This Trans Metalhead Stepmom Is Making a Historic Run for Office in Virginia
Danica Roem is not only the first transgender person to run for the Virginia House of Delegates—she’s also the first member of a metal band to do so.
Danica Roem never stops moving. She's a ball of kinetic energy, constantly gesticulating to prove a point or leaning in to make eye contact, her long brown hair spilling over slender shoulders. During conversation, there's hardly a moment when she's not throwing her head back in laughter or flashing a toothy, winsome grin. "Extrovert" is an understatement, and it's impossible to imagine spending five minutes with her without becoming friends, or at least, finding some common ground. That part of Roem's personality has served her well as a career journalist for the Gainesville Times, and will undoubtedly come in handy during the next phase of her career. Roem, who's been an active part of the Virginia heavy metal scene for as long as she can remember, is not only the first transgender person to run for the Virginia House of Delegates—she's also the first member of a metal band to do so.
"Just because I sing in a heavy metal band while spinning my head in circles and getting paid to do it, why can't I run for government? Why would I have to change who I am in order to run for government? I've already had to go through transformative change," she asks when we meet up for lunch at a cafe in Brooklyn. Roem is aware that she's not exactly a "typical" political candidate—after all, she's a long-haired, guitar-slinging transgender woman who's spent over a decade singing for a thrash metal band called Cab Ride Home, whose biggest hit is a party anthem about getting wasted. In that respect (and in a current political landscape dominated by rich, old, straight, white men) Roem—with her love for Swedish death metal and the clunky '92 Dodge she readily cracks jokes about—couldn't be more of an anomaly.
However, as a seasoned journalist who was born and raised in Prince William County—the district she's running to represent—she's also got quite a few hometown advantages. The seven-time Virginia Press Association award winner served as as the lead reporter for the Gainesville Times and Prince William Times for nine years, covering education policy and local politics. As the stepmother of a public school child, she's also been active in the Prince William County School Board, and has worked to help defeat anti-LGBTQ legislation in the House of Delegates. In front of the School Board, she twice publicly rebutted speeches from Delegate Bob Marshall—a 25-year incumbent known for his conservative and often controversial anti-LGBTQ views, and her rival in the current race—when he opposed a proposal to add gender identity and sexual orientation to the school system's nondiscrimination policy.
She tells me about a phone call she received from Virginia Delegate Rip Sullivan soon after her initial showdown with Delegate Marshall. Sullivan currently serves as the Democratic Caucus Campaign Chair, which means he is leading the Democratic Party's effort to gain seats and win back the majority in the House. At the time, she was focused on her job at the newspaper and an ongoing effort to get the Prince William County school board to include gender identity and sexual orientation in its discrimination policy. That battle resulted in the creation of a task force to study discrimination issues in Prince William County Schools and report back to the school board; Roem hopes that by doing so, they'll be able to present recommendations on concrete policy that the school board can implement to make school safer for LGBT kids, but there's still much work to be done on that front. After that, she started thinking about that phone call again, and it gave her the final little push she needed to take the next step. By reaching out and offering that encouragement, Sullivan sent a strong message of support for both her personally and for the values and causes that she represents.
"This year we have seen a groundswell of enthusiasm from progressives across the Commonwealth, and one of the most important ways that we as the Democratic Party can channel that energy is by recruiting qualified candidates like Danica to run for office," Sullivan said in a statement to Noisey. "Regardless of who wins the Democratic primary in the 13th House of Delegates District in June, her candidacy gives a new, strong voice to many Virginians who have been unfairly silenced and marginalized throughout history."
Roem will square off against Mansimran Kahlon, Andrew Adams, and Steven Jansen in the Democratic primary on June 13 (Bob Marshall is running unopposed on the Republican ticket) in her effort to win one of the 100 seats up for grabs across the state's 100 districts. The most interesting thing about this year's race is that, in 45 the districts Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election, sitting Republican delegates will be met by Democratic challengers. Republicans currently hold 66 of the 100 seats in the House, and this new wave of Democrats running for local office has come as a direct result of the 2016 election, bolstered by progressive groups like pro-choice Democratic women's political action committee Emily's List and Democratic down-ballot support network Run for Something.
