USA First Look

With public letter, Texan becomes first openly transgender mayor in the state

Mayor Jess Herbst's decision comes weeks after a so-called bathroom bill was introduced in the Texas legislature.

On Tuesday, the mayor of a small Texas town became one of the state’s first openly transgender public officials.

Jess Herbst, formerly known as Jeff, has served in the local government of New Hope, a small town near McKinney, since 2003; she become mayor in May of 2016 when her predecessor passed away, and fellow council members unanimously appointed her to the role.

"As your Mayor I must tell you about something that has been with me since my earliest memories," Ms. Herbst wrote last month in an open letter posted on New Hope's website. "I am Transgender."

Herbst's wife of 36 years and other close friends and family have known about her identity for years, the mayor explained, and two years ago she began hormone replacement therapy. "At the time, I did not imagine I would hold the Mayor's position, but here I am," she said.

Herbst told the Washington Post that she has been “overwhelmed by support” since breaking the news.

“We applaud Mayor Herbst’s decision to serve her community openly in public office and take a stand against hateful rhetoric coming from some of our legislators,” Terri Burke, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, told The New York Times.

In January, Senate Bill 6 was introduced in the Texas Legislature. Like North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which made national headlines last year, S.B. 6 would require Texans to use whichever public restroom corresponds to the gender listed on their birth certificate, whether or not it is the one they identify with.

"For deep red Texas, which passed one of the most aggressive antiabortion laws in the nation (later struck down by the United States Supreme Court), transgender rights might seem a logical next target," The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson wrote last month. "November's elections have given conservatives nationwide momentum to push their agenda further."

But Texas' business ties to the rest of the country could test that, Mr. Jonsson noted, if S.B. 6 faces similar pushback to the measure in North Carolina. 

Backers see it as a necessary safety measure. "Privacy and safety is our first priority, not political correctness," said Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who is leading the push to pass the bill, in early January.

Several investigations into transgender bathroom use, however, have failed to find a single confirmed case of assault or sexual crime in the United States in which a transgender person was the perpetrator. 

But "as federal, state, and local governments across the United States debate who should regulate sex-segregated restrooms, spawning controversies over alleged violations of transgender rights, most Americans don't really know the people whose rights are being debated," as the Monitor's Steven Porter reported in September:

Less than a third of Americans polled in a Pew Research Center study released Wednesday say they personally know someone who is transgender. And those without transgender people in their lives were more likely to support requiring everyone to use only those public restrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth.

Among the 30 percent of respondents who reported knowing transgender people, a significant majority (60 percent) favored letting people choose for themselves what public restrooms to use based on their gender identities. Among the 68 percent who reported not knowing transgender people, less than half (47 percent) favored this self-selecting approach. Another 2 percent of respondents declined to answer.

In New Hope, Herbst “will continue as Mayor and hope to do the very best for the town,” as she wrote to residents. But her visibility as a transgender official may extend beyond the town. She plans to meet with other public officials who have told her they are also transgender, as she told the Dallas Morning News on Wednesday.

"There are way more of us than most people understand," Herbst said. "The more people are honest, the easier it's going to become for the rest of us to come out and be public about who we really are."

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