RICHMOND, Va. — It was shortly before 10 a.m. on Wednesday when Danica Roem was adding additional language to her bill that would protect credentialed journalists from revealing their sources.
Two reporters and their respective photographers were in Roem’s small office on the second floor of the Pocahontas State Office Building near the Virginia Capitol as she worked on her personal laptop. A coffee mug from the Newseum in D.C., a copy of the 2018 budget bill and a name tag that identified her as “delegate-elect Danica Roem” had been placed on her desk before she arrived less than an hour before.
Roem pointed out to the reporters and two of her aides — Maria Salgado and Gabrielle Slais — that earlier in the day she was listening to “Bullet Ride” and “Pinball Map” from “Clayman,” an album that In Flames, a Swedish heavy metal band, released in 2000. Roem asked Slais whether her 9-year-old stepdaughter could bring her tablet into the chamber of the Virginia House of Delegates before she filed her bill.
The deadline for lawmakers to pre-file bills before the 2018 General Assembly began was 10 a.m.
Roem filed her bill at 10 a.m.
“That’s how we do things,” she joked.
She was sworn in slightly more than two hours later.
‘My job is to serve my constituents’
Roem, a former journalist, last November defeated Bob Marshall, an anti-LGBT Republican who had represented the 13th District since 1992. Roem, who is a Democrat, is the first openly trans person seated in any state legislature in the U.S.
Althea Garrison in 1992 became the first trans person elected to a state legislature when she won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, but she did not publicly discuss her gender identity during her campaign. Stacie Laughton in 2012 became the first openly trans person elected to a state legislature when she won a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, but she ended her bid to sit in the chamber after her convictions for credit card and identity fraud became public.
State Dels. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) and Richard “Rip” Sullivan (D-Fairfax County) are among those who stopped by Roem’s office on Wednesday. Roem’s former campaign manager, Ethan Damon, who is now her senior advisor, was with her throughout the day.
Salgado and Slais tried to get Roem to leave her office shortly before 11 a.m. in order to attend a House Democratic Caucus meeting. Roem quickly used the women’s restroom near a bank of elevators in the Pocahontas Building before she, her staff, the reporters and their photographers left walked across North Bank Street and entered the Capitol.
Marshall in 2017 introduced a bill that would have banned Roem and other trans people from using public bathrooms in Virginia that correspond with their gender identity. A House subcommittee killed it by a voice vote.
“My job is to never, ever discriminate against my constituents,” said Roem in her office before she walked to the Capitol. “My job is to serve my constituents and no one who lives in the 13th District should feel unwelcome to be there because of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship, who they love.”
“They should be celebrated, respected and welcomed because of who they are, not despite of it and not for what other people telling them what they should be,” she added. “I hope that what we’re doing today sends that message very loud and clear that you can succeed because of who you are, not despite it.”
Roem described as ‘a rock star’
Members of the House of Delegates — Democrats and Republicans — hugged Roem as she entered the House chamber shortly before noon. She walked to her desk and stood as more than half a dozen photographers from across the country took her picture.
Roem’s family was in the House gallery when she and the 14 other new delegates were sworn in. These include state Del. Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), who is the first out lesbian elected to the Virginia General Assembly.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and state Dels. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) and Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax County) are openly gay.
“Dawn and I both made history,” said Roem before leaving her office, noting that Adams is her roommate during session. “This is not just one of us here.”
Roem on Wednesday wore around her neck a rainbow-colored lanyard for her General Assembly badge that her stepdaughter gave her for Christmas. She also held her trademark rainbow headscarf in her left hand when she was sworn in.
Roem was wearing the headscarf a few hours later when outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe delivered his final State of the Commonwealth speech.
Roem told the Blade during an impromptu interview on the House floor shortly after 3:30 p.m. that she decided she would leave the headscarf on her desk when she was not in the chamber so “our LGBTQ community knows we’re hand in hand on the floor of the House of Delegates. Former House Speaker Richard Cranwell and his wife, House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), Sickles and two House staffers all approached Roem and began speaking with her.
“My very presence in this body is the statement,” said Roem.
Toscano described Roem to the Blade as a “rock star” before he left the chamber.
Route 28, FOIA among early legislative priorities
Improving Route 28 in order to reduce traffic congestion and extending the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains to Innovation Technology Park as a way to bolster the area’s high-tech industry are among the issues on which she campaigned.
Roem on Monday introduced two resolutions that call upon the Virginia Department of Transportation to study ways to improve Route 28 and expand and maintain commuter trains in the state. One of the bills that Roem filed before Wednesday would require the attorney general’s office to create an ombudsman to ensure state agencies comply with Freedom of Information Act requests.
Roem has requested to be assigned to the Transportation; General Laws and Counties, Cities and Towns Committee.
The General Laws Committee typically considers LGBT-specific bills.
Roem told the Blade on the House floor that it is “really tough for me to get on” the committee. She nevertheless said it is “important.”
“FOIA goes through there and second nondiscrimination and discrimination goes through there,” said Roem. “I’m really big on the idea that a trans woman should be on a committee that deals with LGBTQ discrimination issues.”
“I believe strongly that if you’re going to vote on an issue that discriminates against one of your colleagues than you have to look your colleague in the eye while you’re presenting that bill,” she added.
Roem on Friday tweeted she has been assigned to the Counties, Cities and Towns and Science and Technology Committees.
“Of course I’m disappointed I won’t be on the Transportation Committee but I’ll do my best to represent HD13 on these committees,” she wrote. “It’s an honor to even be here, above all else.”
Roem receives well-wishes from trans girl’s mother
Roem on Wednesday did not speak on the floor of the House, which Republicans control by a 51-49 vote margin.
The House voted unanimously to elect state Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) as their next speaker. It also voted to record subcommittee votes during the 2018 session.
“That’s a win for transparency advocates,” said Roem.
Cox has said he would stop the tradition of using gender-specific titles to refer to lawmakers if he were to become speaker. A woman with whom the Blade spoke in the Pocahontas Building on Wednesday used an expletive when she said Cox should refer to Roem as the “gentlewoman from Manassas” when he acknowledges her on the House floor.
“It is really obnoxious to have that be the lead question for two days in a row when I’m trying to deal with serious public policy,” Roem told the Blade on Thursday during a phone call.
She said in her office on Wednesday before she was sworn in that her election proved trans people can win elections in spite of their gender identity. Roem also showed the Blade a text message she received from the mother of an 11-year-old trans girl in Roanoke earlier in the day.
The mother told Roem that she has inspired her daughter. She also wished her well on her first day in office.
“Here we are; Room 221; Pocahontas Building,” said Roem. “To have had the number of trans kids reach out to me and people who desperately needed someone to champion what they believe in, especially what happened in 2016, this is special.”