News & Politics

Danica Roem on How Heavy Metal Prepped Her for Politics

The Virginia lawmaker discusses her candid new memoir.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Danica Roem spent years working as a reporter for Northern Virginia newspapers while moonlighting as the singer in a local heavy-metal band. But in 2017, her life took a big swerve when she decided to run for the Virginia state legislature—and ended up defeating Republican Bob Marshall, who’d held the seat for 25 years. Marshall described himself as “Virginia’s chief homophobe”; after knocking him out of office, Roem became the state’s first openly transgender legislator.

Roem’s new autobiography, Burn the Page, details the sudden national fame she experienced after that victory, as well as the years of economic struggle she endured prior to it. She also writes frankly about her father’s grisly suicide, her Catholic-school education, and how she finally began to grapple with her gender dysphoria.

Roem, who last fall was elected to a third term, could have sought further national headlines once she got into office, but instead she chose to concentrate on issues such as school-lunch debt and her long-running effort to improve Route 28 in Prince William County. We met up near that still-crummy highway at one of her favorite haunts, Manassas’s Yorkshire Restaurant, where she worked the room like the deft politician she has become.

The amount of detail in your book suggests you have a very good memory for somebody who—as opposition researchers claimed during one campaign—once did a keg stand at a party where people were shouting “Suck it!” and then threw the keg through a window.

I did not actually throw the keg out the window. That was an embellishment from my friend trying to get people to laugh on Facebook. Mission accomplished: It was funny.

Okay, but you do have an impressive facility with details, even when you’re talking about some pretty drunken behavior.

I don’t hide anything in this book about drinking my way through my twenties [and] partying. Partly, I was also using alcohol as a security blanket because I was so insecure about coming out. It’s not like I’ve got regrets about fronting my band and having a good time. The regret is the fear I had for so long that I was going to disappoint my mom, that my friends would get weirded out by me, that I would be rejected and shunned. A lot of society wasn’t there yet.

The whole premise of the book is about the importance of owning your narrative. When I was in Catholic school, there was a quote from St. Francis de Sales on the wall: “Be who you are, and be that well.” What I’ve added to that is “Be who you are, and be that well—and thrive because of who you are, not despite it, and not for what other people tell you you’re supposed to do.”

The generational differences are fascinating, right? My 14-year-old son told me he knows five trans people.

So different. When I was a kid, I knew one out gay person—period—the entire time I was in school. From preschool through high school. I wrote about some of it in the book: the blatant homophobia I got for the perception of being gay and the reality of being trans. It sucked. It was not fun. I hated going to high school.

You write about how the logical choice was to not stand out. But that changed.

Yep. What was in my mind in high school was don’t stand out for being a queer kid—stand out for being a metalhead.

An acceptable weirdo.

Right. But even that acceptable weirdo, the day I wore my Black Sabbath shirt on a dress-down day, I was asked four times some version of “Are you Satanic?” And quite frankly, getting that question was kind of fun.

You went on to front the metal band Cab Ride Home. How did you apply those skills to politics?

Heavy metal has to be authentic in order to work. I was never a good vocalist by any means, but I know how to put on the show. There’s a lot of things that contribute to a good show, right? Part of that is also that you’re out hustling, promoting your band. I ran my first campaign just by applying a heavy-metal frontwoman’s mentality to a campaign. And the heavy-metal mentality is make friends really quick. It’s no different in politics. Except maybe politics doesn’t smell quite as bad.

There’s also a connection between that work ethic and legislating.

Oh, for sure. Heavy metal’s a lot about who you know. It’s all about relationships. If you have relationships when you’re in office, you’re more likely to get your bills passed.

And you have gotten a lot of bills passed, even after the House of Delegates flipped to GOP control this year.

We passed nine of my bills this year, as a member of the minority party. That gets me up to 32 in my two and a half terms in office. I was on the “kill list” my first year. [Roem explains in the book that Republicans hoped to flip her seat back to the GOP and wouldn’t consider any of her legislation during her first term.] I negotiated my way off the kill list my second year by visiting members in their districts. Sometimes it behooves you to put politics aside and just focus on the merits of legislation, on what’s good public policy. If you do that, you might have some legislative success.

You were elected as part of a wave that was supposed to mark Virginia turning irrevocably blue. What do you make of the GOP’s gains last November?

The first thing to understand is something I learned when I was a reporter a long time ago: Politics is a pendulum in Virginia. Other states might fluctuate, but they’ll stay relatively blue or relatively red. Virginia will never have a 20-year majority in the House of Delegates again.