Roem's opponent, incumbent Delegate Bob Marshall, may disagree. While Roem's stated focus zeroes in on infrastructure and the Route 28 problem, the conservative Republican she's running against—who has served as a delegate for 25 years—has long concerned himself with social issues, and often come under fire for making inflammatory public remarks about abortion, LGBTQ rights, gun control, and children with disabilities. Last year, he introduced 41 bills to State House of Delegate, two of which were anti-LGBTQ. This year, he's introduced four anti-LGBTQ bills, none of which have passed in the Republican-majority state legislature. Roem's frustration is twofold, both as a member of the LGBTQ community and an all-around action-oriented, efficient person.
"And you wonder why you're not getting anything past? Oh, right, because you're focusing on divisible, exclusionary, discriminatory social issues that the governor has already told you he will veto," Roem tells me in exasperation. "We're trying to make a statement about making Virginia a more inclusive commonwealth. We're trying to get rid of laws that the Supreme Court said, 'Guess what? They're not valid anymore.' Marriage equality is the law of the land, whether anyone likes it or not—including Delegate Marshall—and it's time for us to take out those parts of our state code that still make us a regressive place. We should be more inclusive, and it shouldn't matter what you look like, where you come from, how you worship, or who you love— we should be saying, 'Welcome to Virginia.' This should be the most welcoming place in the mid-Atlantic to start a family, fall in love, to go to school, to start a business, to relax, to retire, to enjoy the environment, to just be."
Earlier this year, Marshall introduced a "bathroom bill" mirroring North Carolina's HB2 bill. House Bill 1612 was quickly shot down by a Republican-led committee, and was a clear example of the kind of time-wasting grandstanding that sticks in Roem's craw. She prefers to avoid mud-slinging, though was quick to note that, "Delegate Marshall cares more about how I use the restroom than how you get to work. That's the bottom line here."
After she announced her candidacy, Roem (who is running in the 13th District as a Democrat) was met with a flood of support from her local community and beyond, as well as attention from media interested in her story. While she's perfectly comfortable discussing gender, LGBTQ issues, and the particular challenges that face trans individuals in America, Roem comes across as more of a centrist than a liberal firebrand, and she certainly doesn't want to be seen as a single issue candidate. Her campaign website notes her commitment to "work to make Virginia a more inclusive commonwealth for all, no matter where you come from, what you look like, how you worship or who you love," but her larger focus is fixing the problems in her own backyard. Her laser focus on a local issue—traffic on Route 28—isn't the spiciest political platform for a rookie to ride in on, but it's logical, and altruistic, and eminently practical… much like Roem herself.
"What a lot of people who aren't within the LGBTQ community don't always take into account is that the same issues that affect a lot of LGBT people affect everyone else, too. For example, if you commute up Rt. 28 everyday, traffic is terrible. It was terrible there 25 years ago, when Delegate [Bob] Marshall first took office, and it's terrible today," she explains. "Guess what? Terrible traffic doesn't care if you're trans or if you're not trans, it doesn't care what the color of your skin is, it doesn't care about anything. It's traffic."
The metal community has long grappled with its reputation for intolerance towards those who fall outside the "straight white cis dude" metalhead trope, but in Roem's case at least, that perception couldn't have been further from the truth. Instead, she was buoyed by her friends support and acceptance, and has remained as active as possible in the Virginia metal scene, rattling off a half dozen local favorites (like Iris Divine, Sound of Thunder, and Division) when the subject comes up. "I have not lost a single friend during my gender transition. Not one," she says with a wide smile. "When I say I'm part of the metal community, this is as much a part of my personality as everything else. The way I explain it to people is that, for some people music is a sound. For people who are into metal, it's a lifestyle. It's the aesthetic that you have. It's the personality that you put on display. It's the way that you talk to your friends. It's not just what you listen to in your car on the way home. The lyrics inspire part of your life. The music tells your story."
You can tell how important this has been to her; Roem is deeply passionate about a number of issues, from transportation and economic development to education, but she genuinely lights up when I ask about her life in heavy metal. I ask her what she thinks that the metal community can do to better support its LGBTQ members, and her response is immediate.
