On Tuesday night, an out and proud transgender woman defeated a 13-term incumbent in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Bob Marshall, who has proudly described himself as the state’s “chief homophobe,” campaigned against Danica Roem by accusing her of “playing identity politics,” saying she is “clearly is a male,” and accusing her of behavior that “goes against the laws of nature and nature's God.”
Robocalls during the campaign told voters Roem would allow boys to play in girls’ sporting leagues — part of “a radical agenda to force the transgender identity on children,” according to the leader of the group placing the calls. But at the end of the day, the residents of the 13th District preferred her platform of transport infrastructure improvements over the incumbent’s mudslinging.
That’s why a local vote for better traffic management means so much for trans people across the country: Roem won because voters treated her like any other politician. This ultimately wasn’t a referendum on trans rights: It was a state election where a long-term incumbent ran a bad campaign, and learned the hard way that people care more about their commute than they do about flavor-of-the-week moral crusades. It’s exactly what politics should be, and it came with an added bonus: We learned that being transgender is no longer something that immediately disqualifies you from being the better candidate.
What made Roem’s win truly poetic was that Marshall was the chief legislator responsible for Virginia’s own failed attempt at a North Carolina–style “bathroom bill,” the most prominent of a new wave of policy proposals from far right think tanks aimed at making life more difficult for transgender people. When House Bill 2 first came out of Raleigh early last year, it was clear that we were seeing the next crusade for social conservatives after same-sex marriage was settled in 2015. But those who thought they had found the next great wedge issue in the culture wars should learn the lessons of Marshall’s loss. This election was just one more failure in an awful year for proponents of such policies.
Those who remember the political climate of the early 2000s know just how effective gay marriage once was as a wedge issue. While it wasn’t quite contentious enough to bring single-issue voters into the Republican fold, as abortion and gun control have been, marriage equality was not a popular idea; in the wake of Massachusetts becoming the first state to recognize same-sex relationships, it had only around 30% support nationally.
Change took time: The 2004 presidential election placed the issue front and center, and at the time most Democratic figures saw it as far too toxic to publicly support. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said they did not support same-sex marriage during the 2008 Democratic primaries, and it wasn’t until 2012 that President Obama, campaigning for reelection, announced his change of heart (Clinton’s came a year later).
Today it is a different story for transgender issues: North Carolina’s HB2 was divisive from the beginning, and the threat of economic backlash was enough to drive outright opposition even in some conservative-leaning states. Though 16 states have considered legislation that would restrict transgender use of public facilities this year — and at least 23 states considered similar “bathroom bills” from 2013 to 2016 — North Carolina remains the only state to have enacted this kind of legislation. For today’s fractured GOP, issues like this are ready-made to stress the existing fault lines between its business wing and its moral wing: the Chamber of Commerce versus evangelical churches.
States are often considered “laboratories of innovation” in the US system, testbeds for new policies. Good ones succeed, spread, and eventually go national — and bad ones fail and die. Marriage equality is an example of this: It began in Massachusetts and a handful of other states, people saw that it wasn’t the end of the world, and a few more states took the plunge. Eventually so many had recognized same-sex unions that it was inevitable we’d see something like the Supreme Court decision rendered in Obergefell v. Hodges.
North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” is an example of a failed experiment: It had serious economic repercussions for the state and contributed to the defeat of a Republican incumbent governor in an election year when the Republican presidential candidate won the state. Conservatives searching for a wedge issue have learned this isn’t it.
But Danica Roem’s win is more than just a repudiation of the specific policies that bathroom bills attempt to push. It’s also a rebuttal to a much more deeply rooted societal problem transgender people face. Bob Marshall and his campaign refused to take Roem seriously — in their minds, why would you? It wasn’t until very recently that popular culture saw trans people as much more than a cheap punchline. Far too many people still do.
Marshall’s mistake was assuming the rest of the electorate would view Roem the same way he did. At its most basic level, this contest was one between an overconfident career politician and a strong new challenger with clear policy goals that were easy to get behind. Fix the roads! But the incumbent wrote his opponent off — even refusing to debate her — and assumed he could coast to an easy 14th term, despite the national political winds blowing against him. Who really fell into the trap of identity politics here?
Roem ran a strong campaign focused on local issues, putting traffic and infrastructure front and center. She took the race seriously and in turn was taken seriously — despite those, both progressive and conservative, who believe that a trans woman is unelectable.
This was not the anti-trans death knell in the United States, with 2017 now being the deadliest year on record for attacks against trans individuals. But in Virginia’s 13th District, a likable woman with clear goals was able to oust a career politician who had worn out his welcome, despite his opponent being openly and unabashedly transgender.
When I first came out as trans nine years ago, I never thought we would come this far this fast. This won’t be the last time that people like us will have to overcome the scorn of the Bob Marshalls of the world, but it’s more than a start. Go get ’em, Danica.
Elizabeth Petray is a trans researcher and advocate for the LGBT community in Northwest Arkansas.