In Virginia Race, a Glimmer of Hope for More Trans Politicians

Danica Roem could become the first openly trans person to hold statewide office in Virginia. And nationwide, almost 30 races have trans candidates.

Democrat Danica Roem, left, is challenging incumbent Virginia Delegate Bob Marshall in today's election. While Roem wants to be recognized as a journalist, stepmother, and lifelong Virginian, her opponent has made her trans identity a campaign issue. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images, Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In the race for Virginia’s 13th District House of Delegates seat, incumbent Republican Bob Marshall ramped up his transphobic rhetoric against his Democratic opponent, trans woman Danica Roem. While Roem tried to keep the focus on fixing local traffic headache Route 28, Delegate Marshall resorted to attacking Roem’s gender identity, claiming that her trans status makes her an outcast in Virginia’s culture.

It’s cheap attacks like this, on a lifelong resident of the district she’s now running to represent, that present one of the biggest challenges to transgender candidates for office.

Currently, there are fewer than ten openly trans elected officials serving at any level in the United States. Even with only approximately 1.4 million transgender people in the United States, that’s a drastic underrepresentation of trans Americans within their own government. Many in U.S. society have been slower to accept the validity of trans identities compared with gay and lesbian people, and as a result, some voters may be skeptical of a trans candidate’s ability to represent them. But trans candidates’ electoral challenges go beyond mere voter bias. Many potential trans candidates struggle with their opponents’ prejudice and struggle to make the necessary connections and gather the resources to run a winning campaign.

Delegate Marshall, a Catholic conservative who introduced a failed effort at a bathroom bill in Virginia this past term, is putting voters’ trans acceptance to the test in what could be a close race. He’s said, for example, that being transgender is “against the laws of nature and nature’s God” and consistently refers to 33-year-old Roem as “he.”

Unlike other marginalized communities, trans people are too small as a population to form an effective voting block. With less than 1 percent of people identifying as trans in the United States, no trans candidate in the country can win by focusing exclusively on trans-related issues. In Roem’s case, her laser focus on local issues, honed during her years as a journalist and resident of Prince William County, allow her to sidestep attacks on her gender identity.

“The people of the 13th District really, genuinely don’t care what the gender is of the person who has the best ideas for fixing Route 28. The reason for that is that traffic hates everyone,” Roem said in a recent interview with Rewire. While she expects attacks on her gender identity and fought back with an ad that specifically addressed the issue, she says that such attacks distract from pressing issues of concerns to voters.

“Any time that Delegate Marshall and his anti-LGBTQ allies spend wasting on my gender is time that they’re not talking about Route 28 …. It’s time that they’re not talking about why Prince William County has the lowest teacher pay in Northern Virginia …. If Delegate Marshall wants to waste his time on petty BS, that’s his prerogative and it’s not going to work out too well for him on Election Day.”

How much voter support Roem will receive in today’s election remains to be seen, but her trans identity, coupled with her opposition to one of the most anti-LGBTQ legislators in the country, gave her campaign an early boost in fundraising and media coverage.

While trans people have run and won elected office elsewhere in the country, Roem would be the first openly trans person to hold statewide office in Virginia if she wins. Roem’s candidacy, along with several other local races involving trans candidates and the GOP’s obsession with trans bathroom politics, have led NBC and Time to ask whether this will be the “year of the trans candidate.” But what is it about this year’s slate of races that has drawn out so many trans people seeking elected office?

“There’s no question that social awareness around trans identities and trans people has lagged behind, particularly when it comes to gay and lesbian identities and elected officials,” said Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Sarah McBride, who is trans herself.

“We’re finally getting to the point where the breadth of social awareness is wide enough that particularly in more progressive states and districts that trans people can compete and be judged by their merits as candidates and not on their identities.” While acceptance for trans identities seems to be on the rise in the United States, having to defend or talk about one’s gender can hinder the message a trans candidate is trying to convey.

Kristen Browde is running for town supervisor (equivalent to mayor) in New Castle, New York, and was recently endorsed by Hillary Clinton (who lives in Browde’s town). She explained in an interview that she’s had a few doors slammed in her face, even in her fairly progressive town.

“The first [time] was disconcerting to say the least, but I was dealing with a 70-year-old white male who is just one of those people. I think all of us understand that there are people like that in the world. As they get to know us, and as they get to know that in fact we are no different than they are, that we want good schools, low taxes, a nice environment just like they do, some of that [kneejerk opposition] goes away. Not all of it, but some of it.”

