Virginia statehouse candidate Danica Roem (D) has put her transgender identity front and center in a YouTube ad meant to chastise her opponent, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), for refusing to acknowledge her as a woman.
Roem, who would be the first openly transgender politician elected in Virginia, is shown in the ad taking hormone medication and putting on eye makeup. In a voice-over, she tells viewers that her gender identity "shouldn't be newsworthy or political."
"This is just who I am," Roem continues, before the video fades to the faces of smiling teens. "There are millions of transgender people in the country, and we all deserve representation in government."
A statement released with the video says the ad is a response to a comment Marshall made earlier this month to a reporter from the Prince Williams Times, who quoted Marshall as saying: "Why do you call Danica a female? Did Danica's DNA change?"
"When Delegate Marshall said that, his lack of understanding and empathy weren't just disrespectful toward me, personally," Roem, 32, says in the statement. "He once again attacked every person in our community, including the teenagers in this video, who he's singled out and stigmatized through his 26 years of discriminatory social policies designed to tear our community apart instead of unite us around our common needs."
Marshall, 75, is a staunch conservative in Virginia's House of Delegates who this year unsuccessfully sought to pass a "bathroom bill" to regulate where transgender people can use restrooms inside government buildings. He said Tuesday that the Prince William Times quoted him accurately.
"You can change appearances, but your DNA fixes your bodily structures for your entire life," Marshall said, citing research he said he conducted at the National Library of Medicine. "Danica will never get cervical cancer. Danica can't get ovarian cancer because those body parts are not part of a male structure."
Marshall, who frequently uses male pronouns when referring to Roem, predicted that his opponent's YouTube ad will backfire.
"If Danica wants to make what he thinks is his change an issue, I'm going to talk about Route 28," Marshall said, referring to the congested thoroughfare that is a top concern of voters in the Prince William County district. "He's making up stories all over the place, including about his sexual identity."
Roem until now has mostly played down her gender identity in the 13th District race, campaigning on traffic congestion and other problems that she says Marshall has done little to fix during his 25 years in office. So far, she has outraised Marshall 5 to 1, collecting $370,000, much of it from out of state.
Roem's campaign to oust the longtime incumbent comes as gender identity has moved to the center of American social and political discourse. Hit television shows such as "Transparent" have drawn attention to the transgender community and related issues. Politicians are sparring over restroom policies and whether transgender people should be able to serve openly in the U.S. military.
It remains unclear how and whether such debates will influence voters in Prince William County, a suburban and exurban jurisdiction about 35 miles west of Washington that has shifted from staunchly Republican to more of a swing district in recent years.
Marshall has kept a low profile in the lead-up to the Nov. 7 election, refusing to debate Roem or to appear at forums with her, and declining requests from The Washington Post to join him as he campaigns.
Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, said the candidates' spat over gender identity will probably appeal only to their bases in an election that will probably be decided by voters from the middle of the political spectrum.
"The most appealing argument that one can make to swing voters is a very local, policy-driven argument," Farnsworth said. "Transportation in Northern Virginia, the quality of schools. These are the sorts of issues that are going to persuade voters who haven't reflexively made up their mind to vote for the Republican or the Democrat."