How a mayor in one of the most conservative counties in Texas announced her gender identity and no one cared

Jess-Herbst-2

Mayor Jess Herbst, left, with friends at Texas Latino pride (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Ever since Mayor Jess Herbst of New Hope announced she’s transgender, anywhere from one to four reporters have attended every council meeting. And the same thing happens each time — people from town speak during the public comment period, and a tree hanging too low over a road will get cut, an old junk car will get towed or a pothole will get fixed.

What doesn’t get discussed is the gender identity of the mayor.

Since Herbst revealed her gender identity to the city of New Hope, no one has come to a meeting to speak about their support or about their moral outrage over having a transgender mayor. No one’s mentioned it at all.

When the town’s road commissioner makes his regular presentations, he sometimes slips up and refers to Herbst by her dead name. He gets embarrassed and stumbles over his words, apologizing for the mistake. They’ve known each other almost 20 years.

“Don’t worry about it,” Herbst tells him, laughing.

Why’s she laughing? Because she’s so glad her transition hasn’t been a story.

Herbst hopes that by telling the story of her transition not being a story, more people who are afraid of coming out as transgender will find the courage do so.

New Hope is centrally located in Collin County, just east of McKinney. The population in the last census was 614. The city has a mayor and five aldermen who meet the last Tuesday of every month. The town is 1.7 square miles, about half a square mile smaller than Highland Park.

Under President Barack Obama, Amanda Simpson served as deputy assistant secretary of defense, but that position was appointed. In Houston, Mayor Annise Parker appointed Phyllis Frye to be a municipal court judge, and Jenifer Pool ran for Harris County commissioner. Frye was the first trans person appointed judge in Texas and Pool was the first to win a primary.

But while other transgender people serve on commissions and school boards around the country, Herbst is currently the highest-ranking transgender elected official in the U.S. And, when she came out in January, she became the first transgender elected official in Texas.

“On Jan. 30, I took five minutes to explain, said ‘thank you,’ and it’s been business as usual ever since,” Herbst said of her coming out.

Herbst wasn’t a newcomer to New Hope politics. She was first elected alderman in 2003 and became mayor in May 2016. She is up for re-election in 2018.

“We’re reasonable, intelligent, open-minded people,” Herbst said describing her town. “We’re fiscally conservative and spend money responsibly.” She said she’s never heard anything like “I don’t like people because of race” in New Hope.

Soon after her transition, the Collin County sheriff scheduled an appointment to see her. New Hope doesn’t have its own police department, so it relies on the sheriff’s department to patrol the town. As they spoke, she realized the sheriff was asking her for money to help fund police operations.

She presented the request to the council, which approved $25,000 a year for the sheriff’s department.

Other small towns across the county were more resistant to the request. Herbst said she found herself in the unusual position of being the sheriff’s transgender ally, accompanying him to city council meetings in other towns to testify on his behalf to help with department funding.

Transition

Herbst said her transition was a very gradual process. She came out to people in steps — first to her family, then to her friends. But when the Texas Legislature proposed a number of pieces of anti-trans legislation this year, she decided it was time to come out to her town and to go to Austin to do what she could to thwart those discriminatory bills.

What’s happened since revealing her gender status to her town is both incredible and exactly as things should be: No one really seems to care.

Instead, people have judged Herbst on the job she’s doing as mayor. And the general consensus is she’s doing a good job.

No one in town really seems to want to talk about it, either — nothing really to talk about.

Another thing that’s different for Herbst compared to other trans people is that she’s still married to her wife, and she still has the same relationship with her kids.

Herbst met her wife, Debbie, in college. She said they were dating each other’s roommates, but bonded during a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“We sparked something in each other,” Herbst said, adding that her wife “helped me with make up and clothes” when she dressed around the house.

Debbie said at first Herbst dressed as a woman once a week, then more often.

The couple have two daughters, now 27 and 28. Herbst said she never dressed as a woman around them as they were growing up. But once they were out of the house, she began dressing more frequently.

Debbie grew up in New Hope, and in 1999, her father carved 52 acres off the property for the couple and they built a house.

Their younger daughter lives in Dallas, and, Herbst said, their older daughter lives “across the pond.” No, not in London, but “across the pond” on the edge of their property, in the house in which Debbie grew up. The two daughters weren’t surprised when they learned of their dad’s gender identity.

“That makes sense,” their daughters said when Herbst told them she was transgender, because she was the one who gave them old wigs to play with when they were growing up and helped them with hair, clothes and makeup.

They continue to call Herbst dad, explaining that to them, it refers more to role than gender.

Although Debbie had known about her husband’s gender identity before they were married 38 years ago, she said neither of them had the words for it.

“I thought it was more like ‘transvestite,’ or something like that,” Debbie said. “I found it intriguing and made a connection with Jess. I thought it was kind of cool.”

But, she acknowledged, it became a little harder when it became more than a weekend thing.

“Are people going to think of me as a lesbian?” she wondered.

Leaving Jess wasn’t an option, but it did take a period of adjustment.

“Jess is my soulmate,” Debbie said. And one thing that was important, she said, was that Jess was happier.

Adjusting to Jess as a woman took about a year, Debbie said, noting that

“Everyone was awesome about it, and that helped me.”

She said she now refers to Jess as her wife. She tried “partner” and “spouse” but thought those terms were impersonal. “Wife is closer,” she said. “We’re a couple.”

And does she think of herself now as a lesbian? “A little bit,” she said after thinking about it.

Debbie said she was in Austin with her wife while she was testifying about the bathroom bills, and “I was very proud of that.”

This is a family that’s as strong as any.

“This is the same person underneath it all,” Debbie said she realized.