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History-Making Trans State Legislator Danica Roem’s Roadmap for Protecting LGBTQ Kids

9 minute read

Settling down with a chai latte in a coffee shop in Manassas, Virginia, Danica Roem acknowledges that some of the rumors about her are true. She did once do a keg stand on camera while people yelled, “Suck it!” But she insists that 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. Now, in her new memoir Burn the Page, out April 26, Roem is reclaiming the power of those moments other politicians might hope to keep buried, detailing stories her opponents have tried to use against her.

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.”

In the five years since her barrier-breaking election, the Democratic house delegate has proven her staying power. 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. She was recently named the executive director of Emerge Virginia, a nonprofit that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. “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.

Now is a critical moment for trans rights in the U.S. In the past two years, conservative state lawmakers have introduced a torrent of anti-LGBTQ legislation, including at least 238 anti-LGBTQ bills in 2022 alone, roughly half of which specifically target trans people, according to an NBC News analysis. Fourteen states have banned trans students from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. Three states have banned trans youth from receiving gender-affirming healthcare, and Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott has directed state agencies to investigate families of young people who receive such care for child abuse. In just the last month, two states have banned classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels. 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. A poll released Jan. 10 by the LGBTQ suicide prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project found that 85% of trans and nonbinary youth said recent debates over anti-trans bills have negatively impacted 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.”

Halfway through the chai latte, a middle-aged white man walks by and points at Roem. “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. There are more things named after Confederate General Stonewall Jackson in the area, she says, than there are Starbucks in all of 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 was elected the same year as Dawn Adams, the first out lesbian to serve in the Virginia house of delegates. For several years after they were sworn in, Roem says, their colleagues generally stopped filing anti-LGBTQ bills. On the national stage too, the culture war debates around LGBTQ rights receded from political discourse. Roem says that when she started writing her memoir in 2020, she began to think that anti-LGBTQ legislation in Virginia was becoming a thing of the past.

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. In 2016, when North Carolina passed House Bill 2 (HB2) banning trans people from using the public bathroom consistent with their gender identity, the corporate world boycotted North Carolina en masse, costing the state a projected $3.76 billion in total, according to an Associated Press analysis. (The law was partially repealed and has since 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. The Walt Disney Co. was initially criticized for not taking a public position on the law, and has since pledged to help repeal it. Over 150 companies have signed a Human Rights Campaign pledge to oppose anti-LGBTQ legislation in Florida and across the country. 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. Because whether or not you do, politics cares about you.

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.”

As Roem gears up for the coming midterm battle, she is no longer one of the only LGBTQ elected representatives in the country. The LGBTQ Victory Institute reports that between 2019 and 2020, the number of national and local LGBTQ elected officials increased by 21%. Sarah McBride of Delaware, elected in 2020, became the first openly trans state senator. In national politics, Democratic Representatives Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, elected that same cycle, became the first openly gay Black congressmen in U.S. history.

Roem wants her political success to continue serving as a roadmap for candidates from underrepresented groups looking to make a 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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Write to Madeleine Carlisle / Manassas, Va. at madeleine.carlisle@time.com