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Inside a Quietly Historic Council Meeting With Texas’ First Transgender Mayor

Mayor Jess Herbst presides over the New Hope City Council meeting.
Mayor Jess Herbst presides over the New Hope City Council meeting.
Brian Maschino
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At the New Hope City Council meeting this week, nineteen folding chairs set out for residents isn’t enough. Residents began to pour into the town hall that once served as a portable building for a local oil and gas company, using seats taken from a closet.

This is the second public meeting presided by Mayor Jess Herbst. She never planned to be Texas’ first transgender mayor. She says she planned to resign once her breasts became noticeable before a sudden death propelled her into the race.

Now the town is turning out to see her in action. Mayor Jess Herbst no longer looks like her old self. Her once thinning gray hair is now blond, long and flowing. Makeup now fills lines in her face, hiding her 58 years spent as “Jeff.”

“When they appointed me mayor, I knew telling them about being transgender isn’t something that you do the next day,” Herbst told the Observer before the city council meeting. “I knew word would get around. I had to formulate plan.”

New Hope is a place out of time literally surrounded by the future. Large, new residential neighborhoods, some with more residents than New Hope, surround the town. Inside, commerce is sluggish. Only one gas station remains in the town. Don Dunn’s grocery store was once located down the street from Town Hall. It was more of a hamburger joint known for the famous “Dunn Burger.” Residents say Dunn was killed by a small tractor with a mowing deck. He fell off his tractor, and it ran him over. His grocery store is now a church.

Herbst has lived in New Hope for 20 years and served as alderman and mayor pro tem. During the 2016 spring election season, someone wanted her alderman seat, so she decided she was going to slip off into obscurity on the 22-acre farm where her wife was raised.

Then Mayor Johnny Hamm, who was in his 60s, died of a massive heart attack the day election filing closed in early May 2016.

Hamm’s challenger, John Miller, was a stranger to the residents of New Hope. He’d only been living in the farming community northeast of Dallas for less than a year, and been seen only at a few of the council meetings when he put his name on the ballot, residents say.

Miller thought he was the victor when Hamm died a week before the election. “I’m mayor!” residents recall him proclaiming as if he’d just won the lottery.

But he didn’t. The town actually re-elected Hamm — despite his being dead — and Herbst served as mayor pro tem and acting mayor. “What some of us believe is that the council dragged this out,” Miller told Channel 5 News out of Dallas. “What they should have done legally is assign the pro tem to become the mayor before the election, which would have taken Mayor Hamm off the ballot. I would have won the election.”

Herbst, then Jeff, told the local news channel, “We checked immediately with elections officials to see if we could either remove his name from the ballot or supply another candidate, but it was too late. The election (filing) was closed, and could not be altered at that point.”

In late January she informed the town of her gender on New Hope’s town website:

I know that transgender people are just coming to light in our society, and we have made great strides in the last few years. Celebrities like Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox from the show ‘Orange is the new Black’ and popular shows like ‘Transparent,’ society finally has a chance to see and learn about who we are. It is gender identity not sexual preference that applies to me. I love my wife, and she loves me. We have no intention of change. My daughters have been adamant supporters of me and are proud to tell people their father is transgender.

“It’s no longer a dirty secret,” Herbst wrote on her personal blog. “In fact, it has become something of a bonus. I get better reactions in public as Jess than I do as Jeff.”

Her wife, Debbie, agrees. “I felt very relieved that my secret was out (too),” she says. “No more hiding. I had been concerned that I would run into someone I work with, and they would judge me or dislike us due to their conservative nature. However, most people I work with are more liberal and progressive.”

As a child Herbst says she wanted to play with girls clothes and would often steal her mother’s underwear. “I wanted to express myself the way that women did instead of men,” she says. When she started dating her wife, Debbie, when they were in their late teens, Herbst says her wife thought it was cool that she dabbled in women’s clothing.

They’ve been married for 36 years. “Jess did a lot of research and really perfected her look and learned which clothes to wear and all of that,” Debbie Herbst says. “She felt more comfortable just going places as a woman. And, with time and practice, we noticed that no one gave her a second glance.”

The couple moved to her family farm in the late ’90s and her father Roy Gray, a well-known figure in New Hope, said they could build a home on the farm.

Jess Herbst says she entered city politics because of gravel roads. “I got on council to be in charge of the roads and public works,” she says. “I got to determine what roads to fix and got all the roads paved with our tiny little budget.”

She began telling people in her circle of life about her transitioning from male to female in September 2016. Then she took the aldermen into her office two at a time, saying “here I am,” as if she were a magician performing a magic trick. “They were fine with it,” she says a few weeks before the Feb. 28 council meeting. “The women were instantly supportive: ‘Oh, that’s wonderful.’ And the men were usually, ‘OK … but I don’t understand.’”

