The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Danica Roem sworn into office as Virginia’s first openly transgender lawmaker

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) treks from the Virginia General Assembly Building to the Virginia State Capitol on her first day in office on Wednesday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — The bill she was filing was due at 10 a.m., two hours before Danica Roem would be sworn in Wednesday as Virginia's first openly transgender state lawmaker.

The newcomer from Prince William County had made a procedural error earlier in the week, when she tried to assign a ­commuter-rail study to the wrong agency. She did not want her first official day to begin with another error.

But as she tried to finalize the language on legislation that would shield journalists from being forced to reveal their sources, a stream of well-wishers and lobbyists stopped by her office in the Pocahontas state legislature building, offering congratulations, hugs and advice.

Roem politely thanked each visitor before finally shutting her office door and leaning in to a laptop covered with death-metal band stickers.

"I am not going to blow this thing," she said, under her breath.

"You're going to get it in one way or another," said her aide, Maria Salgado.

 Roem hunched her shoulders and kept typing.

Many LGBT groups and progressives — who helped fund Roem's campaign against a longtime incumbent who once described himself as Virginia's "chief homophobe" — see Roem's presence in the General Assembly as an affirmation of the arrival of transgender people into the country's mainstream.

Her victory over former Del. Robert G. Marshall (R) in Prince William County's 13th District was part of a wave of Democratic wins in November that nearly leveled the balance of power in Richmond. But for Roem, and for advocates, it was about more than which party has control.

"Her swearing-in is a milestone for the community," said Sarah McBride, press secretary for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, who at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 became the first trans American to address a major party convention. "It's a tangible reflection of the progress we have been making."

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Five other transgender candidates across the country also won local races in November, triggering what advocates describe as a flood of new LGBT candidates seeking office this year.

"In Texas alone, there is something like 41 LGBT candidates running at all different levels," said Annise Parker, a former Houston mayor who is president of the Victory Fund, an organization that helps elect LGBT candidates. "People are inspired, and they want to go out there and be part of the change that is happening in ­America."

Roem is believed to be the first state lawmaker in the country to be sworn in after campaigning as an openly transgender candidate. She enters Richmond as a standard-bearer for that community, her 64,000 Twitter followers lending muscle to her legislative agenda, which is mostly about good governance and fixing local infrastructure.

She is chief sponsor of 10 bills so far, including a resolution that addresses her signature pledge to alleviate traffic congestion on a key thoroughfare. The legislation calls on the state Department of Transportation to study alternative intersection designs along Route 28, a precursor to getting rid of traffic signals on the highway. Another bill seeks to extend a ban against lobbying by former state employees from one year to three. 

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) is Virginia's first transgender lawmaker and the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature. (Video: The Washington Post)

Roem's ability to get bills passed will depend on how well she navigates Richmond's deceptively polite political landscape. One of her first attempts at coalition building came when she asked state Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) if she could champion House versions of bills he introduced seeking to further regulate Dominion Energy, the state's biggest corporate political donor.

"I give her credit," Petersen said. "She has approached people like myself with a little bit more seniority and is using our experience to be a more effective delegate."

On Wednesday, Roem was ­unsure how to fit into the sometimes buttoned-down culture of the General Assembly, or even where to find the House chambers.

For her swearing-in,she had planned to sport the same rainbow headscarf she wore constantly while campaigning. She said it would be a declaration of what many Democrats are calling "a new day" in the General Assembly, where Republicans now hold a slim 51-49 majority. But, acknowledging the decorum inside the state capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson, she decided against that fashion choice.

"My presence here is exclamation enough," Roem said.

Danica Roem: Policy wonk in a rainbow headscarf

On Tuesday night, Roem was full of nervous energy. One minute, she spoke passionately with an entrepreneur camped outside a party caucus meeting about the need to upgrade the aging water system in the city of Manassas Park. Another, she exulted over how there had been no anti-LGBT bills filed yet in the legislature, and practiced yoga poses in a crowded hotel lobby, hoping to generate more good vibes.

"This is how you do the crow position," Roem said to state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun), bending forward to place her hands on the carpet and raise her rear end in the air.

"Don't show us," Wexton said nervously. "We get the idea."

Roem's predecessor spent 26 years in the House of Delegates and was a well-liked, avuncular figure, despite extreme views on fiscal and social issues that put him to the right of many Republican lawmakers.

During a bitter general election campaign, Marshall attacked Roem's gender identity and refused to refer to her as a woman or with female pronouns. Roem, for her part, criticized Marshall for being too focused on pursuing a conservative, anti-gay agenda.

She said Marshall has not called to offer any congratulations or advice, even in areas where they agree, such as their mutual concern over rampant development in Prince William.

"It's not my responsibility now," Marshall said when reached by phone on Wednesday. "People who are there have to best figure out what to do."

He said he was spending his day at home in Manassas, going through old files and deciding what to keep.

Roem said that, despite her celebrity, she is determined to "make government boring again" by reading every bill that comes across her desk before she votes. She said she would limit her socializing in Richmond, though that has proved a challenge so far.

Wherever she went, Democratic colleagues stopped Roem for a hug or to gather for a selfie while news cameras hovered. Republicans, meanwhile, mostly kept their distance.

"Enjoy these moments," Del. John Bell (D-Loudoun) told Roem about her first day. "They're special. Every time I'm in the chamber, I look at this ornate space and go: 'I'm actually in this place. Oh, my God.' "

Once she finally set foot inside the House chamber for the swearing-in ceremony, Roem glanced up toward a balcony where her mother and other family members sat. She smiled as she held up a lanyard bearing her delegate's credentials so they could see.

When it was time to recite the oath to uphold the U.S. and Virginia constitutions, Roem raised her right hand and spoke in clear, measured tones.

In her left hand, she later said, she tightly gripped her rainbow headscarf.

Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.