"Just put your arms around our shoulders and headbang with us, or with anyone else. Hit us in the pit because we're in the pit, not because of our identity," she says. "I got to see Life of Agony a few years ago in New Jersey— it was amazing! And it's like, wow, I wish I had seen someone like her when I was 15. I saw her when I was 31. At the same time, I know that when I was 15, she wishes she could have been herself when she was the age. But now she has the ability to inspire people, and I hope that I do, too."
Roem is unworried about the effect her riff-worshipping background may have on her campaign, despite the fact that heavy metal politicians are a bit rarer here than in, say, Indonesia or Taiwan). After all, as Navid Rashid of local metal band Iris Divine tells me, Northern Virginia is quite a lot bluer than the rest of Virginia. "I think everyday Virginians in NoVA might not be representative of those in the rest of the state," he allows. "That said, I'd like to think that Danica reflects the diversity of the metal community, both as an educated and articulate candidate, as well as a transgender individual. Hopefully everyday Virginians will be able to appreciate that metal speaks to all kinds of people, and that it can be a source of great positive energy for us."
As Roem puts it, if her being open about her love for Cannibal Corpse and Dark Tranquility is a deal-breaker for a few voters, she's still doing a lot better than certain other elected officials we could mention. "I'm still sarcastic, I'm probably a lot more vulgar that most people when it comes to public office, I'll give you that," she tells me. "But if America truly does want authenticity, if we really are at a point where we're just like, 'Hey, look, we care about character, alright: Have you ever been arrested? "No.' Have you ever done drugs? 'No.' Did you ever get a DUI? 'No.' Traffic tickets? 'Oh yeah.' [Laughs] Look, I've made mistakes; who hasn't? But at the same time, when you see Donald Trump get elected president of the United States after what he admitted to and bragged about doing? At that point, I suddenly realized: there is literally nothing in my background that's that bad."
The same drive to connect with the people around her that's provided such potent fuel for her campaign has also come in handy when it comes to band promotion. Roem excitedly tells me about the many shows (34 in all) that her rowdy thrash metal band Cab Ride Home has played at the legendary (now shuttered) Northern Virginia club Jaxx, and about how hard she had to work to get there in the first place. Formed in 2006, Cab Ride Home has been Roem's baby since well before she appeared as Danica in the credits. Rashid recalls meeting her years ago, and being immediately struck by her devotion to the scene.
"My first impression was of a high energy, enthusiastic, somewhat goofy metalhead that you could always count on to be positive and cool to talk to," he tells me. "Once we had a chance to get to know each other a little better, I was able to appreciate that her quick wit was actually a function of both noteworthy intelligence, and some pretty heavy life experiences."
In their earlier years, the band's manic stage shows provided an outlet for Roem's boundless energy—as well as ample opportunities to get wasted.
"The entire premise of my band is the party, drinking band, right? Our big song is called 'Drunk on Arrival,'" she tells me with a rueful half-smile. While that inexhaustible well of enthusiasm remains an integral part of her personality, the 32-year-old is no longer interested in the feats of alcoholic consumption that defined her 20s. As she explains it, booze provided a safety blanket during a time when she felt unable to share her true identity with anyone else.
"When I was 17, I decided my vice of choice was going to be to drink. I was going to be really good at it, but I wasn't going to do anything else—no drugs, nothing else like that. I spent a lot of my 20s at the bottom of a bottle, and basically I used alcohol as a great unifier to bring my friends together, to make friends, and my song lyrics were all about it, and to really embrace the lifestyle as a toxic way to present a male persona because I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin," she explains. "I thought that if I came out, then my own friends would turn against me, and I would put myself at risk, and I would disappoint my own family, and so I said, 'Alright, if I can't be that person, then I can still be funny, I can still be the center of attention— which I still love to be [laughs]— I can still be on stage, and still be in a band, and still be larger than life.' But guess what? [After you] party hard all day, you go to bed at night and still feel like the same woman. And you wake up the next morning and it's still the first thing you think about: 'how come I'm not her? How come I can't live this way?"
It took her until 2013, but once Roem did finally feel the time was right for her to come out, she says she was blown away by the level of support she received. As she explains, the wellspring of love and understanding that greeted her came as quite a surprise, given her thwarted first attempt to come out.
