Essay by Petula Dvorak. The views expressed are the opinions of the author.
Traffic. Schools. Jobs. Getting to their jobs, so back to traffic.
That’s what Northern Virginia voters want to talk about when a transgender woman with a rainbow headscarf and slashing black eyeliner knocks on their door.
Which is weird. Because given all the legislation proposed in the Virginia General Assembly on these constituents’ behalf, you would think the conversations would be nothing but bathrooms, abortions and sex when someone such as Danica Roem shows up.
Roem, 32, has made history, becoming the first openly transgender candidate to win a state primary in Virginia. Now, the Democratic nominee is trying to unseat her polar opposite in the 13th District: 25-year incumbent Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William).
And she believes she can win exactly because she has little interest in talking about sex, body parts or gender identity — the meat and potatoes of Marshall’s public life.
In a rapidly developing part of the state that desperately needs a traffic czar, Marshall instead styles himself as Virginia’s self-appointed “Minister of Private Parts.”
He belongs to the party of small government, yet his legislative record is all about people’s sexual and reproductive behavior. Over the course of his career, he has questioned the intelligence of women who use long-term contraception, argued that some incest is voluntary, pushed for women to be legally required to have transvaginal ultrasounds before abortions, suggested that children born with disabilitiesare the punishment for women who have had abortions, worried that U.S. troops would catch sexually transmitted diseases if they had to serve alongside gay men and women, called for transgender service members to be kicked out of the military and authored a vicious transgender bathroom bill that would allow the government to dictate where someone can pee.
Marshall’s ironically named Physical Privacy Act was based on his fear that men and boys would pretend to be transgender to infiltrate bathrooms and locker rooms used by women and girls. “Some guys will use anything to make a move on some teenage girls or women,” he said.
And here comes his opponent in a district that backed Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election: a transgender woman who sings in a metal band, has a boyfriend and doesn’t make it a point to talk about any of it.
“Of course. I put equality on there because,” and she gestured along the length of her royal blue sheath dress, “this race will be different.”
She doesn’t shy away from her identity. The scarf she wears when she canvasses is a big, fat pride rainbow. The story of her transition and medical treatments is on her Web page.
But, unlike her opponent, she doesn’t think Manassas residents stay awake at night worrying about which bathroom she should use.
She isn’t running because she’s transgender and wants to fight Marshall’s craziness. No, she is running because of what she learned at work.
Roem is a local news reporter. And for about a decade, she has spent thousands of hours at local government hearings and meetings, poring over planning and zoning documents, proposed legislation and bids for public works projects.
She’s a policy nerd. You try to get a quick yes or no about an issue, and instead you get the memorized 25-year history of a traffic corridor, with the pinpoint details of costs, dates, traffic studies, estimates, rates and efficiencies.
She’s not big into talking points or 140-character sound bites.
“Wow. I’m impressed, you really know your details,” said Denise Coleman, 28, after she opened her door to Roem’s barrage of details on traffic.
Roem wasn’t there to talk about behind-closed-doors morality or to fight a culture war or to get Coleman to understand the two-decade, gut-wrenching journey of a transgender woman.
Roem did a straight-from-memory deep dive into why Coleman’s commute sucks and how it can be fixed. And Coleman loved it.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Coleman said. “This is what matters.”
Roem was on a roll. “Think you’d like a yard sign?” she asked.
“Well, not really,” Coleman said, looking down at her feet, avoiding Roem’s eyes. “My mom lives here, and, you know, she’s Catholic.”
Roem talked about all the Catholic education she has had — 13 years — but didn’t push it. She hasn’t been positioning herself as some sort of standard-bearer for LGBT rights.
In fact, it wasn’t until that bizarre Trump tweet last week that called for a ban on transgender service members in the military that Roem went on the offensive on the issue.
“For our president, who opted out of serving in the military, to attack transgender people for being unfit to serve . . . is the height of hypocrisy,”Roem told my colleague, Fenit Nirappil. “Transgender military members . . . have done more to serve and protect their country than Donald Trump ever will.”
Roem got a $50,000 donation from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who chairs the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and was in Washington when Trump issued his military ban.
“You, my dear, are on everyone’s lips across the nation,” said Pam Northam, wife of Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, when she visited Roem’s headquarters in Manassas for an ice cream social Sunday afternoon.
“I’m such a fan, I couldn’t wait to meet her,” Northam confessed to me after she and Roem hugged, smiled for the camera and talked about the knots in their stomachs both get before knocking on each door they hit.
Before heading out for Sunday evening’s door-knocking — they’ve hit 16,000 doors so far, and Roem leaves a personal, handwritten note for each constituent she doesn’t get to talk to — she met with her staff to get a field report.
“Is anyone talking about the transgender ban?” Roem asked one of her organizers, Brad Chester.
“Not really,” Chester said. “Maybe one person. Power lines, people really wanted to talk about power lines.”
And she headed out for another round of discussion about traffic, schools, property values, jobs.
The transgender thing didn’t come up. Because, really, who cares?
(Almost no one.)