There’s a mindset that a lot of Republicans have, a lot of Democrats have, which is that every election is a base election. There’s not really a lot of ticket-splitters. So why is it that I won two precincts that the top of the ticket lost? When I have been asked before, “What type of Democrat are you?”—I’m a constituent-service Democrat. That can be progressive, that can be moderate, whatever, but a constituent-service Democrat delivers results and gets shit done for the people that person is elected to serve.

That has kind of been your secret sauce. You famously talked about fixing Route 28 when you got national media attention.

It’s not a secret sauce. It’s tangible. Everyone who lives here knows Route 28 sucks. And I’m actually doing something to fix it.

Still, the GOP has leaned into culture-war topics here. Could we see anything like the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida?

Not as long as we have a Democratic state Senate. Republicans in the House and Republicans in the Senate had bills specifically targeting trans kids this year. And the Democrats in the Senate killed it. The only thing keeping Virginia from doing the same things as Texas and Florida is divided government. That’s the only thing that’s keeping this governor, this House of Delegates in check right now. And you know what made almost no headlines? The Republicans’ plan for gutting $507 million over two years from our transportation system.

Are you talking about the plan to end the grocery tax without replacing its revenue?

That’s one of them. The other one was the gas-tax repeal. My constituents want the price of gas to go down by about $2 right now. A five-cent deferral on gas tax ain’t gonna mean shit in terms of saving them money, but it will very much result in put-off maintenance and delayed projects. I am all about getting rid of regressive taxes. That’s fine. But what are you going to replace that revenue stream with? What politician runs for office in Northern Virginia on a slogan of “Vote for me to defund transportation”? You do that, you come in third place.

I suspect that for Republicans, legislation that hurts Northern Virginia is a feature, not a bug.

Yeah, they’re mad at Northern Virginia. Even though the governor is from Northern Virginia.

Salaries for Virginia legislators are quite low—less than $18,000 per year. Is this your full-time job?

In 2018 and 2019, I did public speaking, so that was my other revenue. Then the pandemic happened. Right before the pandemic, I landed the book deal. That allowed me to get out of a huge amount of credit-card debt and be on a bit more solid financial footing so I could upgrade [from a 1998 Honda] to my $5,550 2004 Nissan Sentra.

Do you have any plans to run for other political positions?

I’m committed to staying in the state legislature. There are two chambers of the state legislature, so check with me about that in the spring. The state legislature is where I can do the most good.

Could you see yourself seeking a statewide role later on?

Definitely not Congress, for damn sure. I don’t have the prerequisite self-loathe to be able to do that. Who the hell looks at the United States House of Representatives and goes, “Now, there’s a place with good work/life balance and a positive workplace environment”? Lieutenant governor—you can’t introduce any bills. Governor—I mean, if you want to spend a year of your life raising $60 million and have half of all the people in your state hate you and half of them feel slightly less than hateful toward you, that sounds great.

I like being a state legislator. My constituents know who I am. And I have a national platform as a local legislator. I get to be on the red carpet with Demi Lovato [at the American Music Awards] talking about Route 28 and Dominion transmission lines in Gainesville and Haymarket. No one else gets to do that.

And you got to mention the Richmond metal band Municipal Waste on national TV. Are you still able to keep up with the Virginia metal scene?

I got to go to three shows last year. A couple weeks ago, I saw Obituary, Municipal Waste, Gatecreeper, and Enforced play in Richmond. A lot of legislators go out and hang out with lobbyists. That’s not my scene. Either I’m working late or I’m going to [where I stay near Richmond] or I am going home to Manassas, which I do twice during the workweek. You can also find me at GWARbar once a week.

That’s the Richmond establishment owned by a member of the legendary band GWAR, whose shows involve huge amounts of fake blood. You generally refuse to accept donations from for-profit entities, but you made an exception for GWAR.

In February 2017, we had a fundraiser at GWARbar. My campaign manager was like, “This early in the campaign, you can do it. Later in the campaign? Absolutely not.” Since I’ve been in office, I won’t take money from any for-profit corporation or trade association. And if the only one for my entire 2017 campaign was 70 bucks from GWAR? Cool.

This article appears in the May 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Correction: This article originally incorrectly reported that Roem recently saw the Canadian epic metal band Gatekeeper play in Richmond. In fact, she saw the Arizona death metal band Gatecreeper. 

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.