Life & Culture

Why Trans Politician Danica Roem’s Victory is so Significant

On Wednesday, Danica Roem became a Virginia’s first transgender elected official and a powerful symbol in Trump’s America, writes Michael Segalov

  • TextMichael Segalov

I’ve never been a fan of the politics of symbolism – the idea that by virtue of being from a specific background you’re somehow, by default, a force in those sections of society for good. On both sides of the Atlantic there’s a long history of people rising to prominence and power from oppressed or minority communities, more than willing to throw their peers right under the bus.

Margaret Thatcher might have been the United Kingdom’s first female Prime Minister, but her policies did little for women. In fact, in appointing just one woman to her cabinet throughout her 11 years in office, it’s been said time and time again Maggie snatched a rung on the ladder before pulling it up behind her.

Clarence Thomas might sit as the US Supreme Court’s only African-American justice, but his appointment was criticised by civil rights groups for his conservative outlook, his disagreement with affirmative action, and suspicions he might not support the right to abortion as set out in Roe v Wade. The Front Nationale is brimming with gay men in office and as party officials; Caitlyn Jenner might have come out as transgender, but she appears to still support Donald Trump.  

Ensuring people with power are from a diverse range of backgrounds is only part of the battle, their places nothing more than vapid symbolism – or worse a validation of bigotry – if structures and policies don’t also radically change.

So when on Tuesday night American voters went to the polls in the first set of statewide elections in the US since Donald Trump took office, across the world we watched on to see how the Republican Party would fare. After an endless string of prejudiced policies, voters had a chance to have their say. The protests and petitions that have swept cities from East Coast to West Coast are a sign of resistance, but in Washington a deranged Trump just doesn’t seem to care

Thankfully, the Democrats secured vital victories, like governorships in Virginia and New Jersey held previously by Republican officials. But the beauty of Tuesday’s results aren’t in the statistics, but in the individual stories that have surfaced on the ground. It’s these symbolic wins – despite our better judgements – that should make us hopeful.

In Virginia, Danica Roem became the fire transgender person to be successfully elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, at a time when the federal administration have put the rights and freedoms of trans people under attack. Her refusal to be intimidated into silence is in and of itself a cause for celebration, the fact voters then elected her to office a massive fuck you to Trump and his supporters’ politics of hate. This victory, however, gets even sweeter.

The incumbent Republican Roem won her seat from was Virginia’s self-professed “chief homophobe” Del. Robert G. Marshall – the man who this year introduced the state’s intolerant anti-trans bathroom bill. Marshall even refused to use the correct gender pronouns for his opponent. Voters refused to allow his transphobia to carry on.

Transgender people are the first on the Trump administration’s hit list, without a doubt one of the most marginalised groups in the United States today. Trans people are already disproportionately more likely to be murdered than their cis-gendered counterparts, given the toxicity and hatred permeating swathes of American society nobody would have blamed these Roem from stepping down or shying away.

When governments and leaders set out to persecute communities, they rarely achieve their long-term goals overnight. There’s a slow process of scapegoating that precedes all out warfare, to dehumanise a section of society is a necessity before you can properly attack. Danica Roem declined to have her humanity snatched from her, taking on and beating a man directly responsible for fanning the flames of hatred. It’s an indescribable display of resilience and strength.

Meanwhile Seattle elected its first lesbian mayor when the final tallies were counted on Tuesday, the mayor of Charlotte – Vi Lyles – became the first black woman to hold the position. In California, Lisa Middleton became the first transgender person to win a place on a city council, while in Minneapolis it was Andrea Jenkins who achieved the same. Ravi Bhalla became the first Sikh mayor in his state. There are plenty of other examples. 

As the United States faces over three more years of its current administration, national votes against the Republicans will be without doubt the most important in taking on Trump. A decline in Republican support could see Congress returned to Democratic hands, which will make it even harder for this President to pass legislation. Tuesday’s smattering of local results are in many ways entirely inconsequential: in electing a wave of candidates this week proud of their transgender, African-American, queer or religious identities though, communities didn’t curtail Trump’s ability to govern.

Instead voters and candidates did something even more impressive – they rejected the putrid ideology of division Trump is trying to foster. These victories aren’t a direct threat to the White House’s operation, but they undermine the very vision of society that these far-right Republicans are intent on creating. They’re a direct stab into the blackened, rotten heart of hatred. That’s exactly the sort of symbolism worth celebrating.