Danica Roem is suddenly a woman in demand.
When the transgender candidate for Virginia House of Delegates District 13 won a four-way Democratic primary on Tuesday night, the media realized she could make history: If Roem goes on to defeat 11-term Republican delegate Bob Marshall, she would become the first openly transgender state legislator ever elected and seated, as the Washington Blade reported.
Her victory on Tuesday means she is already the first transgender candidate to win a primary for Virginia’s House of Delegates.
Roem’s very local campaign was quickly ushered into the national spotlight. The phones started ringing. “For the first time all campaign, I actually had to outsource scheduling to my campaign manager,” Roem tells me, laughing.
By the time she has a few minutes to chat with me over the phone, her throat is sore from the dozens of interviews she has done since Tuesday night.
As an ex-journalist who used to write for local papers, Roem is trying to keep the press focused on her “bread and butter issues” like District 13’s traffic woes, even as the national media would prefer to discuss the precedent she might set come November.
As the Blade noted, Roem technically wouldn’t be the first transgender state legislator: Former Massachusetts representative Althea Garrison was outed in 1992 and then lost re-election and Stacie Laughton won a New Hampshire election in 2012 but wasn’t seated because she had a felony credit card fraud conviction.
That means Roem would be the first openly elected and seated transgender state representative.
Roem wishes her gender identity weren’t relevant to politics. But she knows it is—especially when she’s running against a delegate who introduced extreme anti-transgender bathroom legislation in Virginia earlier this year which would have restricted restroom use based on “original birth certificate.”
“Representation absolutely matters,” Roem says. “How wonderful a world it would be if identity politics didn’t have to exist at all! But the fact of the matter is that when you have non-transgender, white, straight, male Republicans crafting laws about gender identity that don’t include [transgender people], then you’re leaving out the segment of the population whom those laws will adversely affect in the first place.”
Roem’s gender also matters because her opponent appears not to recognize it. In a statement to The Washington Post on Tuesday, Delegate Marshall misgendered Roem, referring to her with male pronouns. Marshall did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on his misgendering of Roem—an act which contradicts not just her womanhood but her driver’s license and passport as well.
“Delegate Marshall said in The Washington Post that he wants to keep this debate on the issues [and] I do too,” Roem said, when asked about Marshall’s statement.
But she added: “If he makes personal attacks at me, if he misgenders me, that becomes an issue. It is absolutely fundamentally not OK to single out and stigmatize one of your constituents—to basically say that you know who I am better than I do.”
Her candidacy was supported by the Victory Fund, a PAC that works to elect LGBT candidates. They see her—and the other transgender candidates they are supporting in 2017—as a direct response to the anti-transgender bathroom legislation that has been swirling around state legislatures for the past few years, rarely getting passed but always looming.
“Trans people have been severely underrepresented and marginalized in our politics and our government—and the consequences are evident as hostile political forces push anti-trans measures across the nation,” said Victory Fund president and CEO Aisha C. Moodie-Mills in a statement to The Daily Beast. “The unprecedented number of trans candidates running for office is the response to these bad actors—that we have reached a tipping point and will no longer stand on the sidelines as trans lives are debated without trans voices.”
Moodie-Mills added that Victory Fund is witnessing a heartening trend as the PAC supports transgender candidates in state legislature and city council races throughout the country: “Voters are focusing on the issue positions of our trans candidates—not just their gender identity—and the result will be more trans elected officials fighting for equality.”
Still, the drama of a race between an openly transgender candidate like Roem and an incumbent like Marshall whose website accuses judges who support same-sex marriage of “think[ing] they are smarter than Moses or Jesus Christ” has been difficult to ignore.
Roem has already devised a line that seems destined for her stump speech about how “Delegate Marshall’s legislative priorities are more concerned with where I go to the bathroom than how you get to work.”
In some ways, the contest for the District 13 seat epitmoizes the bathroom battles that have been brewing for the past two years in states like North Carolina and Texas: One pro-LGBT candidate going up against one anti-LGBT candidate in a contested district that could tilt either way.
University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth told Mother Jones that the election would be “catnip for reporters” and, judging from the emails now flooding Roem’s campaign, that has proved to be the case.
“I’m so far behind on interviews right now,” she tells me. “I probably have another 40 in my inbox right now.”
The former reporter in Roem knows not to waste the media spotlight. She will take those interviews and keep on talking about Route 28 with a degree of passion that will mystify faraway reporters who have never had to drive on it.
Roem says that she didn’t enter the four-way Democratic contest for a seat that has long been occupied by a longtime Republican incumbent just to raise her profile and lose gracefully—she wanted to win.
I ask her how she plans to do that in a race against someone who used male pronouns to refer to her—who started off the race by refusing to recognize a fundamental part of her personhood.
“By beating him,” Roem says, simply. “By earning more votes than him.”