As Democrats across the county cheered election victories on Tuesday, transgender individuals and their advocates fixated on a handful of down-ballot races.
There was Danica Roem, the Democrat from Northern Virginia who stunned the political establishment by trouncing 13-term incumbent Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) to become the state’s first openly transgender elected official. Two trans candidates won city council seats in Minneapolis, one each in Palm Springs, Ca., and Doraville, Ga., and a trans man triumphed in a school board race in Erie, Pa.
“I feel like this is our Martin Luther King Jr. moment,” said Jenifer Reeve, whose 10-year-old son is transgender and has endured years of bullying at his elementary school in San Francisco. “We have leaders now who we can actually follow.”
The victories by trans candidates served as a rallying cry for both LGBT groups looking for political momentum in a year when the Trump administration has rolled back protections, and for conservative groups gearing up to stop them. LGBT-focused social media sites and online support groups buzzed about a potential shift in the political landscape, while groups on both the right and the left pledged to use the election results to recruit candidates in 2018.
“This puts all of the bigoted, anti-LGBTQ lawmakers on notice,” said Aisha Moodie-Mills, president of the Victory Fund, which canvassed for Roem in Prince William, a Washington exurb where the top local issue is traffic congestion. “Our community is not going to just sit by and play defense. We’re on offense.”
Moodie-Mills said her organization will concentrate most of its efforts in Texas, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina, where some Republican members of Congress are believed to be vulnerable, and where LGBT candidates now being trained to run have been inspired by Roem.
Sarah McBride, press secretary for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign and the first trans American to address a major party convention, said the transgender victories represent another step into the country’s cultural mainstream.
“For far too long, trans youth have had to grow up fearing that their dreams and their identity were mutually exclusive,” said McBride. “Last night, they were able to go to bed knowing that someone just like them, come January, will walk into one of the oldest state legislatures in the country and be sworn in as a state legislator.
“For trans youth across the country, that progress isn’t just a headline. It’s not even history. It’s hope.”
Conservative activists said they, too, plan to use Roem’s victory to drum up support in upcoming elections outside Virginia.
Terry Schilling, director of the American Principles Project and one of Marshall’s biggest donors, said he was encouraged that the Republican did well in some predominantly minority precincts — a sign that conservative-leaning African American and immigrant voters in other states might be receptive to an anti-transgender campaign.
“I’m going to have a lot of good data to show potential donors,” said Schilling, whose organization fielded a robo-call on Marshall’s behalf. “The messages we were using were actually working to bring voters across to our side.”
Amy Adams, who lives in Virginia’s Stafford County and has a daughter who is transgender, said she has no illusions about how much Roem’s election will change things.
On Election Day, at her polling station in Hartwood, Adams ran into Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Spotsylvania), who like Marshall had sponsored a “bathroom bill” in the legislature that did not advance.
She said she approached the conservative lawmaker to talk about her daughter, and asked if he’d given up on the idea of regulating which bathrooms transgender people can use. Cole said he had not, Adams said, and told her she could raise her “son” however she wanted.
“That was the only time he looked at me in the eyes, when he said ‘son,’ ” Adams said. “So, it’s not over for us.”
Cole, who was reelected on Tuesday with 53 percent of the vote, said through a spokeswoman that he does not plan to introduce another bathroom bill during the next legislative session, in light of the gains made by Democrats. The spokeswoman declined to comment on Adams’s account of her conversation with Cole.
Roem said she, too, has no immediate plans to introduce legislation on any LGBT issues. She spent Wednesday fielding a stream of media interview requests in between fruitless attempts to catch up on sleep. She also made some preliminary calls to local, state and federal lawmakers about funding for alleviating traffic on Route 28, her signature issue during the campaign.
Besides that, the 33-year-old said, she plans to push for more funding for public schools and for the General Assembly to fund an ombudsman position to expedite Freedom of Information Act requests — a need she identified during the nine years she spent as a local reporter covering Prince William.
Roem, who often campaigned wearing a rainbow headscarf, said she had agonized over when and whether to discuss her transgender identity during the race, fearing that doing so would lead voters to support Marshall.
Now that she’s been elected, Roem said, she plans to embrace her stature as a role model to other transgender people.
“I didn’t have people like me in a position of power while I was growing up,” Roem said. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Those people do now.”