monsoon, happened to be performing, which was amazing.
What challenges did you face while campaigning? Early on, I received an email from a conversion-therapy advocate claiming that I was transgender because my dad died when I was a kid and my grandfather was an inadequate male role model. My internal reaction was, “I want to bury you under a pile of bricks.” My campaign reaction was to fund-raise off it and alert the media. I made it very clear that if you take personal shots at me, I will turn it into a positive for my campaign. We can’t be distracted by bullshit. We have to focus on core issues like traffic, jobs, schools, and health care.
What kept you going through the 10-month-long race? You get worn down all the damn time. But you keep fighting for your constituents and for every transgender kid who needs a champion. The first week of the campaign, an 11-year-old trans girl’s mom sent me a message saying that before the 2016 election, her daughter decided she was going to present as a girl at school, and she got the crap kicked out of her. But she kept being herself, and her mother signed off with, “You are giving us hope.” On election night, after we won, I saw that little girl because she came to volunteer, and I picked her up in the air, looked her in the eyes, and said, “You can be president. You can be whatever you want to be.”
How did it feel to win against Delegate Bob Marshall, a 25-year incumbent who backed a transphobic bathroom bill? From the start I had to figure out how to tie together the nondiscrimination side with the transportation side of my campaign. And on January 3, the same day I announced my campaign, Delegate Marshall introduced the “bathroom bill”—you couldn’t have planned that timing any worse or better, depending on your perspective. I came up with the phrase “Delegate Marshall’s legislative priorities are more focused on where I go to the bathroom than on how you get to work.” That gave me an easy way to explain that my gender is not a threat. Where I pee doesn’t affect anyone—just let me pee, have a nice day.
What was election night like? I felt elated, overwhelmed, and then purely exhausted—I threw up in my driveway that night because I was so sleep-deprived. Winning means I’m setting the example for how inclusive politics should work. Being a good politician takes staying focused on the issues that unite your community instead of discriminating against the people you’re elected to serve.
For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Jan. 5.