The New Hope town hall is a squat, one-room meeting space on Rockcrest Road. A small green park sits behind it, where a young father is encouraging a little girl to come down the slide. The roughly six-acre “municipal district” of New Hope may not be notable enough to be searchable on Google Maps — the building itself doesn’t even have wifi — nonetheless, it is the centerpiece of life in this tiny Texas town.
Tonight the parking lot is packed for the April town meeting. Inside, among the crowd of 20 or so citizens — quite a lot for a town of 671 people — there are also at least three reporters and a photographer in town from across the country to observe the mayor, Jess (formerly Jeff) Herbst, who in January of this year posted an announcement to the town’s website.
“As your Mayor I must tell you about something that has been with me since my earliest memories,” the 500-word notice read in part. “I am transgender. I live my life as a female now, and I will be performing my duties to the town as such.”
As soon as she hit publish, Herbst made history as the first openly trans elected official in Texas. Were this in New York City, it might not have been sensational, but this is New Hope, a little town nestled in the largely conservative Collin County, northeast of Dallas. Collin County is decidedly red; it went 55% for Trump. The letter went live January 23, two days after Trump’s inauguration. Within days, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Fortune, and BBC, had picked up the news, making the 59-year-old trans mayor from the tiny town in the famously conservative state, an international sensation. Hence the interest from the press, which awaits the meeting with baited breath.
At 7:30 p.m., Mayor Herbst calls the six-member city council to order. On the agenda are 16 items: Roads Commissioner Terry Sanner goes over drainage issues around town that have been fixed, and makes a request for a stop sign; the planning and zoning commissioner gives an equally mundane report. Then the tall, barrel-chested Collin County Sheriff James Skinner saunters forward for what will be the most contentious part of the meeting. The guy is big and white and brawny — exactly the kind of Texas good ol’ boy you’d see in a movie.
His request: $99,000 over four years in additional funds from New Hope, which relies on the Collin County Sheriff's Department for police services. Collin County is experiencing incredible population growth; emergency response times have ballooned from 5 minutes to a scary 14, and Skinner needs the money to hire more deputies. Bob Parmalee, an alderman who also serves as the town’s treasurer, doesn’t love the idea, and neither does Sanner: Why should such a small town like New Hope have to cough up so much dough for something that’s really the county’s duty? “I know the county commissioners are a booger to work with, but this just seems unfair,” Sanner says.
After some back and forth with the sheriff, Mayor Herbst chimes in. “What we’re really talking about is the safety of our citizens,” she argues. And with that, the council, including Parmalee, votes in favor. Sheriff Skinner takes the moment to excuse himself. “Thank you, Madam Mayor,” he says sincerely, placing his bucket hat back on his head and clomping out the door in his heavy Cowboy boots.
If the reporters in the crowd tonight are looking for any turmoil over the mayor’s big announcement, they won't get what they came for. Life in New Hope has mostly stayed the same, despite all the attention. One day, as far as New Hope knew, the mayor was a man named Jeff; the next she was a woman named Jess. Life in New Hope rolled on. The only difference is the presence of reporters.
While not much has changed in New Hope, Herbst’s life has changed immensely. In the six months since she came out, Herbst had gone from being a father, technology consultant, and volunteer mayor to something of a national figure for trans people in public life and politics. Partly this is because she’s the first trans official in a place as conservative as Texas, but it’s also timing: Not only is her home state of Texas currently engaged in a fight over trans people’s bathroom usage (with 17 other states considering similar measures), but 2017 has also been called “the year of the trans candidate.”
Herbst has been shuttling between New Hope and Austin, leading protests against the state’s effort to pass a “bathroom bill” designed to limit public restroom use to biological sex and blocking cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances (or, in the case of cities like Dallas and Houston, reverse those that already exist). She’s also testified before state legislative committees and knocking on the door of her own Texas state senator, Craig Estes, a Republican, as well as her Texas house rep, Scott Sanford, a pastor (and yes, a Republican).
“In between all this craziness with the press, I’m realizing everywhere I go, if you know me already I’m just Jess, but if you don’t know me I’m some kind of celebrity, particularly in the trans world. I’ve had people treat me like I’m some kind of queen or something,” she says. “And every reporter from day one has said, ‘How do you feel about the bathroom bill?’ And of course I’m against it. So if I’m really against it, I need to do something about it.”
These state-level efforts have led to national opportunities: She’s also now sitting on an advisory board for Trans United Fund, a new organization dedicated to supporting trans and trans-friendly candidates, mentoring other trans candidates and officials, and attending workshops and leading discussions from Dallas to D.C. about building trans political power nationwide.
At the same time, at least 20 openly trans candidates have decided to run for offices at every level of government, according to Logan S. Casey, PhD, a research analyst at the Harvard Opinion Research Program. In Virginia, Danica Roem is running for a seat in the state legislature. Dani Pellet is running for a House of Representatives seat in Texas 32nd. Jacey Wyatt is hoping to become the first trans governor of Connecticut. These are just a few examples — and more are expected. “In the last few weeks alone dozens of trans people across the country have reached out letting us know they either are running, planning to run, or are interested in learning more about running for office,” says Daye Pope, 25, the National Organizing Director for Trans United Fund. “There’s a realization happening all over the country that unless trans folks are represented in local and state government, transphobic “bathroom bills” and other attacks will continue.”
These wouldn’t be the first elected officials who are trans — we have Stu Rasmussen, the first openly trans mayor elected in 2008 in Silverton, Oregon; and Jessica Orsini, the first out city alderman, elected in Missouri in 2006 — but they have been few and far between. Many, like the trailblazer Althea Garrison, the first trans woman to ever be elected to a state legislature in the ‘90s, were voted out or even stripped from their offices after it was revealed they were trans.
