The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The story behind the viral photo of Danica Roem falling to her knees on election night

Danica Roem, with supporter Marilyn Karp, cries after her win over GOP incumbent Robert Marshall. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Election returns were quickly rolling in Tuesday evening, strongly favoring Danica Roem, a Democrat, in her bid for Virginia state delegate. A victory would set her on a path to become the first openly transgender person in the country elected and seated in a state legislature.

Roem was feeling cautiously optimistic, but her training as a journalist had taught her to gather all of the facts first. Around 8 p.m., she believed it was way too early to declare she’d beaten her opponent, Robert G. Marshall, 73, a 13-term incumbent Republican who has called himself the state’s “chief homophobe.”

She was anxiously pacing around a restaurant in Prince William County, one of several stops before the “watch party” where she’d planned to connect with her campaign manager and supporters to see the results come in.

Democrat Danica Roem defeated incumbent Del. Robert G. Marshall (R) on Nov. 7 and became Virginia’s first openly transgender elected official. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

“I’m thinking ‘Whoa the absentee ballots are out, I don’t want to jinx it. There’s only 19 of 20 precincts counted,’ ” she recalled.

All of a sudden, her phone rang. A voice on the other end said former vice president Joe Biden wanted to talk with her. A few seconds later, she heard Biden’s familiar voice.

Biden offered her a hearty ‘Congratulations,’ and just like that, the realization that she had won started to wash over her.

“When the former vice president of United States calls you, that’s usually the point when you can go ahead and declare victory,” said Roem.

Danica Roem of Virginia to be first openly transgender person elected, seated in a U.S. statehouse

As they talked, she reminded him that the two had spoken in 2015 at Biden’s son’s funeral. Roem had driven to Wilmington to pay respects to Beau Biden, former Delaware attorney general, who died from brain cancer.

Roem waited in line for hours to offer condolences to the Bidens for their son, whom she admired in part for his support of a statewide transgender rights bill.

“I thanked him for raising someone with the character of Beau, who helped get transgender rights passed,” Roem remembers telling Biden at the funeral.

She said Biden put his hands on her shoulders, looked her in the eye and said “We mean that. We mean that.” Then he kissed her hand and hugged her.

“You turn to goo, your knees just buckle,” Roem said. “He was there telling a transgender woman that her rights are worth protecting.”

During the election night phone call, Biden told her that he, too, remembered the moment, she said.

Biden, who has called transgender rights the “civil rights issue of our time,” supported Roem and four other Democrats running for the House of Delegates in November.

Virginia Politics ‘Our Martin Luther King Jr. moment’: Danica Roem victory inspires transgender community

She invited him to Manassas during the call, telling him she’d love to show him around her hometown.

Then they hung up. They had talked for about three minutes.

“I paced around a minute. I looked at everyone and I’m trying to process this,” Roem said. “I’m thinking ‘What do I do? What do I do? My campaign manager is not with me.’ ”

She walked back into the main room of the restaurant, Grafton Street Restaurant & Pub, and looked at a group of her supporters. The room fell silent.

“I just got a call from Joe Biden and we won,” she said loudly.

Watch Democrat Danica Roem's powerful speech to supporters after becoming Virginia’s first openly transgender elected official on Nov. 7. (Video: Aaron Penney/ Facebook)

The restaurant blew up in cheers.

Roem walked into another room, and leaned against a wall.

“I was sobbing,” she said. “I was overwhelmed and joyous. I just felt the need to slide down the wall.”

So she did. And Washington Post photographer Jahi Chikwendiu was there to capture it.

He said the room was dark, and he was able to light his photo with the flash of a phone camera as a supporter also wanted to document the moment.

The photo went viral on Twitter, and Biden retweeted it, writing “You’re going to make us all proud, Danica.”

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