Power Players

'I've been so unapologetic, people had no choice but to work with me': first transgender elected official in WV

Rosemary Ketchum
Source: Rosemary Ketchum

"It's been a whirlwind, to say the least," says Rosemary Ketchum.

Ketchum, 26, became the first openly transgender elected official in West Virginia when she won a city council seat in Wheeling on June 9. She is now one of 27 out trans elected officials in America, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. 

Ketchum's win may seem an unlikely victory — many West Virginians identify as conservative, and President Donald Trump, who recently eliminated certain healthcare protections for transgender people, had an approval rating of 61% as of February, according to the Morning Consult

But Wheeling, a small but "mighty" town whose economy has suffered due to manufacturing shutdowns over the years, is becoming a "more progressive place," according to Ketchum.

Still, if Ketchum's win broke barriers, it was, like her other successes, thanks to her ability to be comfortable in her own skin and to be "unapologetic" about who she is, she says. 

"My confidence stems from my unwavering sense of right and wrong," Ketchum says. "And although that doesn't mean I always get it right, I cannot imagine being anything but unapologetic about my beliefs regarding equity, compassion and justice."

"I've been so unapologetic about it. People had no choice but to work with me and live with it," she says.

'I don't have a coming out story'

Ketchum never planned to be a politician, but the confidence and sense of justice she learned growing up trans certainly prepared her for it. 

Ketchum was raised in East Liverpool, a smallish, blue collar town in rural Ohio, by her mom Diane, a sometimes waitress and bartender, and her dad Brian, who worked in a local china factory. 

From a very young age, Ketchum knew she was different. 

"I was a very adamant child," Ketchum says — while her two younger brothers were "stereotypically masculine," she wore dresses created by belting her dad's big shirts and played with dolls. 

Rosemary Ketchum as a young child in her home in East Liverpool, Ohio.
Credit: Rosemary Ketchum

"I don't have a coming out story in the same way so many other people do," Ketchum says. "My parents and my family and my extended family knew that I was very different very early on. So I never had to, like, 'break the news' that I'm a transgender."

Ketchum just didn't relate to boys the way she did to girls. With girls, "we liked the same things. It wasn't complicated," she says. 

Ketchum's family defended her against bullies who said she should play football and learn "what it's like to be a boy," and allowed her to be herself. But without a frame of reference, they believed she was gay.

Back then, NBC show "Will & Grace" (which did not have a trans character) was one of the only points of reference her family had. Ketchum says her mom "just hoped" she would be more of a "Will" than a "Jack." (On the show, main character Will struggled to come out as gay while his neighbor Jack was outspoken about it.) 

It wasn't until Ketchum went to therapy at 13 that they learned the term "transgender."

"When our therapist provided that language, it was kind of a light bulb. We were like, 'Oh, my god, that is exactly what this is.'"

'That's not the kind of life I want'

Knowing she was transgender was "liberating," Ketchum says, but she still didn't have many trans people to look up to. So Ketchum did what made her feel good, like wearing high heels she bought at the thrift store, then wearing nail polish and later maybe a skirt.

"All very innocent and simple forms of expression," she says.

Simple and innocent, but not always well received.

When Ketchum was about 20, she went to the West Virginia DMV, where her family had relocated from Ohio. The person working behind the counter refused to give her a license unless she washed her face of the eyeliner she was wearing and put up her long hair, because Ketchum's birth certificate said she was a male.

Ketchum opted to leave empty handed.

"That was incredibly emotional and vulnerable," she says. (Ketchum says she went without a license for quite some time until a friend told her she could fill out a form, signed by a doctor, to change her gender identity.)

While attending Wheeling Jesuit University, Ketchum had a professor who refused to call her Rosemary and instead only used her last name.

"I just didn't anticipate that. I don't think I had the self-efficacy then to really stand up for myself. I just thought, 'He's the boss.'"

In the news, the only images of trans people were traumatic — often reports of sex workers who had been killed.

"I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, I know that's not the kind of life that I want to lead,'" she says. 

As is often the case with someone who has been marginalized, Ketchum felt she had to be the "smartest person in the room" in order to have something to offer. So she read every self-improvement book and inspirational author she could find. (Her favorites include everyone from John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou and William Faulkner to Brene Brown's work on vulnerability.)

With help from books and over time, her self-esteem grew. Eventually Ketchum realized she could live a normal life with a normal job just like anyone else. 

Even more than that, Ketchum used the discrimination she faced to move her to action. The experience with the DMV, for instance, inspired her to join Project ID, which helps those in poverty and who are homeless get ID documents. 

'Let's try to replace them'

While in college, Ketchum became a member of the school's board of governors, where she was able to vote on program budgets. It was her first toe in the water with politics.

"[I]n retrospect, I think that it was probably a point ... that I thought, 'I really want to be in the room where it happens,'" she says.

She also started working at the local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) center in Wheeling, where today she is associate director, fighting things like homelessness, poverty and opioid addiction, which disproportionately affect people with mental illness. 

"It's the job that I've always wanted. To really be an advocate for self-esteem and self-confidence building and empowerment," she says.

As an advocate, Ketchum says she grew frustrated with elected officials who stalled on passing things like the Fairness Act (to ensure that no LGBTQ person is fired, evicted or denied public services in West Virginia on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity). 

She says it was tough to convince some officials that "we were on the right side of history" and that the issues she cared about were worth their time.

"I thought to myself, 'There has to be an easier way here.'" Then Ketchum remembered one of her favorites quotes from Stephen Smith, a former candidate for governor in West Virginia: "He said, 'Instead of trying to get them to listen to us, let's try to replace them.'" 

But Ketchum wanted to run a race she could win. "I didn't want to run on a symbolic measure. I thought I really could make a difference," she says. So Ketchum decided to start locally, running to replace an outgoing Wheeling City Council representative for Ward 3

"It was a little nerve-wracking," she says, but Ketchum went for it. 

Ketchum didn't let the "few pieces of hate mail" she received stop her, and thanks to her reputation as a community leader, her campaign was "really unmarred by any discrimination," she says.

Ketchum spent weeks going door-to-door to meet voters, and on election day, won a city council seat with 39.3% of the vote. She beat out Peggy Niebergall who go 37.2% of the vote, as well as two other candidates, according to WTRF-TV

"People who live here still tell me how shocked they are that the city was progressive enough to vote for me. And that's the part that is a little inspiring," Ketchum says.

While Ketchum's win makes her the first out trans lawmaker in the state, she says she didn't run to make history, just to make a difference. 

Ketchum also encourages other openly trans people to run for office: The process "is a lot easier than you think," she told Time, and you simply need to "just do it."

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC and CNBC.

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