When Danica Roem was sworn in after defeating a Republican who had served in Virginia’s House of Delegates for a quarter of a century, she became the first openly transgender state legislator in the United States.
“You don’t get too many transgender, metal head, reporter, yogini, stepmom vegetarians running for office,” she recently told NPR. Roem, a former journalist who also fronted a metal band, was elected in 2017 and reelected in November to a third term.
She said she feels like her story is relatable.
“I like to think that for all the eccentricities I have and even the different worlds of identities, I think that one thing that’s very common on this is I do know what it means to have to work. I do know what it means to make ends meet and to struggle financially,” she says.
In her new memoir, Burn the Page, Roem tackles the kinds of personal stories that most politicians would seek to bury as deep as possible. NPR’s Juana Summers spoke with Roem about her book — and why she put herself out there.
“I want to encourage people to own their own narratives and set fire to the stories that they don’t want to be in anymore,” she says.
These interview highlights contain some additional content that did not air in the broadcast version.
Your book is sprinkled with some quotes from opposition research you commissioned on yourself. I want to read one example: “Danica Roem in 2008 was videotaped performing a keg stand as people chanted ‘Suck it!’ and then proceeded to pick up the keg and chuck it through the window.”
So that last part was an embellishment. Did I do the first two things? Yes. But I do not have the upper body strength to be able to perform that last stunt. Therefore, the whole reason I want[ed] to include that in the book is that when other people even write — in that case, it’s the Facebook status just among friends that was just supposed [to] make people laugh, right?
Other people find things that are either embellishments or not true about you, and they can be the ones who will tell the story. And very much in politics what ends up happening is that people will create a narrative about who you are in terms of what they think is politically advantageous for their side. So one of the things I really wanted to do was kind of own the entire concept of, like, look, things that are written about you online or things that you’ve written about yourself online — good, bad, right, wrong, correct, incorrect — you’ve got to be able to own that, recognize it for what it is and, at the same time, use it to empower you to feel confident about telling your own stories.
You wrote really openly about your childhood growing up in Virginia and the struggle that you described to fit in. One thing that stuck out to me is that you describe yourself as a “closet-case trans girl.” That experience taught you how to be resilient.
Well, so, I, on the one hand, very much know what it’s like to be too afraid to be yourself in front of other people, and so you put up a facade and you try to become a version of you that you believe is socially acceptable to other people. And because I was so scared of being outed, I was scared of other people who I knew finding out that I was trans and everything, and just looking for these moments of genuine feminine expression. It was so hard.
When I think in the modern context about what these kids are going through today, where the very state legislators and governors who were elected to serve them and their school board members and their local government officials are singling out and stigmatizing their most vulnerable constituents. Why on earth and how on earth would you look at a trans kid and want to demonize them and hurt them, rather than say, “What can I do to help you and your family? What can I do to serve you? What can I do to make you a part of this community and make you feel welcome and safe and respected because of who you are, not despite it?”
My worry on a day-to-day basis is those 41% of trans people who will attempt suicide in their lives … because they feel that they don’t have hope that other people are trying to take away from them.
And I hope that my book, if anything else, can inspire people and very, very much allow them to say, “Hey, you know what? I do belong here.” And when you go and read Burn the Page, I hope I made you laugh. I hope I give you some things that are very self-deprecating on my part, so you know that I take my job seriously but not myself. And that it will hopefully, if nothing else, encourage you to just own that story and say, “You know what? This is who I am. I get to be me, and I’m not going to let you tell me otherwise.”
One thing that’s come up over and over again in our conversation but also in your book is this idea of being seen for who one is. I wonder if you can talk about the importance of that visibility of being seen.
So the way I like to phrase it is being vulnerable enough to be visible.
When you’re being visible, it’s an inherent state of vulnerability because you’re putting yourself out there. You’re letting people know who you are and that you exist. And so I like to think that my vulnerability, my visibility in 2017, as scary as it would be for me sometimes, it would inspire other adults to run for office. And it would also inspire kids who would send me messages. I got handwritten letters in the mail. One of them was from a kid in Hampton Roads [Virginia] who said, “You’re the first person I’m ever telling this to, but I’m trans. I’m scared, but I thought that you would understand.”
I thought at least they know that they have a friend in my office. At least they know that there’s someone like them and who hurts when they hurt and at the same time is trying to do something about it too.
I cannot have this conversation with you without talking about the through line that music — particularly metal — has had in your life. I would love to know what made it so necessary for you, when you were growing up, to just head up all of these shows and all of these venues night after night.
Well, you know, I always tell people that when you were into metal, metal isn’t just a sound and it’s not just music — it’s a lifestyle. It’s the way you dress, the way you talk to your friends, the way you’re interacting with other people. The reason that it was all so important for me was I was looking for a sense of community. And I also knew what it’s like to be singled out. And so when you’re a teenager and you’re trying to figure out your identity, you’re trying to figure out how you fit into the world, one thing that very much resonated with me from metal was that kind of audio rebellion that is very much inherent to it. It’s very anti-authoritarian and it’s very intense musically.
You are a stepmom, a yogi, a metal head, a delegate. What is next on the horizon for you? I know you were just recently reelected. Any plans of running for other offices?
Well, so not Congress, not statewide, but check in with me May 9. I’ll have another announcement about my next political move then.