Danica Roem on New Book, Importance of Protecting LGBTQ Kids

SDanica Roem admits some of her rumors are true while sipping a chai lat in Manassas’s coffee shop. She did once do a keg stand on camera while people yelled, “Suck it!” But she insists This she never threw that keg out the window, as an old Facebook post alleged. Her arms aren’t that strong.

The post in question was dug up by Roem’s opposition research on herself during her 2017 run to represent Virginia’s 13th district in the house of delegates—which includes Manassas Park and portions of Prince William County, roughly an hour outside of Washington, D.C.—where she ultimately defeated incumbent Republican Bob Marshall to become the first openly trans person elected to and seated in a U.S. state legislature. Her memoir is now available. The Page is BurnedRoem will release a book, April 26, detailing the stories she has been accused of using against her, to reclaim power from those moments that other politicians may wish to keep hidden.

Yes, she’s a self-confessed “metalhead” and the former vocalist of the thrash metal band Cab Ride Home. Yes, she partied in her 20s—at times aggressively as she navigated gender dysphoria before starting to transition in 2012. Yes, she spent over a decade as a reporter—and sometimes still swears like one. The aim of her book, Roem says, is to show readers they can “succeed because of who you are, not despite it.” She likes to quote Saint Francis de Sales: “Be who you are and be that well.”

The Democratic house delegate, five years after her historic barrier-breaking victory, has shown her endurance. She won reelection in both 2019 and 2021—an election where Democrats performed poorly overall in Virginia and lost control of the house of delegates. She flipped a seat a social conservative held for 26 years by focusing on local issues while benefitting from Northern Virginia’s increasingly left-leaning demographics. She’ll be on the ballot again come 2023, she says, but is coy about her grander statewide or national ambitions. Emerge Virginia is a non-profit that trains and recruits Democratic women for the office of executive director. “Because I clearly didn’t have enough jobs,” she laughs, while expertly applying liquid eyeliner in the back booth of the coffee shop before TIME’s photoshoot.

The moment is critical for trans rights here in the U.S. According to NBC News, nearly half of the anti-LGBTQ laws that have been introduced by conservative state legislators in recent years specifically targeted trans persons. 14 states prohibit trans students from participating in sports that are compatible with their gender identity. Three states prohibit trans youth from receiving gender affirming healthcare. Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered state agencies to examine the families of children who have received such care. Two states recently banned instruction in classrooms about gender identity or sexual orientation at certain grades. While supporters of the bills say they’re intended to support parents’ rights over their children’s education, LGBTQ advocates warn the nationwide trend could have dangerous implications. The Trevor Project, a LGBTQ suicide prevention organization released a poll Jan. 10, showing that 85 percent of transgender and nonbinary teens believe recent anti-trans bill debates have had a negative impact on their mental health.

“I am, to say flabbergasted doesn’t even begin to do it,” Roem, 37, says about the surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation. “They’re picking on the most vulnerable constituents they represent. They’re picking on children.”

“If you’re a politician who attacks your constituents, then you need to not be a politician anymore,” she continues. “And that means that I need to train the people who are going to unseat you.”

A middle-aged, white man approaches Roem half way through his chai latte. “Danica, keep kicking ass,” he says. “We love you.”

‘We can turn the pendulum back’

Roem’s district includes the site of two major Civil War battles and a former plantation home. She claims that there are many things in this area named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson than Starbucks throughout greater Prince William County. “This is not the place where the first out and seated trans state legislator was supposed to come from,” she says.

Roem made headlines with her 2017 win, which came on the heels of former President Donald Trump’s ban on trans people serving in the military and ousted a longtime lawmaker who had referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and proposed a bill to limit what bathrooms trans people could use. “I understand the national implications of my race. I mean, I’m not stupid,” Roem told TIME in 2017.

Yet when it comes to Roem’s campaigning and governing, the lifelong Manassas resident stays concentrated on local policies, informed by her years of covering the community as a journalist. Her 2017 slogan was, ‘Fix Route 28 Now!’ As she often quips: Trans people get stuck in traffic too. Her career covering politics is her “secret weapon,” she says, because “you cannot get a better political education” than she had following campaigns. On Roem’s first bid for office, she built an extensive ground game, knocking on over 75,000 doors. “I show up,” she says. “You can’t just put up TV ads and hope that people like you.”

Roem, who was also elected in the same year Dawn Adams became the first lesbian woman to be elected to the Virginia house. Roem states that for many years, after their swearing-in, colleagues stopped filing antiLGBTQ bills. Nationally, culture wars about LGBTQ rights disappeared from the political conversation. Roem shared that her thoughts about anti-LGBTQ Virginia legislation were fading when she was writing her memoir, 2020.

But, she’s learned, “politics is a pendulum, and right now it has taken a very nasty turn against these kids.” This term, Virginia Republicans introduced bills that would ban trans athletes from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity and eliminate the requirement that schools follow the Department of Education’s model policies for treatment of trans students. Neither bill has passed, but Roem believes the term has given Democrats an “inkling” of what is to come if Republicans regain control of the state senate and maintain the house come November. “I am significantly worried that a lot more trans kids will kill or hurt themselves,” she says, “or be hurt by another person, before the pendulum swings back.”

She’s particularly alarmed by the lack of corporate response to such laws across the country. According to an Associated Press analysis, when North Carolina passed House Bill 2 in 2016, banning transgender people from using public bathrooms that are compatible with their gender identities, corporate America boycotted North Carolina en masse. This cost the state a total of $3.76 billion. The law was repealed in part and is now expired.

There’s been a markedly different response to Florida’s new so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. While initially the Walt Disney Co. was criticized for failing to make a statement on this law, it has now pledged its support in repealing it. More than 150 businesses have pledged to the Human Rights Campaign that they will oppose anti-LGBTQ laws in Florida and throughout the United States. Yet no major companies have announced plans to boycott Florida—or any state—over the latest laws. In Roem’s view, corporate America has “sat on their damn hands.”

Now isn’t the time for Democrats to get complacent, Roem says. Her advice: advocates need to put pressure on corporate communities, ask them why they are doing business in states where their employees or their employees’ families could be hurt, and show up to vote. As for the LGBTQ youth targeted by these laws, Roem’s message is simple: You have to care about politics. Politics cares about your actions, regardless of whether you take them seriously.

Under Roem’s leadership, Emerge Virginia will hold candidate recruitment events this cycle in districts that Democrats lost to find Democratic women to run for local office. “I don’t give a damn what’s politically popular,” she says. “If you can’t stand up for your most vulnerable constituents, you don’t deserve to be in public office.”

Roem is not the only LGBTQ-identified elected representative in this country as she prepares for the next midterm election. According to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, between 2019 and 2020 there was a 21% increase in national and local LGBTQ elected representatives. Sarah McBride, a Delaware senator, was elected openly in 2020. Nationally, the Democratic Representatives Mondaire and Ritchie Torres became the first openly transgender Black Congressmen in American history.

Roem hopes her success in politics will continue to serve as a guide for underrepresented candidates looking to run for office. She hopes she’s shown that if you own your narrative and tell your story before your opponents can, a metalhead trans woman who can do a keg stand can hold a Democratic seat in a swing district in the South.

“We can turn the pendulum back,” Roem says. “And nihilism doesn’t win campaigns. Hard work does.” She likes to quote the heavy metal band Motörhead: “Don’t let them bastards grind you down.”

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