Small town mayor offers different window on Texas transgender debate

The first transgender mayor in Texas believes her experience shows the state to be more socially accepting than popularly understood – or than the current debate over Senate Bill 6 might lead outsiders to believe.

Courtesy of Jess Herbst
New Hope Mayor Jess Herbst (center) waits to testify about Senate Bill 6, which would require people to use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate, at the Texas Statehouse in March.

Small town mayor Jess Herbst wasn’t sure whether to expect pitchforks and torches when the next council meeting rolled around.

The packed meeting – 15 to 20 people – was the first since news of her transition from Jeff to Jess Herbst, pitching a reluctant New Hope, Texas, front and center in the zeitgeist surrounding the transgender rights movement.

A little over a month ago, Ms. Herbst shocked the town of about 700 when she revealed in a note to the town that she was transitioning from male to female.

It brought instant international attention to a corner of rural Texas, 40 miles north of Dallas in conservative Collin County. Herbst is, according to the Texas Observer, the first transgender elected official in Lone Star state history.

Yet resistance to her revelation, Herbst finds, has been scant among her constituents. “In person, I’ve really not experienced any direct confrontation. Nobody has expressed negativity toward transgenderism,” she said in a phone interview. “The worst I’ve had – and it always comes from men – would be, ‘Well I don’t understand that myself but whatever you want to do.’ ”

In the Statehouse, that atmosphere is notably different this week, with legislators debating Senate Bill 6, which would require transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate. The controversial bill is opposed by all but one of the Legislature’s Democrats, as well as the state’s business community, which says Texas could lose between $1 billion and $8 billion to boycotts.

But Herbst believes her experience exposes a paradox of Texas as a place more socially accepting than popularly understood – or than the current debate in Austin might lead outsiders to believe.

For instance, the nearby city of Plano, she points out, updated its antidiscrimination ordinance two years ago to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, two-thirds of the state’s residents say they would support an anti-discrimination law protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) people. Twenty US states protect residents against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Texas is not among them.

But even in nearby McKinney, which does not have antidiscrimination protections, Herbst says she has not faced any problems.

“Collin County voted strongly Republican, yet I’ve lived here since 1999 and when I first started coming out, it was McKinney [where] I first went shopping, when I first went to the grocery store, when I first went to restaurants, and I have never, never had a single person say anything to me,” she says.

Herbst, who has been active in local government since 2003, began appearing in public as female three years ago. Two years ago, she began hormone replacement therapy with the support of her wife and children.

Since her announcement, the mayor says she has found understanding in intriguing places, such as during a meeting with Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner.

“The first thing he tells me is, ‘You know, I just want you to know I think you’re very brave,’ ” Herbst explains. “‘How are things going with you and the city? Is everything OK? How is everybody dealing with it?’ ”

The sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

New Hope is tiny, but the mayoral role is involved. There are planning and zoning issues, as well as municipal court to sort out. She recently spent time at city hall with an alderman straightening out records. “From the minute we walk in and start talking to the minute I leave, the fact I’m transgender never enters into anything,” Herbst says. “It never enters into the conversation. It never enters into the way they treat me. Some of these people I’ve known 20 years.”

Judging on job performance

However, one commissioner says her relationship with Herbst was strained, at least in the beginning. Christy Reynolds, an alternate commissioner, initially felt betrayed by Herbst. She believes the mayor should have disclosed the fact she was transgender to voters prior to last year’s election, due to the life-changing nature of it. Although not elected as mayor, Herbst successfully ran as a town alderman and took over the mayoral role last May after the previous mayor died.

“Myself personally, as a constituent, I was upset just because of the deception,” says Reynolds. “I kind of felt lied to.”

As a Christian, Reynolds says she struggles to understand transgender issues, but looks past her beliefs to focus on the job Herbst is doing.

“I’m trying to gauge based on the job he is doing for the town and whether or not his personal situation is affecting that or not,” she says. “We have a lot of things going on in the town that we’re working on – re-zoning and things like that – and so far he’s had some really good ideas and some good input. So I’m very happy. I think that my initial concerns were unfounded.”

(In her statement, Herbst said that she is “not especially sensitive to the pronoun I’m called, and I expect people to take time to make the change.”)

The local Evangelical community has been noticeably mute on Herbst’s change – at least publicly. The town has two churches, neither of which responded to requests for comment.

'OK, it's Ms. Mayor.'

Luke Martincevic, chairman of the town’s planning and zoning committee, thinks that is illustrative of a greater truth than any stereotypes Texas might attract.

As far as he could tell, after the initial shock, local people quickly refocused on the quality of Herbst’s job performance.

“Quite frankly, people are too wrapped up in what applies to them to worry about those right-wing extremist notions,” Mr. Martincevic says. “Nobody is out singing in the streets – I don’t see picket lines, I don’t see people with pitchforks. I see people coming into the council meeting and going, ‘Ms. Mayor.’ And I go, ‘OK, it’s Ms. Mayor.’ And they talk to the mayor.”

Martincevic sees a lesson in how the events of the last month have played out: “You can’t trust people to trust their own preconceived notions. Because they come in with a preconceived notion. Everybody does. I do it. And you go, ‘Really, what was I thinking? I let this get in the way of what really matters.’ ”

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