UPON MEETING NEW PEOPLE IN THE CITY FROM TINDER DATES TO TELETHERAPISTS — ONE OF THE FIRST QUESTIONS YOU’RE SURE TO HEAR IS, “SO WHERE ARE YOU FROM ORIGINALLY?”
When I say I grew up in West Virginia, I get polite smiles. They have a loose idea about the opioid crisis and coal mines. They’ve heard Joe Manchin is stonewalling the rest of the Democratic party in the Senate. Maybe they have a friend of a friend whose cousin went to West Virginia University.
But if they’re a progressive with a Twitter account and too much time on their hands, there’s also a chance they’re familiar with my current favorite West Virginia fixture: Rosemary Ketchum.
You might recognize her name, too. In 2020, Rosemary made national headlines after she won a city council seat in Wheeling, West Virginia. She was the first openly transgender woman ever elected to public office in the state. She appeared in TIME Magazine and People and was interviewed on CNN and MSNBC.
Honestly, I am most familiar with Rosemary as an avid TikTok user. Her account regularly appears on my account’s For You Page. “A lot of younger people who are elected to office are really leveraging and leaning on social media as a tool for democracy,” Rosemary said. “It used to be that you had to attend a city council meeting to learn what was going on or get on an email list that nobody reads.”
But Rosemary’s also on the app to have fun — and to show off the town she loves. “I realized that folks wanted to learn about [local politics]. They also just wanted to watch fun videos of somebody who’s exploring their own city and grabbing breakfast at Sarah’s on Main and redoing a house or whatever,” she said.
When Rosemary and I sat down to chat via Zoom, she was set up in her new house, a current work in progress. She said one reason she loves living in Wheeling is that, compared to a lot of places in the United States, home ownership is actually feasible there.
“I’m a first-generation homeowner,” Rosemary explained. “I thought it was this big scary thing. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m taking on a mortgage and buying a house!’”
But Rosemary was able to take advantage of a first-time home buyer’s program, which helped her qualify for good loans. She ended up putting down $4,000 to buy her Victorian-style house and is having a great (if exhausting) time DIY-ing her dream home in her spare time.
“My mortgage is like 500 bucks, and that was more than most people are paying in rent,” she quipped. (For anyone curious, I pay $900 a month for my mouse-friendly Harlem apartment.)
Of course, the age-old argument is that, sure, the cost of living is much lower in a place like West Virginia. But, who actually wants to live there? Well, Rosemary is here to make the official pitch. She didn’t move to Wheeling until she was a teenager and certainly had the same doubts about life in the Mountain State.
“I remember being young, moving to Wheeling and West Virginia broadly, knowing all of the, you know, jokes and stereotypes and biases,” she said. “All of it kind of fell away when I was introduced to the city of Wheeling because the people here are so great and so incredible. They’ve given me so much in education, the opportunity to be involved in my community, friendships, and professional development, of course.”
Rosemary is honest about the problems affecting Wheeling and many other communities in West Virginia. “At the same time, I had all these beliefs about our potential and where we aren’t yet, like all the things we should be doing to make our city better, which included working on our public transportation system and addressing homelessness in our community, which is an enormous problem.”
Population retention is also a major concern for her. “You know, we lost more people in West Virginia than any other state in the 2020 census,” Rosemary said. “It’s found that we had the sharpest population decline in the nation, which means more people left our state than any other state. And I don’t want that to be true, at least for Wheeling. I don’t want that to be true.”
Rosemary is using her social media savvy to provide the state with some much-needed PR. “I realized that if I had a platform where people were following me that I had an opportunity, and maybe even an obligation, to continue counterbalancing all of the terrible things people believe about West Virginia,” Rosemary said. “Not lying, not refusing to acknowledge all of the terrible things that are true about our state and our politics, but just providing a little bit of balance there.”
YOU REALLY DO GET THE SENSE THAT SHE LOVES HER SMALL TOWN and everything it offers. The former state capital is tucked in the northern panhandle, with a close-knit network of small businesses and community. Rosemary is regularly spotted out on town, whether shopping for antiques at Sib’s right off National Road or sipping an Earl Gray Martini downtown at Later Alligator.
You see the same love in the passion she exudes when talking about her decision to run for office back in 2020. “I did a lot of work in advocacy, and I volunteered on campaigns before I ran,” Rosemary said. “I really sat down, and I said, ‘Where are my efforts best placed?’ I knew if I wanted to really actualize these things that I care so much about, I should probably run for office.”
Rosemary rustled up a group of good friends to help her in her year-long campaign for city council — unusually long for a local election. But she wanted to hit the ground running. “We knew that we had a really low chance of winning,” she said. “I’m not part of the old boys’ club. I didn’t grow up in Wheeling. Nobody babysat me when I was a kid.”
But after knocking on doors and cold-calling voters, Rosemary did win — by 15 votes. Since then, she has been plunged into the day-to-day life of a city council member. It’s a job that she quickly realized a lot of her constituents find esoteric.
“Government isn’t meant to be understood easily, which is, I think, anti-democratic,” she said. “I do think that folks assume we have more power or more broad control and influence than we sometimes do.”