Herbst says she told them, “I understand it’s not what most people are used to, and unusual. If you wish me to resign, I … ”

But she claims they wanted her to remain. Tonight, any tension may surface. People are showing up to see how it goes.

Headlines about Texas’ first transgender mayor dominated national headlines for a couple of days, but many residents heard about it through the grapevine. “I heard the news from a friend at work and had to check it out for myself,” says a resident who’d only identify herself as a bus driver from a local ISD. The bus driver’s daughter adds, “You know you just kind of wonder, ‘What is the point of it all? What does it really get someone somewhere with all that attention?’”

“I’ve known Jeff for 20 years and never suspected, never suspected,” says another resident. “Why would you?”

A couple echo sentiments given to reporters when news first spread, “We didn’t vote for him. That’s what we tell our friends. Nobody did.”

Many of the town residents were afraid to speak their opinions on the record for fear of being called bigoted. The one resident who didn’t mind providing his name, Roy Meyers, seemed to summarize what other residents felt. “I don’t think anyone really gives a shit. I really don’t. I mean, it is what it is,” he says. “I know other people may have their own opinions with it. But me, personally, I don’t give a shit as long as he don’t get in my business.”

The city council meeting doesnt become a circus of protest. Instead, even the naysayers sit politely in the city council meeting, struggling with the proper pronoun to use. Mayor Jess Herbst’s voice pitch seems to struggle as she slowly makes her way through the agenda items as if it’s just another day in a small Texas town in Trump country.

Most of the agenda items hold little interest for people outside of the community. One resident asks for an internet tower to be installed and even offered to put it on her land and then admitted that whoever puts on his or her land will receive free internet service. Another person asks about bringing a fireworks stand to town.

Residents mostly want to discuss the traffic soaring through the middle of their town, ignoring their speed limits because the town marshal who once patrolled the town only lasted a year. He was relieved of his duty not long after he nearly gave an alderman a heart attack when he took him on a high speed chase through the center of town.

It wasn’t until Herbst mentioned her conversation with newly elected Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner, who once served as Collin County Second District Attorney, that residents began to get vocal.

“So I had a meeting last week with Mr. Skinner,” Herbst says. “Mr. Skinner took office with some of the same situations I had. Some problems. The biggest problem we’re facing in our town is not so much the fees or fines, or the fact that we have massive growth going on all around us, and we’ve all concentrated on the roads. That’s one thing that we’re all seeing. There’s something going on we haven’t thought about, and that is all this growth around us has generated a tremendous increase in the number of calls the Collin County Sheriff’s Office has.

“I wasn’t aware of this,” she continues. "But the Collin County Sheriff’s Office has exactly one officer dedicated to our area. That’s all they have the money for.”

Which means, it will take the deputy 40 minutes to respond to an emergency in New Hope, Herbst points out to the residents waiting for the punchline. “They’re wanting to ask us to pay for an officer,” she says.

Residents’ jaws hit the floor for the second time this year.

Herbst tells the crowd that the sheriff has asked him to request $40,000 per year to contract. “And I told him that I would bring it up with you,” she says. “But I told him that I thought it would take a little more than me asking.”

She says they have a couple of choices. They can tell the sheriff, “No, we’re not going to pay.” Herbst says the sheriff will simply say, “You get what you pay for, or you’ll need to provide your own police force.” Then she points out that other small towns around them don’t have their own police force either and rely on the county for protection.

They begin to discuss the rise in developments and the increased traffic and possible crime that will come into the area. The idea of hiring a police officer was also thrown in but quickly shot down by the road commissioner and former alderman Terry Sanner.

“Someone mentioned we never had law enforcement in town before,” he says. “Well, we did. We had a town marshal, and I was on the council at the time, and I’ll be the first one to say, ‘It was a joke.’ We don’t want to do that again.”

Herbst listens to residents and guides the conversation like a veteran politician. She gets the town to agree to listen to the sheriff’s presentation. “I think we should at least hear him out,” she says. “Before we say no.”

After the meeting, most of the residents leave rather quickly, ready to join the rest of the town in their slumber. Herbst lingers with a few female aldermen, laughing and chatting.

Sanner, the former alderman, walks toward his vehicle. He’s talkative but doesn’t want too much of his conversation on record. He discusses the increase in traffic, and how he’ll drive the speed limit no matter how long the line of cars are following behind him.

He also touches upon the good ol’ days with Herbst’s father-in-law was still alive and the area surrounding New Hope was still country. But when the conversation turns to Herbst and her decision to come forward as a woman, Sanders speaks more slowly. He keeps his opinions to himself, and simply says on record, “As far as I’m concerned he’s doing his job,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s re-elected.”

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