In defeating ‘chief homophobe,’ transgender woman elected to Virginia legislature makes history

For Danica Roem, the core issue of her campaign centered on combating the weekday gridlock on Route 28 in northern Virginia. Her proposals — highlighted on fliers and social media advertisements — included allocating funds to widen the thoroughfare and removing unnecessary traffic lights.

In the end, it became a winning message in her candidacy for Virginia’s 13th House District. It also, in turn, helped launch her into history as the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature.

“My job is to represent and speak out for the top concerns of the people in the district,” Roem, 33, a former newspaper reporter who quit her job late last year to run for office, said on Wednesday. “Transgender people are just as qualified as anyone else to represent the communities where we live. … I think my candidacy proves this to be true.”

Roem’s victory in the suburbs of Washington a day earlier was among a handful of wins nationwide for LGBTQ candidates and comes at a time when many in these communities say their civil rights are under attack.

Roem unseated Republican House Del. Bob Marshall, one of the state's most socially conservative lawmakers, who in recent years, had referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.”

Earlier this year, Marshall sponsored a bill that would have banned transgender people from using the bathrooms of the gender they identify with. The bill died in committee.

And in 2011, a year after the Obama administration helped repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned openly gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from military service, Marshall sponsored a bill that would have banned gays from serving in the Virginia National Guard.

For most of the campaign, Marshall didn’t overtly address Roem’s sexuality, though he consistently referred to Roem as “he.” But in the final weeks of the campaign, Marshall released a controversial advertisement — titled "Bad Judgement" — that highlighted her transgender identity and used old video footage of Roem playing in a rock band to accuse her of “lewd” and “shocking” behavior.

As Roem continued to focus on traffic and other local concerns, LGBTQ groups from outside Virginia poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into her campaign.

On Wednesday, Roem, who started pursuing therapy to begin her gender transition when she was 28, declined to discuss Marshall’s campaign tactics or his work representing a district in the Manassas area since 1992.

“I’m not here to get into divisive talk or attack someone,” Roem said. “He is now my constituent, and my job is to represent him and all of the people of the district.”

Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates and seeks expansion of gay rights, said that Roem’s election victory comes at a time “when the rights of the transgender community are under intense attack on a daily basis.”

“This gives hope to transgender children who are too scared to come out and speak out,” McBride, who is a transgender woman, said. “This is historic and only movement in the right direction, especially at a time when our rights are under attack.”

In July, President Trump used Twitter to announce he was banning transgender people from serving in the military.

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow...Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” he wrote in the tweets. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming..... victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”

A month later Trump signed an executive order that banned transgender individuals from entering the military. Last month, a federal judge blocked the directive.

Trump’s moves came after North Carolina in March 2016 passed a bill that restricted transgender access to bathrooms. In response to North Carolina’s restriction on bathroom use, corporations, sports leagues and artists boycotted holding events in the state. Charlotte, the state’s largest city, lost nearly $100 million when the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game to New Orleans, city officials estimated. This year the state repealed the bill.

Other states including Texas and Kentucky, along with Virginia, have considered similar bills.

“It’s clear we’re headed backwards in some instances,” McBride said. “But this victory is helpful to the cause.”

Although Roem made history as the first openly transgender person to be elected, she will not be the first to serve in a state legislature. Althea Garrison served in the Massachusetts Legislature from 1993 until 1995, though it was not publicly known that she was transgender until after she took office, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On Wednesday, LGBTQ groups also celebrated a victory in Pennsylvania a day earlier. Tyler Titus, who has come out as transgender, won a seat on the Erie school board.

For Roem, who will take the oath of office in January, she does not want to focus on her gender. When asked about her historic victory, Roem also noted that in Virginia two reporters have likely never been elected to the legislature at the same time. (Chris Hurst, a local television reporter from Roanoke, whose girlfriend, Alison Parker, was killed on live television in 2015, also won a delegate seat.)

“I want to take care of local issues … solve problems that are in people’s backyards,” Roem said.

But, she added, “no matter what you look like, where you come from, how you worship, who you love, you should be welcomed and celebrated and respected.”

kurtis.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @kurtisalee

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UPDATES:

2:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about transgender elected officials.

This article was originally published at 12:50 p.m.

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