Danica Roem, a Pathbreaking Lawmaker, on the Fight for Trans Rights

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While Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are passing a flurry of bills aimed at limiting transgender rights and medical care, Virginia is going the opposite way.

This month, the state became the first in the South to ban the “trans panic defense,” which has historically allowed those charged with homicide to receive lesser sentences after they argue in court that they panicked when they learned of a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Eleven other states have passed similar legislation, and Danica Roem, the Virginia legislator who introduced the bill there, hopes more states will follow.

But that is hardly a given. Many Republicans have embraced anti-trans legislation as the latest front in the country’s culture wars.

We spoke with Ms. Roem, who in 2018 became the first openly trans legislator in the country, about the fight over trans rights that’s roiling parts of the country, and the political incentives she believes are fueling the Republican push. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

I want to start with a simple question: Why do you think we’re seeing so much of a focus from Republicans now on anti-trans legislation?

We are seeing a lot of focus right now on anti-trans legislation from Republican legislators in Republican trifecta states that are totally controlled by Republicans. They lost the federal elections in 2020, and because of that, they are trying to figure out what is the next thing that keeps their coalition together.

For them, the worst common denominator that they go back to is singling out and stigmatizing the very people they’re elected to represent. It is turning a civil rights discussion into: “They’re trying to take things from you. They’re trying to change what you know. They’re trying to uproot social norms and things that we enforce. So we have to fight them, so that we can reclaim America.”

Here’s the thing that just gnaws at me: I cannot stand manufactured victimhood or people who are trying to say, “We are the ones who are under attack,” when they are the ones attacking other people. The same people who will tell you that they are against identity politics are the ones who are leading attacks based on identity and based on canceling out entire groups of people.

Do any of these state legislators actually know trans kids in their life? No, they don’t. It’s not about the issue. It’s manufacturing an issue to defeat Democrats. It bothers some parts of their base; some of them don’t like our existence as trans people.

Given all that — that it is maybe appealing to part of the Republican base — is it an effective political strategy? Does it help more Republicans get elected?

If you were in a Republican trifecta state where you have a Republican governor and you have a Republican supermajority in the chambers, are you concerned about a Democratic challenger? The answer is no.

So then, are you more concerned with being insufficiently conservative? And that’s the problem here. That’s the incentive in a lot of these states.

In the modern Republican Party, if you are in a trifecta state, your goal isn’t to necessarily pass good governance bills. It’s: What gets people animated the most, so I can be in this seat for the longest amount of time?

What do you think is the best way for individual voters to fight this kind of legislation?

Win federal elections. No. 1 is you have to retain the presidency — you absolutely have to retain the presidency, because of judgeships. And you have to have a Senate majority, if nothing else, because of the confirmation process for judges.

I say that because Mitch McConnell strategically blocked Barack Obama’s nominees for so many federal seats. He saved those so that Donald Trump could have them, right? And what happened? Well, you’re now going to have a much more aggressive federal court system that is much more hostile toward L.G.B.T.Q. people. And that’s by design.

Let’s talk about the legislation that you’ve introduced and passed. It is notable that Virginia has become the first Southern state to pass legislation that eliminates “trans panic” as a line of defense. What’s the evolution of the state here?

Look, in 2016, Virginia was one of the top states in the country for anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation. I know that because in 2016, I drove to Richmond four times to fight the anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills. My predecessor put in a couple of those bills, and there were two bathroom bills.

So we saw that hostility back then, but because at the time, Republicans had a two-to-one majority of the delegates, they could push through what they chose — except that they did have some members in competitive districts, and a lot of them did end up losing their seats.

And the following year, 2017, I announced my campaign. I started getting a flood of donations from across the country from people who had seen that my predecessor had done that. And they’re like, “Oh my God, there happens to be a trans woman who’s actually running against them.” But a lot of people just doubted my ability to win.

I saw you recently on Twitter encouraging more trans candidates to run. And I wonder how much of a factor visibility and representation were in your decision to run for office.

What people have to understand is that being trans influences my worldview, but it wasn’t my qualification to run for office. My qualification was the 10 and a half years I spent as a professional news reporter, including over nine years at The Gainesville Times covering the district for a living.

No. 2, data shows that women are more likely to need to be asked to run for office, while men are more likely to take the initiative to run for office. Like a lot of other women, I was asked; I was recruited.

So I want to hear more about the legislation you just introduced that got passed and signed. How optimistic are you that other Southern states will follow suit?

The idea was brought to me last summer by a 15-year-old out student constituent of mine, who sent an email saying that it’s really terrible that you can get away with murdering or assaulting L.G.B.T.Q. people for merely existing.

We documented eight cases in which the “trans panic” defense was effective in getting the desired results, and we’ve seen as recently as 2018 that it’s worked. That is not an exhaustive list.

I think that in the long term, once we’re were able to win a Democratic trifecta in North Carolina and Georgia, that we will have the ability to replicate what we’ve done in Virginia, but that is the long-term project. That is not a short-term project.

The entire rest of the South is on defense right now. Outside the Mid-Atlantic, it’s really hard for us to pass good bills instead of just simply having to work against bad bills. So it’s going to be a while.

How often do you hear from trans teenagers in your district, or in the state?

I hear from trans people — trans teens, trans kids, trans adults — all the time. It’s one of the things that comes with being the first out transgender state legislator in the country. But now, by the way, we have at least eight. You are seeing a substantial shift in policy where we’re no longer strictly on defense.

What about your colleagues — do you think you are treated any differently as a trans woman in politics? Have you developed relationships with any Republicans in the legislature?

Professional working relationships have allowed me to pass 23 bills. You know, I know how to work with my colleagues. I used to get a lot more comments my freshman year, but apart from a snide remark here or there, it’s nothing remarkable. I was in the minority; I got a lot more comments for being a Democrat than I got for being trans.

My being trans is who I am. When I go door to door in the district now, very, very few people ask me questions about that. They want to talk about the local highway.

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