Del. David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun) picked one Wednesday, rising to challenge a bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Del. Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William), the first openly transgender lawmaker in the General Assembly, had not planned to speak. But her emotional reply to LaRock, captured in a video that has lit up social media, demonstrates in just over three minutes how much one election has changed this 401-year-old institution.
LaRock said expanding civil rights protections in this manner would create a new set of victims. “It’s unfortunate that those who demand tolerance the loudest want to [punish] anyone who does not conform,” he said.
One of the more outspoken conservatives in the House, LaRock recently advocated returning Alexandria and Arlington to the District of Columbia because he finds them too liberal for the rest of the state.
On Wednesday, he cited the case of a high school teacher in West Point, Va., named Peter Vlaming, who was fired in 2018 after refusing to call a transgender student by his new pronoun.
Saying the school board’s anti-discrimination language established “a brand new ideology about human nature,” LaRock said the teacher was targeted because of his religious faith.
“We continue to see, every day, good people like Mr. Vlaming having their whole lives uprooted and their reputations, savings, jobs and livelihoods threatened,” LaRock continued. “Not because they did anything wrong or treated anyone with disrespect, but simply because they could not participate in an act that violates their higher duties to God.”
He closed by reading the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was penned by Thomas Jefferson and engraved in marble on the wall behind where LaRock was standing.
In past years, Republicans who controlled the legislature prevented most pro-LGBTQ measures from ever getting to the floor. As recently as 2016, then-Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) introduced a bill that would have prohibited any locality from banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. It died in committee by a single vote.
On Wednesday, no one applauded LaRock’s comments. House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) recognized Roem, who had signaled she wanted to speak.
She had met that West Point student, Roem said. His name was James. He joined her at a civil rights banquet along with a young transgender woman named Morgan.
“Both of them do know what it’s like to be singled out and stigmatized because of who they are,” Roem said, explaining that Morgan had been left out during a school lockdown drill because school officials would not let her enter the girls’ restroom or locker room.
“If you believe in a deity, then you have to understand that that deity made James who he is and made Morgan who she is,” Roem said.
The duty of lawmakers is to make sure no other child is traumatized because of their identity, Roem said. Some members might not be able to empathize, she said. “But I can.”
Her voice turned raw as she spoke about her own experience. “I was too afraid to be them,” she said. “I was too afraid to tell anyone who I was, because that stigma and that fear is so real. You have no idea what it’s like . . . until you have lived it. Until you have cried yourself to sleep over it.”
No person in Virginia, Roem said, “should ever be afraid to be who they are.” People should be able to thrive because of their identity — “not despite it, and not because politicians tell them [who] they’re supposed to be.”
With that, she called for the bill to pass. Fellow Democrats responded with a standing ovation.
The measure passed on a 59-to-39 vote, with four Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting it. Two Republicans did not vote. On Thursday, both the House and Senate passed even more expansive LGBTQ-rights legislation.
A video of Roem’s speech began circulating on social media, and reactions flooded in.
“It’s been universally positive,” Roem said Friday. The mothers of James and Morgan both reached out, she said; one of them told her that “their babies made a difference.”
Roem came to Richmond in 2016 as a private citizen to lobby against nine bills that she said were anti-LGBTQ. A few of them were sponsored by Marshall.
Just over a year later, Roem made history by defeating Marshall and taking his seat. After Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the legislature in elections last fall, Roem made history again by becoming the first openly transgender person to chair a subcommittee.
“Virginia is different now,” Roem said. “My message to trans kids across the commonwealth is you should be welcomed, celebrated, respected and protected — because of who you are, never despite it.”