Last week Danica Roem made history, winning election to Virginia’s House of Delegates as an openly transgender woman. She’ll be the only openly transgender person in a state legislature anywhere in America. And the man she defeated had held his seat for more than a quarter-century.
So when I was watching CNN a few days later and she popped up, I perked up. I realized that I somehow hadn’t caught her other media appearances since her sign-of-the-times triumph.
The CNN anchor, Kate Bolduan, invited her to reflect on it.
And Roem talked about … traffic.
Before using the word transgender, without draping herself in the glory of a trailblazer, she mentioned the awful congestion on Route 28 in Fairfax County, especially “through Centreville and part of Yorkshire,” and her determination to follow through on her central campaign promise “to replace traffic lights with overpasses where possible.”
Traffic lights. Overpasses. My jaw hit the ground, because she knew full well that Bolduan was after something juicier than a local-infrastructure tutorial. Then my eyes gleamed with admiration, because she had nonetheless delivered that tutorial — and with it, a crucial message:
Being transgender isn’t the whole of her identity, the extent of her purpose or the crux of her mission. The obstacles in her life are particular, but the hell of rush hour is universal. And her job as a lawmaker is to attend to the nitty-gritty that has an immediate, measurable impact on all of her constituents. When circumstances warrant it, she can be every bit as boring as the next politician.
This approach wouldn’t be praiseworthy if Roem seemed in any way to be hiding a part of herself or ashamed of it. But that’s not the case at all.
She campaigned frequently with her long dark hair under a rainbow scarf. She cooperated with local and national journalists who wrote about her candidacy in the context of strides by transgender people. “I understand the national implications of my race,” she told Time magazine. “I mean, I’m not stupid.”
She clearly stated her belief that insurance should cover hormone therapy and other treatments that transgender people seek. She just as clearly communicated her affinity with society’s underdogs.
Then she swerved, ceaselessly, to the problem of inadequate teacher pay, the importance of Medicaid expansion and Route 28, Route 28, Route 28. Traffic knows no color, creed or gender. It gave her both a mantra and a metaphor.
When she rallied campaign workers before Election Day, she told them to focus voters’ attention on three aspects of her biography. “I’m a 33-year-old stepmom,” she said, referring to her boyfriend and his child. That was the first aspect. Second was that she’d lived in the district almost her whole life. Third was that she’d worked there for many years as a journalist. “I know about public policy issues, because I covered them,” she said.
She wasn’t making a deeply personal appeal and imploring voters to affirm her. She was making a broadly public one and encouraging them to include her, lest her talents go untapped and her potential contributions unrealized. Her opponent, a Republican, was the one who made a big issue of her gender identity. Roem, a Democrat, let his cruelties roll off her, went back to knocking on doors, defined her common ground with fellow Virginians and planted herself there.
“When people see me doing this, they’re going to be, like, ‘Wow, she’s transgender, I don’t get that,’ ” she told Time, imagining voters’ response to her presence on the political scene. “ ‘But she’s really, really focused on improving my commute, and I do get that.’ ”
She avoided vocabulary that might be heard as the argot of an unfamiliar tribe. When I looked back at her campaign, I found plenty of “stepmom” but not “gender binary,” “gender fluidity” and such. As relevant as those concepts are, they’re questionable bridges to people who aren’t up to speed but are still up for grabs, in terms of fully opening their minds and hearts to us L.G.B.T. Americans. Sometimes you have to meet them where they live to enlist them on a journey to a fairer, better place.
In a perfect world, such caution and cunning wouldn’t be necessary. In this one, it’s not the only strategy, but it can be an effective one.
Roem dedicated her victory speech last week “to every person who’s ever been singled out, who’s ever been stigmatized, who’s ever been the misfit, who’s ever been the kid in the corner.” Those were her opening words, which poetically universalized her experience as a transgender woman without explicitly invoking it.
Then it was quickly back to prose and an exhortation that Virginians “fix the existing infrastructure problems.”
“I know this sounds like boring stuff,” she conceded. Indeed it does — boring and brilliant and a lesson to us all.