Sometimes, it gets frustrating. Like when voters complain about roads that need to be paved in downtown Wheeling, for example. “A lot of people just assume the city has decided not to fix them, or it has just not made them a priority when in reality [they] are under the jurisdiction of the state. And so we can’t touch them, really,” Rosemary said. “But if you don’t know, you look at the City Council and say, ‘What the hell are you guys doing? This city looks like crap!’”
But there’s also something gratifying about governing in her local community. On the national level, Rosemary explained, it often feels like politicians are more myth than man. “People apply all of these misconceptions and conspiracies to politics and politicians. It can feel so intangible,” she said. “Being able to kind of inject humanity into politics as often as possible has been a personal effort of mine. People who run your local government are your literal neighbors. We’re just a team of folks who care a lot. We’re not perfect, but we want to get it right.”
Despite the red tape she’s liable to encounter, Rosemary told me she really feels proud of what she’s been able to accomplish in the last two years. She serves as the City Council’s representative for the commission to preserve Wheeling’s Centre Market, one of the oldest market houses in the country that still functions as a center of local commerce and culture.
She was also instrumental in passing an upper-floor development program, which sounds unglamorous, but essentially helps property owners implement necessary (and costly) updates to make vacant building spaces in Wheeling liveable. She also recently helped establish a Youth City Council to give young people in Wheeling more of a voice in local government.
In 2020, the City Council declared racism a public health crisis making it the first city in West Virginia to do so. While it might seem a symbolic gesture, Rosemary said it helped set a precedent in Wheeling for paying attention to how systemic inequalities impact minority communities, especially when it came to making COVID-19 testing and vaccination accessible during the pandemic. Rosemary and the rest of the Wheeling City Council also voted unanimously to pass the Crown Act, a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination.
But while she’s in the midst of all the on-the-ground, routine work of local government, Rosemary has to contend with life as a public figure. Her election in 2020 brought her a level of admiration and scrutiny unusual for someone in local government. But the thing she is lauded for — being the first trans woman elected in West Virginia — wasn’t something she was necessarily hoping to be the headline.
“It became a conversation about my gender identity,” she said. “It wasn’t something I ran on. It was something I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed to talk about, but it absorbed a lot of oxygen.” While it’s nice to be celebrated, Rosemary said all of the national coverage had consequences, too. “[Some of my constituents] saw these national interviews, and they said, ‘There it is. Rosemary doesn’t care about Wheeling. She only wanted this kind of attention. She only wanted to make history.’”
Make history she did. And at a time in West Virginia’s history when animosity and mistrust toward the trans community are growing. This year, the state legislature passed a bill that would ban physicians from providing gender-affirming surgery to minors. Another (now halted) bill defined “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display” as obscene, potentially outlawing transgender people’s presence around children, as well as limiting drag performances.
While these bills concern her, she insisted they don’t paint the full picture of West Virginia residents’ attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community. “It can be tough to stay positive. I wish I could say that those people don’t represent us, but they quite literally were elected to represent us,” she explained. “But we have a lot of really wonderful people in West Virginia on the ground doing great work. What I find most fascinating about West Virginia is that it is like a tale of two worlds.”
Wheeling isn’t going to feel as progressive as somewhere like New York or San Francisco, Rosemary admitted.
But that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying. “You know, people misgender. People say the wrong thing. People will use outdated language that’s offensive, and it doesn’t mean they’re bad people,” she said. “It’s about looking a little bit deeper and giving a little more grace to the people who live in your community. Folks will learn when they’re ready to learn. And by just existing in their space, you’re already doing more work than a PowerPoint would.”
If you’re in a coastal city — where progressives tend to congregate — it’s easier to avoid politically incorrect moments. But living in a red state is just a different reality. “I think being a West Virginia progressive requires you to make compromises,” Rosemary explained. “I can’t fight every battle. I have to pick and choose and just be a really good person. And West Virginians recognize that, I think.”
According to Rosemary, there is still a lot to be hopeful about. What most inspires me is local politics,” she said. “We have a progressive city council. There are one or two that aren’t always the most forward-thinking or aren’t always gonna vote in the way I think is best. But it’s never stopped us from actually getting really good progressive work done.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR ROSEMARY KETCHUM?
Well, she won’t say anything for sure. But she’s certainly considering another city council race — and eyeing the mayor’s seat that will be up for grabs come next election. Or maybe she will move onto state-wide advocacy, whether in elected office or through grassroots organizing on the ground. Either way, Rosemary promises to stay busy.
So the next time you’re traveling through Wheeling, don’t hesitate to knock on Rosemary’s office door. When she says she’d love to meet you, she’s being genuine. Or just hit her up for the best local spots to shop and dine. (She’s been loving browsing at Good Mansion Wines and grabbing margaritas with her friends at Taqueria 304 on Market Street.) Plus… she’s been totally rocking a Princess Diana-esque haircut you need to see.
As someone who moved away from West Virginia in pursuit of the fast-paced, metropolitan life, I didn’t think I’d ever feel so nostalgic for my hometown. But through Rosemary’s eyes, Wheeling doesn’t look sleepy. It looks like fresh ground — a place to keep building something good. And as we’ve seen, Rosemary isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and crack open her toolbox.