Danica Roem’s message to LGBTQ youth: ‘You have to care’ about politics
(CNN) — It was a moment captured for the history books.
Danica Roem, on her knees with her face in her hands, crying. It was 2017 and she had just become the first state lawmaker who identifies as transgender elected in Virginia.
She will always be the first, but four years later, she is no longer the only person in the US who identifies as transgender to be elected and serve in a state legislative body. It’s not a well populated trail, but one she is proud to have blazed.
“They were willing to look at me and they go, ‘Yeah, we know she’s trans and she’ll do a great job,'” Roem said of her constituents in an interview with CNN earlier this month.
“I never say ‘trans but,’ always ‘trans and.’ Because it’s like, no, I don’t hide who I am. People know exactly who I am here.”
And during this Pride Month, Roem has a message to the younger people in the LGBTQ community who say they don’t like politics: “When you are an LGBTQ person, you have to care.”
Roem represents Virginia’s 13th District in the House of Delegates — an area near the home of the first major battle of the Civil War. Roem jokes that there are still more things named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson in her county than there are Starbucks locations.
She says her success is built on deep knowledge of local issues since she grew up in the Manassas area she now represents.
“When I was asked on election night, ‘Hey, what does this mean?’ It was just like, well, it means that a trans woman is going to finally work on fixing Route 28.”
Though Roem is a state legislator, her history-making moment means her platform is national. She is well aware that her visibility and representation are changing the national conversation.
“What we learned from the marriage equality fights,” she explained, is that “if you know a gay person in your life and you see just that person, just being a person, that you (are) far less likely to want to restrict their civil rights.”
Given that 0.6% of Americans identify as transgender, according to a Gallup poll on LGBT identification published earlier this year, she recognizes that for some people, she may be the only trans person they know.
“If you know a trans person, you’re much more likely to support our civil rights. But because there are fewer of us, it makes it a harder conversation.”
Her path to politics
Before her run for office in 2017, Roem spent nine years as a journalist in her community, which she says was her chief qualification for elected office.
“What person is going to be more qualified to represent their community than a lifelong resident of that community who spent their career actually covering the public policy issues of the community?'”
She first got invested in politics in 2003, when then-President George W. Bush wanted to limit marriage to heterosexuals. She couldn’t ignore what was happening.
“I would read the newspaper, I would read USA Today, New York Times,” she says. “I would read those every single day, and then I would go online and I would read about politics, two hours a day, seven days a week, every day for years.”
Though she hadn’t yet come out, Roem said she sought to understand what legal mechanisms existed to protect people like her — and more importantly — how to fight for them.
Across the country today, many states permit a legal strategy known as the gay and trans “panic” defense, which can allow people who are charged with violent crimes against LGBTQ victims to argue that it was the victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation that drove them to violence.
Earlier this year, at the behest of a teenage constituent who told her it was scary growing up knowing that someone could get away with harming them, Roem introduced a bill to ban the gay and trans panic defense for murder or manslaughter in Virginia.
“I realized … that that person was living with the same fear in 2020 that I had as a closeted high school freshman in 1998.”
It passed the legislature in February, making Virginia the first state in the South and 12th in the country to ban it as a defense of murder or manslaughter.
“We’re simply saying that a person’s mere presence and existence as an LGBTQ person does not constitute a heat of passion defense that negates malice in an attack. In layman’s terms, you can’t just assault and kill someone just because you feel like it,” Roem said.
April Fools’ Day
Roem was 14 years old when Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in 1998 in Wyoming for being gay.
“I knew damn well who I was at that point, and I was too scared to tell anyone. And then when you see a young gay man in Wyoming being pistol-whipped, bound to a fence post, and left to die in the freezing cold. … When you see that play out, it’s the late nineties and you’re in the South and you go, what’s happening in Wyoming is not far fetched from what could be happening in Virginia,” Roem recalled.
Fearing for her own safety and the lack of legal protection, and worried about how her family and friends would react, she waited another 14 years before she decided to transition.
“I was at a point at age 28 where I did not want to go into my thirties living a lie. I had pretended to be someone else my entire life by this point. I had known who I was since I was 10 years old.”
She was afraid of disappointing people, especially her mom, she said, and struggled to decide how she wanted to tell people. She thought Facebook would be a good place to start, and eventually changed her gender and her name on the platform — on April Fools’ Day.
“I figured, okay, if it goes badly, ‘April Fools!’ If it goes well, I’ll let it ride,” she explained. “I thought it was the safest day of the year for me to do it because if I just did on like April 2, it would just be like, ‘Um, I have questions. What are you trying to tell us?'”
Despite her concerns, she said she felt supported by friends who told her they loved her new look.
“And so go figure, that was like the day of my adult life where I was being real. April Fools’ Day was the day I was being like, nope. This is actually who I am. And I’ve let it roll ever since.”
As a teenager, Roem said she didn’t have LGBTQ role models of her own — she didn’t even know any. She saw trans people portrayed in the media, but only in a limited, disheartening, fashion.
“Trans representation was whoever was being ridiculed on Jerry Springer,” she remembered. “Or ‘When we come back on Maury, we’re going to have a shocking announcement about this person’s really dating a man,’ or, you know, like some stupid crap like that.”
She knows now that she wasn’t alone.
“Now I know at least five or six people who I went to school with who are out, including same-sex couples who are married now. And it’s just the oddly comforting thing about that is like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t just me who was suffocating,'” Roem said.
‘Politics cares about you’
This year has already become the worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history, according to the Human Rights Campaign. As of May, more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills had been introduced at the state level, with 17 of them signed into law.
“When you are an LGBTQ person in the United States, regardless of whether you care about politics, politics cares about you,” Roem said.
Her plea is personal, and she hopes her activism will inspire the next generation into action as well.
“If you’re not involved, if you are not your best advocate, you’re asking someone else to fill that void. Some of the people who will try to step up to fill that void are going to be political charlatans who have no interest in preserving your best interest,” Roem said.
“You can’t count on other people to be your best advocate. You have to step up.”
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