"When I was in college in 2005, I won my university's 'gender buster.' It was basically a drag show, so we'll call it home field advantage," she explains with a snicker. "The student newspaper came out, and the photo of me was there. I went online, and I was getting slammed. It was bad, it was really really bad, and it violently shoved me back into the closet. That was supposed to be my tip-toe out— not just gay clubs, not just going out seeing an industrial band, but, 'Alright, are we ready for this?' And so, in 2005 I didn't think that my friends were there yet, I didn't think society was there yet. And you know what? I was probably right."
It took until 2013 for her to peer back out of the closet. By then, she'd seen scores of her friends change their Facebook profile photos to the equality symbol during the Defense of Marriage Act hearings. Orange Is the New Black and Laverne Cox had hit the small screen, issues of equality and gender were on everyone's radar, and trans people were more visible than they'd ever been. It felt like time. So, on April Fool's Day, Roem changed her Facebook profile information, and braced herself for the worst.
"I saw that, and I said, 'Hmm, maybe people are maybe ready to walk the walk for once. We'll find out.' So I switched all my info, [thinking] 'Alright, if it goes bad, April Fool's Day! If it goes well, let's see how long we can ride this out.' And people figured it out. Well, most people did. Some people started sending messages saying, like, 'What happened to your brother? I can't find your brother's profile anymore!' But the comments on that photo were, "Oh my God, you look beautiful!"
Roem's refusal to be placed into any singular box and commitment to her causes has earned her the respect of many influential voices in her local community, as well as national organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the largest organization dedicated to electing LGBTQ candidate.
"We have a groundbreaking opportunity to make Danica Roem the first state legislator to win as an out trans candidate," Aisha Moodie-Mills, President and CEO of Victory Fund, said in a statement. "Currently there is zero trans representation in any state legislature, making it easy for extremist politicians to push forward the flood of anti-trans bills we've seen across the country. Representation is power, so a win for Danica is a critical first step to electing more trans people who can be a voice for the community and fight back against anti-equality efforts."
Roem has also racked up endorsements from local school board members, former Democratic delegate nominees, Emily's List, Democratic women's PAC Virginia's List, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee during the course of her campaign as well as donations. Echoing Bernie Sanders' storied $27 average, Roem's average campaign contribution is $47.46. She's been open about her refusal to accept donations over $500, and has accepted only one corporate donation—from Richmond, VA heavy metal oasis GWAR Bar, who hosted a fundraiser event for her campaign ("I'm pretty proud of that one!" she tells me over email).
As positive and high-energy as any given conversation with Danica Roem is bound to be, she's also not afraid to slow down and open up when the situation calls for it. Discussing the darker moments in her life and the struggles that face so many transgender kids and adults brings out a different side of Danica. When the subject of the Orlando tragedy comes up, her eyes grow shiny with tears; we talk about the need for "safe spaces," her voice grows steely with determination.
"I know from experience that they went to that club because they thought it was going to be a safe place for them to go, where they could just express themselves purely, dance as they want to dance, dress as they want to dress, and be the person they know they can be to the best of their ability, and just have fun for the night. That was violated, and that was taken away from every other person in this country who knows what it's like to enter an LGBTQ club knowing that, 'This is the place where I can be myself.' That hit home hard," she tells me.
Her eyes glimmer as she rattles off statistics about the suicide rate among young trans people, and the kinds of misunderstandings and abuse they can face as they struggle to find their place in the world. Roem was lucky in that when she transitioned, she was accepted by her family and community, but she's still faced a crushing array of obstacles. Sometimes she's confronted with downright hatred, especially once she began running for public office and became more visible. Instead of dwelling on the negative comments, though, Roem is determined to use them as a teachable moment for her young stepdaughter, who will be growing up in a much different world.
"You read some of the comments written about me since I announced my candidacy; transphobia is alive and well. It exists all throughout our society. But at the same time, is that the lesson I'm here to teach my eight-year-old? No. I pointed out a nasty comment that was written about me to my kid, and I said, "See, I want to point this out to you. See the one mean thing that one person said? Yeah, but look at all the nice things other people said." There's a lot more nice than there is hate here. There's a lot more people that are cheering me on than are trying to tell me that being transgender makes me a bad person."
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's on Twitter.
Photos by Daniel Brothers.