With the presidential primary campaigns in full swing — and the first openly LGBTQ major-party presidential candidate very much in the mix — it’s tempting to think the most momentous political fights of our lives lie ahead in 2020. But there is an enormously consequential off-year fight going on right now in Virginia, and it’s one we all need to get behind.
It’s happening in Virginia House District 13, where Danica Roem is fighting hard to hold on to her seat against a well-funded right wing challenger. Her race is one of the most competitive in the state this cycle. Danica made history and headlines in 2017 when she won her election to the Virginia House of Delegates and became the first openly transgender person to serve on any state legislature. She won by taking out an incumbent who described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.” The right wing wants revenge and will spend what it takes to get it. What happens in her race this November will reverberate across the country, with implications for the LGBTQ community and for the broader narrative about what’s happening in American politics right now.
Danica’s 2017 campaign inspired the first rainbow wave in the 2018 midterms. Meanwhile at the state level, her win was part of a broader shift in political power in which full control of the legislature hinged upon a single vote. Republican control of the Virginia legislature is hanging by a thread this year. A win by Danica is not only a key element of flipping the Virginia House and the entire state legislature from red to blue, it’s a key part of setting the stage for 2020 — just like the victories of diverse and progressive candidates in Virginia two years ago were curtain-raisers for big wins in the historic 2018 election.
By any measure Danica has earned reelection. She is a dedicated public servant with a laser focus on serving her constituents. She has campaigned on a platform to fix the region’s infrastructure. She cares about her constituents and the things that matter in their lives; she played a major role in the Virginia Medicaid expansion that provides vital coverage to hundreds of thousands of residents. But none of this insulates her from the transphobic hostility that motivates her opponent and many of that opponent’s deep-pocketed financial backers.
Danica’s opponent Kelly McGinn has a long record of anti-LGBTQ extremism. She has compared marriage equality to “morally repugnant practices” such as slavery, described LGBTQ parenthood as “absurd” and “harmful to children,” and even tried to justify her transphobia as a rationale for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment’s ratification in the state. It is all sadly reminiscent of the campaign of Danica’s 2017 opponent Bob Marshall, architect of Virginia’s shameful anti-trans bathroom bill. On the campaign trail, Marshall refused to recognize Danica’s gender identity, claiming that she “defied the laws of nature.”
Kelly McGinn is every bit the bigot that Marshall was. McGinn’s campaign website is slickly designed to appeal to voters who may not know much about her, describing her as a political moderate who is dedicated to family values. But she continues to accept financial contributions from far-right groups and donors that traffic either overtly or covertly in anti-LGBTQ hate — like the Eagle Forum, which was founded by anti-LGBTQ activist Phyllis Schlafly. Anti-LGBTQ forces in the state know exactly who McGinn is. And they are all in.
And this is why we have to stand up. Our community is intimately familiar with the damaging, real-life consequences wrought by the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda. When a candidate like McGinn emerges and espouses similar views and rhetoric, it’s paramount that we do all we can to make sure such candidates are defeated. This is especially true when defeating that candidate will send a strong message beyond a single district and a single year — as the outcome of this race, in this critical run-up to 2020, most certainly will.
Our community rose to the occasion for her historic candidacy in 2017, and in this important election year, we can’t sit this one out. The organization I lead, People For the American Way, was deeply involved in supporting Danica two years ago, and we are doing it again because Danica is far more than a symbol, she is a proven progressive leader who is making Virginia a progressive state. We’re running ads, knocking on doors, organizing national phone banks, whatever we can do to help her win in what is going to be a tight race.
This is another all-hands-on deck moment for all of us. It’s an opportunity to make history once again and to rebuke hate in our politics, to stand up for Danica Roem at a pivotal moment for our community and our country. This is one we have to win.
Michael Keegan is president for People for the American Way.