An Interview With The First Transgender Mayor In Texas History
Last week the tiny Texas town of New Hope, a suburb of McKinney in the Dallas Fort Worth area, made international news when their mayor, Jess Herbst, announced in an open letter to residents she is transgender and has been undergoing hormone therapy for the last two years.
Mayor Herbst has been a public servant in New Hope for thirteen years and has served as an alderman, road commissioner, and mayor pro tem before being appointed mayor last May.
The mayor of a town with slightly more than 600 people has now been featured in the Dallas Morning News, New York Times, and numerous other news outlets.
Herbst’s revelation is a bright spot in what has been a difficult year for transgender people in north Texas.
In November, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced that passing Senate Bill 6, a bill that blocks transgender people from using the restroom of their choice, would be one of his highest priorities for the current state legislative session.
Last summer, the Dallas suburb of Rockwall unsuccessfully tried to pass a similar “bathroom bill” endorsed by the city’s mayor, Jim Pruitt.
The New Hope mayor’s open letter has garnered support from not only the worldwide LGBT community, but also members of her town council.
Read the transcript of my Tuesday, February 7 interview with Herbst below. It is lightly edited for clarity.
Mayor Herbst: I started the transition about two years ago. At the time I was an alderman. I really did not think I would continue on the City Council, I had been on the City Council since 2003. I kind of felt like once the hormones got to the point where it was very obvious I was changing. I would simply resign my position. Kind of fall off and live my life, I would come out, but not have the talk of the town. I would just be that person over there. Then last year the mayor died before he could take a position. He was re-elected to his seat, I was re-elected to mine. So, we were stuck without a mayor. I was the mayor pro-tem and the longest running alderman, so I was appointed unanimously as the mayor. I realized at that point I am either going to have to not accept the position of Mayor or I am going to have to tell everyone because I cannot be the head of this town and them not know I am transgender. Particularly when things were starting to change already. So I decided the only option I had other than resign was to come up with a plan to come out publicly to everyone.
MR: Do you think American and North Texas society are more accepting to transgender people than they were when you were younger?
Mayor Herbst: Absolutely, absolutely. The difference in American society today and ten years ago is phenomenal. Ten years ago the word transgender was not particularly well-known. I had to do research to find it. When I was a child a word did not exist [for transgender]. Now, when I come out to people, I can just look at them and say “Okay, I need to tell you I am transgender.” That is far as I have to go. I do not have to explain what transgender is, people know. So, yeah, it is a lot better. We finally have some positive transgender influences in the media. Besides the bigger names like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, there is Jamie Clayton and a whole series of transgender people that are starting to make a difference. They are showing people that we are real people, we exist, and have real lives. We are not all murderer hookers or the things we used to be portrayed as in TV and movies.
MR: What is the significance of you being a politician and coming out as transgender? Will this pave the way for other transgender men and women to get involved in politics?
Mayor Herbst: I certainly hope it will help more transgender people overcome the stigma. I am by no means the first politician that is transgender. In the last national election there were two transgender women running for U.S. Senate. Neither one succeeded, but at least they put themselves out there. We are starting to see more of that. I recently met a girl here in the Dallas Fort Worth area who will be running for Texas Congress. I was contacted by a transgender woman in Washington D.C. who was running for mayor. I have also been contacted since all this came out by several people in local government and they are transgender. They have not come out and some of them say they don’t know if they ever can, but they are there. Maybe with a little bit of encouragement they can come out and say “this is who I am.”
MR: You live in a fairly conservative district. What kind of reaction are you getting from your constituents and colleagues on the town council? Are you receiving any backlash?
Mayor Herbst: I have not seen any direct backlash. All of the council members have been tremendously supportive. The emails, letters, and Facebook messages I have gotten from the people who live in this town have all been extremely positive. If you go looking for things, I do know of one person that has posted a few semi snide things on the web, but I saw him face to face and he said he is fine with me. At least there is no open hostility. There are a very few people who have anything to say about it. In general I have been running 99 to 1, for and against, and that’s just in this area. If you look at the response I have had globally it has been phenomenally positive. I have just been overwhelmed by the amount of support I have received.
