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Danica Roem's new book shares her journey from 'closet-case trans girl' to legislator

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Danica Roem became the first openly transgender state legislator in the country when she was sworn in as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates back in 2018 - and she defeated a Republican who had served for a quarter of a century. In her new book, "Burn The Page," Roem explores the experiences that got her to that moment as well as the music that moved her along the way. NPR's Juana Summers spoke with Roem about her new memoir.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Yes, Danica Roem made history when she was elected to represent voters in suburban Northern Virginia. But take a listen to how she describes herself.

DANICA ROEM: You know, you don't get too many transgender metalhead reporter yogini stepmom vegetarians running for office.

SUMMERS: That's right. She is an openly transgender woman and former journalist who has also fronted a metal band. And Roem was reelected in November to a third term. She said she feels like her story is relatable.

ROEM: I like to think that, for all the, you know, eccentricities, you know, I have and even the, you know, just different worlds of identities, I think one thing that's very common on this is that, you know, like, I do know what it means to have to work. I do know what it means to have to make ends meet and to struggle financially.

SUMMERS: In her memoir, she addresses head-on the types of stories that most politicians would seek to bury as deep as possible. And so I asked Danica Roem, why put yourself out there like this?

ROEM: 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. And this - the whole point of this is about being yourself at your most authentic sense. And in trans world, one of the things we kind of talk about is your authentic sense of self. And I think this applies regardless of whether you're cis, trans or whoever you are, that if you are able to reflect on the very core of your identity and the very core of your being, why would you want someone else to tell that story for you?

SUMMERS: Your book is sprinkled with some quotes from opposition research you commissioned on yourself. I want to read one example.

(Reading) 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. Seriously.

ROEM: So that last part was an embellishment. Did I do the first two things on that? Yes. But I do not have the upper body strength to be able to perform that last stunt. Therefore, the whole thing - the reason I wanted to include that in the book is that when other people even write, just in that case, as a 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. And so one of the things I really wanted to do was kind of own the entire concept of, like, hey, 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, and which is so much of this book.

SUMMERS: You wrote really openly about your childhood growing up in Virginia and the struggle that you describe to fit in. One thing that stuck out to me when I was reading it is that you described how - and I'm quoting how you described yourself - that as a closet case trans girl, that experience taught you how to be resilient.

ROEM: 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, you know, 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.

And when I think in the modern context about what these kids are going through today, where their very - the very state legislators and governors who are 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 day? 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?

SUMMERS: 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 a little about the importance of that visibility of being seen.

ROEM: So the way I like to phrase it is being vulnerable enough to be visible. And 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, and they would, you know, just like - I got handwritten letters in the mail.

One of them was from a kid in Hampton Roads who said, you're the first person I'm ever telling this to, but I'm trans, and I'm scared, but I thought that you would understand. And I thought, you know, 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.

SUMMERS: I cannot have this conversation with you without talking about the throughline that music and 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 hit up all of these shows and all of these venues night after night?

ROEM: Well, you know, I always tell people that when you are into metal, metal isn't just a sound, and it's not just music. It's a lifestyle. It's, you know, the way you dress, the way you talk to your friends, the way you're interacting with other people. The reason that this is - it was all so important for me was I was looking for a sense of community. And, you know, I also knew what it's like to be singled out. And so, you know, when you're a teenager and you're trying to, you know, figure out your identity and trying to figure out how you fit into the world, you know, one thing that very much resonated with me for metal was that kind of audio rebellion that is very much inherent to it. It's very antiauthoritarian. It's very intense musically.

SUMMERS: Danica, you are a stepmom, a yogi, a metalhead, a delegate. What is next on the horizon for you? I know you were just recently reelected. Any plans of running for other offices?

ROEM: Well, so not Congress and not statewide, but check in with me May 9. I'll have another announcement about my next political move then.

SUMMERS: Danica Roem is a Virginia state legislator and the author of the new book "Burn The Page." It's out now.

Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.