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Will 2017 Be the Year of the Transgender Candidate?

7 minute read

When she’s speaking at campaign events or giving interviews, Danica Roem likes to do this thing with her shoe to show all the hours she’s spent pounding the pavement to meet potential constituents.

“How many doors did we knock on?” Roem asks, taking off and holding up a battered loafer, worn thin at the heel. “That many.”

Roem, 32, thinks this approach to retail politics, and her focus on quality-of-life issues like transportation, helped her defeat three other Democrats in a recent primary to represent the 13th district in the Virginia House of Delegates. Now she’s preparing to take on Republican Bob Marshall, who’s held the Northern Virginia post for 25 years, in the November general election.

But that’s not why her campaign is becoming a magnet for national attention. If elected, Roem would be the first openly transgender state legislator in the U.S. and one of just a handful to serve in elected office at any level of government. And her opponent is a vocal social conservative who authored a so-called “bathroom bill” aimed at restricting transgender people’s use of sex-segregated spaces, as well as the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (Marshall did not respond to requests for comment.)

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at University of Mary Washington in Virginia who studies commonwealth politics, calls it “arguably the state legislative race of the year in America.”

Roem’s campaign also fits into a larger story. Trans United Fund, a political organization that helps support transgender candidates, estimates that more than 20 transgender people are running for public offices across the country in 2017—a dramatic spike from previous years. Those candidates range from Andrea Jenkins in Minneapolis, who is running to be the first transgender woman ever elected to a major city’s council, to Misty Snow, who would be the first transgender member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Aisha Moodie-Mills, president and CEO at the Victory Fund, an LGBT advocacy group, calls 2017 “ the ‘year of the trans candidate.’”

Groups like Trans United, founded just a year ago, and the Victory Fund are providing campaign donations, candidate trainings and small armies of volunteers to help trans candidates challenge conservative incumbents. Roem cites a Victory Fund “candidate boot camp,” which offered campaign strategies for LGBT political hopefuls, as a major boost to her campaign.

It’s not clear yet how many trans candidates, who are all running as Democrats, according to the Victory Fund, are favored to win. Most are running in down-ballot contests with little early polling. But Daye Pope, organizing director of the Trans United Fund, says many are on track. With infusions of support from groups like Trans United, Daye says, some transgender candidates have had early success outraising their opponents. So far, Roem is out-raising Marshall, $65,851 to $57,247, banking donations from what Roem likes to call her “small-dollar army” of loyal grassroots supporters.

Advocates say the wave of trans candidates is a response to the setbacks transgender people have suffered in the early months of the Trump presidency. “I think it’s the year of people being pissed and galvanized against Trump,” says Snow, who became one of the first openly transgender people to represent a major political party in a race for a national office when she ran for the U.S. Senate in Utah in 2016. Now, she’s running for a seat in the House of Representatives “mostly because I feel like I needed to.”

In February, Trump rescinded Obama-era federal guidance from the Departments of Justice and Education that instructed schools to allow students to use bathrooms and other facilities that align with their gender identities. Meanwhile, some 16 states have considered legislation limiting access to sex-segregated facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms (so-called “bathroom bills”) since the start of 2017. Six have weighed legislation that would preempt local anti-discrimination laws, while 14 are considering legislation that would limit transgender students’ rights at school. Virginia is on all three of those lists.

In a charged political environment, trans politicians like Roem must navigate a tricky balancing act. Like all candidates, trans contenders need to be deeply engaged in the nuts and bolts of local policy—perhaps even more so to convince voters they don’t represent a special interest or “fringe” candidacy, as Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck said of Democratic challengers in the Washington Post.

On the other hand, candidates like Roem say they see their campaigns as an opportunity to serve as trailblazers and role models for other potential LGBT policy-makers. Roem, who grew up in Manassas, Va., and has spent her career covering transportation and politics as a journalist, built her campaign around parochial concerns, from reducing traffic on Route 28 to bringing up teacher salaries in the district and drawing jobs back to vacant offices along Manassas Drive. Keeping her campaign focused on those local issues—even amid a flurry of media coverage, and critics’ attempts to recast her candidacy as a stunt—has been a priority.

That struggle is familiar to transgender candidates. But it may be even trickier in the aftermath of a 2016 presidential campaign dominated by identity politics and gender-based attacks. Hillary Clinton’s defeat in that contest has revived a debate within the Democratic Party about how it can best energize its diverse coalition.

“Whenever I speak to an LGBTQ crowd, I say it’s really important for us to serve the whole community,” says Mel Wymore, who ran for New York City council in 2013 and, prompted by the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election and dissatisfaction with Republican politics, has launched a second campaign this year. Like Roem, Wymore is a transgender politician who has felt the difficulty of balancing local policy issues with the wider, historic implications of seeing transgender candidates on the ballot. “I would prefer if at the local level we were talking about policy,” he says.

While transgender political hopefuls still face opposition and ad hominem attacks, those who have run before say things have changed rapidly. When Dana Beyer first ran for political office in 2006, “it was a different world,” says the candidate for a seat in the Maryland State Senate. “The only thing the media was interested in with my campaign was my gender history. That was it.”

These days Roem’s race is drawing plenty of outside eyes, and it’s shaping up to be a fierce contest. Marshall, her opponent, has so far this year proposed a few pieces of legislation that would hinder LGBT people, including his “bathroom bill” and a measure that would allow Virginians to refuse to officiate same-sex weddings. But the district, which is located just outside Washington and encompasses fast-diversifying Manassas, is becoming bluer. It went for Clinton in 2016.

For now, Roem continues to crisscross the district to advocate for local issues. On June 21, she joined residents at the suburban conference center where the Prince William County School Board voted on a motion to add language protecting LGBT students to their nondiscrimination policy. After months of impassioned, sometimes vitriolic debate, the measure passed by a single vote. Purple-shirted supporters of the initiative had showed up hours early, toting hand-painted signs. During the open meeting, board members on both sides of the issue were brought to tears.

“More than 20 transgender people across the country right now stepped up and said, ‘I’m willing to run,’” Roem explains after. “We know the risk that we’re putting ourselves at by engaging in a campaign.”

She says that on evenings like this one, she feels like she’s becoming the kind of role model she never had growing up. “Maybe if we take the plunge and we run this year, someone else might feel inspired to do that later,” she adds. “I want to be that advocate for every LGBTQ person across this country who needs someone to champion what they believe in.”

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Write to Emma Talkoff at emma.talkoff@time.com