“Laws exist right now that prevent anyone from attacking anyone in a bathroom. Adding a anti-transgender bill is just a transgender discrimination bill.”
-Mayor Jess Herbst on Senate Bill 6
MR: Your State Representative for Collin County is Scott Sanford. I interviewed him last month and he is a big proponent of Senate Bill 6 (the “bathroom” bill). Does it concern you that representatives in your area are pushing for that kind of legislation?
Mayor Herbst: Absolutely, absolutely. That is the number one thing on my list to do everything I can to stop Senate Bill 6. It’s a nonsense bill. It does not add any protection that is not already in place. Laws exist right now that prevent anyone from attacking anyone in a bathroom. Adding a anti-transgender bill is just a transgender discrimination bill. They are making statements like “it’s really not for the transgenders, we just don’t want someone to pretend they are transgender.” By that same token do we not let police officers go into schools because someone might pretend to be a police officer and go in and harm children? You cannot legislate against a group of people because someone else might pretend to be them. It’s just ridiculous.
“They went looking for the next easiest target in the LGBT community and that is the T at the end of LGBT.”
-Mayor Jess Herbst on why Texas conservatives are eager to pass Senate Bill 6
MR: In addition to Representative Sanford, I know the Lieutenant Governor has called a “bathroom bill” one of his highest priorities. Why do you think Texas leaders are pushing for this bill so hard?
Mayor Herbst: Honestly, I feel like they are pushing this bill because it is a knee jerk reaction to last year’s Supreme Court ruling to allow same sex marriages. They were against it because they just can’t believe that someone thinks outside of their norm and when the Supreme Court made that decision they had no place to go. So they went looking for the next easiest target in the LGBT community and that is the T at the end of LGBT. They feel like we can just take on these people and that will make us feel good. We will have done our duty to stop some of these people that are doing unusual things we don’t understand and that will make us heroes. What they don’t understand is that there are way more transgender people in this world than anybody suspects. The estimates that I have seen are laughable. I am starting to see more and more responses that bear out my beliefs. We are everywhere.
MR: As the mayor you are going to have to meet with fellow mayors and representatives. Will it be hard for you to work with people who openly express disdain for the transgender community?
Mayor Herbst: I am 58 years old. I have learned to work with people who openly disdain me for all kinds of reasons, transgender will just be another one. That’s what people in politics do. You take a position, someone else takes a position against you, and you work with them and work it out. You can do that.
MR: If a restroom bill were to pass, that leaves the door open for you possibly not being able to use the preferred restroom in your own city offices. Would you comply with a potential restroom bill?
Mayor Herbst: Well, that is a loaded question. I work in a very small town, we only have one bathroom [in the city office]. So, one way or another, I will comply with it. Sure, if that comes to law, I am a law-abiding citizen and I will comply with it. But, I am willing to make a lot of guys very nervous as I am touching up my makeup in the mirror in the men’s room.
MR: You corrected a story that claimed you were the first elected transgender Texas mayor. You pointed out that you were appointed, not elected. So, when 2018 rolls around do you plan on running and actually trying to be elected?
Mayor Herbst: Absolutely, at this point. Ask me again next year, the world can change in a heartbeat. Right now my plan is to continue to be mayor of my town, to do everything I can for this town, and I hope this time next year that New Hope will make history again by being the first town to elect someone has a known transgender person. As opposed to just appointing someone who was transgender. In all fairness, they did elect me, but no one knew I was transgender at the time of the election.
MR: I think lost in all this news about you coming out as transgender is the fact that you are still mayor and leader of the city. As a mayor, what are your plans for New Hope moving forward?
Mayor Herbst: My plans for New Hope are to do whatever the townspeople want. At this point it is to help us ride this wave of massive influx of growth all around us. We would like to keep our more rural, country kind of living. It is going to be a hard thing to manage with growth all around us. We are going to do the very best we can to keep that with us and keep that for the future.