Those face-to-face encounters that come with grassroots campaigning make McBride optimistic about eventually seeing more elected trans officials in government.

“Those local and town elections have a smaller voter universe that allows the trans candidate to get in front of voters, to have personal conversation, to bridge the empathy divide that exists and to demonstrate that transgender people aren’t these caricatures that we’ve been made out to be in popular culture and heated political rhetoric. We’re regular people that have the same priorities, the same hopes, the same dreams as everyone else.”

But while elections may help connect trans candidates to their potential constituents, the trans community still faces several structural barriers to offering a wide range of qualified candidates for office who also happen to be trans.

With so many within the trans community struggling with unemployment and poverty, it’s hard for them to build the connections and expensive infrastructure critical to having a serious go at running for office.

Besides those basic factors, trans people with a political bent are often pulled more into direct advocacy, especially in the face of constant conservative attacks on our personhood and legal status.

Last year, Danni Askini, a trans activist from Olympia, Washington, decided to cut short her campaign for the Washington statehouse to join the campaign against a potential conservative-led ballot question that would have nullified the state’s recently passed transgender public accommodations law. Upon dropping out of the race, Askini released a statement saying, “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot run the campaign for state representative that this district and my community deserve while also fighting attacks both nationally and across our state on transgender rights.” For Askini, who didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this piece, the potential immediate threat posed by the potential ballot question seemed to outweigh the possible gains that would have come from holding office.

Roem, on the other hand, doesn’t see a huge trade-off between trans advocacy and seeking office. Rather, it’s simply a matter of different kinds of representation.

“This is what people need to understand about being a trans person running for office, especially here in Virginia. I’m running to represent the people of the 13th District, first and foremost. Among the people of the district, we have transgender constituents and my job will be to represent them as well as everyone else. Of course I need to talk about their issues, our issues as much as anyone else’s. But at the same time, my No. 1 priority is to deal with the core quality of life issues that affect the most number of people. Traffic, jobs, schools, and health care.” Roem also noted that those issues are also hugely relevant to a trans community that has needs beyond just bathroom access.

While it’s tempting to want to jump immediately into a position to help your community, especially one with as tenuous a toehold within society as trans people have, there’s a lot to be gained in getting trans people elected to successively higher offices. Given that acceptance of LGBTQ people can come from personally knowing a queer person, it’s possible that getting a trans person elected to office could also make it more difficult for many of the anti-trans initiatives currently in process to get off the ground.

“When it comes to the immediate attacks that we’re seeing, it becomes much harder to vilify a community as a state legislator if you have to sit across from that person in a chamber or in caucus,” McBride said. “Additionally, trans identities and trans equality become less abstract and more of a priority if you have a personal relationship with someone who’s trans. No one in that legislature is not going to know a transgender person if a transgender person gets elected to that legislature.”

But for all the difference electing a bunch of trans politicians might make, there’s one thing above others that Danica Roem still hopes for.

“Google the phrase ‘transgender candidate,’ and scores of stories about my campaign come up. Do you know how frustrating it is to have a name and then it doesn’t appear in headlines because it’s always ‘transgender candidate this, transgender candidate that’? Well, how about ‘lifelong Manassas resident’? That hasn’t been a headline yet. How about ‘journalist,’ how about ‘33-year-old stepmom,’ how about any my other inherent identifiers? It always comes back to gender,” Roem said.

Still, what’s truly remarkable about this election year is that Danica Roem and other trans candidates have shown the political progress of the trans community. In this election cycle, almost 30 races at various levels of government have a trans candidate, up from 13 two cycles ago. With so many trans candidates, there could be a sudden, albeit small, surge of trans elected officials

To be competitive in local elections throughout the country is a measurable step forward. When I was a child, the only trans people I ever came across were in hackneyed movie plots or on the Jerry Springer Show. To see trans women like me pursuing dreams of holding office is just incredibly inspiring, and that’s perhaps the most important takeaway from this year’s elections.

Along those lines, McBride recounted a recent encounter that showed the impact of mainstream trans candidates.

“Recently, I met a young transgender girl named Stella, who’s maybe 11 or 12 years old. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up. She said ‘the first transgender president.’ And she said it without any hesitation, without any question in her mind that that’s possible, without any notion that the words ‘transgender’ and ‘president’ can’t appear together. That is an incredible display of how far we’ve come in many ways and hopefully a glimpse into where we’re going.”

With success for possible Virginia Delegate Roem comes hope for possible future President Stella.