Virginia Democrat Could Make History As First Transgender State Lawmaker

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 5:48 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Lawmakers around the country have debated so-called bathroom bills which prohibit transgender people from using restrooms that match their gender identity. The author of one such bill in Virginia is up for re-election, and his opponent is a transgender woman. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports that if she succeeds, she would be the country's first openly transgender state lawmaker.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Danica Roem's message to voters is pretty standard for a local politician.

DANICA ROEM: I am running this race because I am here to fix your local infrastructure problems.

MCCAMMON: As she pounded the podium at a local Democratic Party meeting, Roem ticked off a list of challenges facing voters in House District 13 in the outer Washington, D.C., suburbs. Roem is focusing on bread-and-butter concerns like funding for roads and other infrastructure, something she says she's uniquely informed about because of her years working as a newspaper reporter in the region.

ROEM: As an investigative reporter, I was part of a team that did a five-part water infrastructure investigation in Montgomery County. I mean, I could talk to you all day about tuberculation in water pipes. And...

MCCAMMON: A note - I'm pretty sure she actually could.

ROEM: The national guideline standard for fire hydrants...

MCCAMMON: But most of the attention has focused on Roem's status as a transgender woman challenging a Republican incumbent who, in addition to the bathroom bill, is known for his opposition to LGBT rights. Delegate Bob Marshall has been in office for 26 years, since Roem, now 33, was a child growing up in the area. He hasn't responded to repeated requests for interviews with NPR, but he has talked to conservative radio hosts.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "SANDY RIOS IN THE MORNING")

BOB MARSHALL: Danica clearly is out here doing this for making a marker in the national character.

MCCAMMON: That's Marshall speaking on American Family Radio's "Sandy Rios In The Morning" show in September.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "SANDY RIOS IN THE MORNING")

MARSHALL: That you can engage in this behavior, which clearly goes against the laws of nature and nature's God, and hold public office to make decisions on behalf of the common good.

MCCAMMON: Talking with Rios, Marshall also speculated about Roem's process of transitioning from male to female.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "SANDY RIOS IN THE MORNING")

SANDY RIOS: They have - she's described - he - as a guy who dresses like a woman. I don't think there's been any surgery. He's been described as far as I know...

MARSHALL: Correct.

RIOS: Yeah. So...

MARSHALL: Right.

ROEM: One - gross. Number two - stop. Why are you doing this?

MCCAMMON: In an interview at her campaign office in Manassas, Roem said Marshall should focus on substantive issues, not her gender. But Roem doesn't shy away from talking about her gender identity. She's responded to Marshall with an online ad showing her taking hormone replacement therapy medication.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROEM: I'm Danica Roem. I'm running for office because my identity shouldn't be a big deal.

MCCAMMON: Meanwhile, Marshall has pointed out that Roem's transgender identity has helped her raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from pro-LGBT donors. Carah Ong Whaley is a lecturer in the politics department at the University of Virginia.

CARAH ONG WHALEY: While she has said that she's not running on that issue, it is very clearly part of her campaign, and she's talking about it a lot on Twitter. She's talking about it a lot in interviews.

MCCAMMON: Ong Whaley says that may be a good strategy for mobilizing Democrats, but it may be a tougher sell for moderates. That's especially true in off-year elections, which tend to turn out more conservative voters, the kind who may be reluctant to back a trailblazing candidate like Danica Roem. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Manassas, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.