This swell of political activity couldn’t be more crucial, as trans folks continue to be among the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our society: 12 trans people have been murdered so far in 2017, most of them women of color. And trans people still have huge rates of homelessness, lack needed medical care, and are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, Pope says. These are all problems laws alone can’t solve, but having the political power to address the causes certainly helps.
Herbst’s story has already inspired existing officials to embrace their identities publicly. Janine Johnson, a planning and zoning commissioner in Anna, Texas, is one of them. Anna is just 20 minutes down the highway from New Hope, and is equally conservative. Johnson was inspired by Herbst’s bravado, but also by her reception.
“I thought: Well, if she can do it, there’s no reason I can’t,” says Johnson, a decorated veteran (she has a Bronze star) and retired diversity consultant who transitioned in 2004. For the past four years, though, she’s served the city as “John,” her birth name, because she feared the city wouldn’t accept her as Janine. Her documentation still counts her as male, and her mortgage is in her legal name. “To be visible was really my number one reason for coming out,” Johnson says. “We’re not going to achieve respect and equality through legal means exclusively; what is really going to bring us respect and equality is when people get to know us.”
Jess Herbst was born Jeff Herbst in Greenville, Texas in 1958. Like a lot of trans women her age, Jess Herbst always knew who she was, she just didn’t have the words to describe it. Her very first memory is going into her parents' room to pull a red and gold paisley dress out of her mother’s closet. She’d pull it on over her tiny body — “it was like wearing a blanket,” she says — and walk around the house, every time eliciting a scolding.
Her dad was a dentist; her mom a homemaker. They were loving parents for the most part, just unprepared for a son who was more of a daughter. Jeff had two older brothers, and all three were in the Boy Scouts. As a kid, she repressed the urge to rifle through her mother’s closet but once she entered puberty, she began to steal her mother’s underwear and nighties and wear them to sleep under her pajamas.
One day, Herbst’s parents found her stash of clothes. “My parents were just furious,” she says. “That was the beginning of the psychiatrist.” The doctor recommended baseball games and playing sports. She refused. The psychiatrist’s advice in that case: “just beat it out of him,” Herbst recalls. After some doctor-sanctioned violence, her father instituted a strict workout regimen, enforced with the paddle. By 14, she’d had enough.
“I grabbed the paddle from my Dad one day, broke it over my knee, and said ‘no more’ and ‘we’re not going back [to that psychiatrist.]’” she says. “That was the last time my parents and I ever spoke of anything about this ever again. They went to the grave thinking I was 'cured.'”
In college at East Texas State University, Jeff met Debbie Gray. They started dating after attending at an on-campus showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show with mutual friends, and soon after Jeff let Debbie in on the secret: “I didn’t know the word ‘trans.’ I just said, you know like Rocky Horror, I like wearing women’s clothes. I didn’t know at the time what it was,” Herbst says. “She was like, okay, that’s cool.”
Not long after, the pair left school early to get married and start a family. They bought their first home in Sasche, Texas and got jobs: Debbie as a executive assistant and Jeff as a computer salesman. Their first daughter was born in 1989, and another came along 18 months later. Often, on work trips, Jeff would come back to the hotel and paint his toenails or shave his legs. In 1991, on a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jeff ventured through a drive-through wearing a wig, makeup and a dress. “When I pulled in to pay, they looked at me like Godzilla was outside the window,” Herbst says shaking her head. “That interaction alone — I just felt like such a freak. I had to stuff it back in the box and just not think about it.”
By 1999, the girls had outgrown the house in Sasche. That’s when Debbie’s dad, Roy, gifted them a piece of his land in New Hope. Roy was an original founder of New Hope back in 1974. It didn’t take long for Roy to insist Jeff come with him to town meetings.
By 2003, Jeff had volunteered to serve the town as public works commissioner, which at the time consisted mainly of caring for the town's roads, a third of which were gravel. “I had a budget of about $40,000 a year to fix all the roads every year,” Jess says now, from the living room of her house. “It took me about six or seven years, but eventually we got all the roads paved.” The town got a grant from the county to help build the park behind the town hall, and Jeff oversaw that, as well. Then, in 2013 the mayor pro-tem (which is something like a vice mayor) resigned, and Herbst was appointed to that seat. In 2014, he was officially elected; and in May 2016, he ran again.
During that same May election, the mayor of New Hope, a man by the name of Johnny Hamm, who had served for 26 years, was also running for re-election. His challenger was a 27-year-old newbie in town that had all sorts of wild ideas: “He was wanting a fire department, and promising people we would do something about [the main road in town].The state of Texas controls it, so we have no jurisdiction,” Herbst says. Everyone fully expected Hamm to win.
Then, tragedy struck: The day the filing period closed, Mayor Hamm suffered a massive heart attack; right before the election, he died. Nevertheless, three days after his death, Hamm won the mayoralty by 30 votes. The kid with the wacky proposals argued Hamm’s death meant he won. But nope: Under Texas law, Hamm won fair and square, and in light of his passing, the council was to appoint the mayor. Alderman Jeff Herbst, who had by this time served the town for more than a decade, was the council’s first and unanimous choice.
Jeff was glad to assume the role — but Jess had qualms. Unbeknownst to the town officials and constituents when Herbst was appointed, Herbst was already in the process of transitioning. She started in 2004, when Google introduced her to cross-dressers.com, where for the first time in her life she got to chat with people who questioned their gender. Then, she found a group on Meetup called Dallas Feminine Expression. It took her a full two years to work up the courage to go out in public as Jess, but once she did, Dallas Feminine Expression gave her an actual in-person community of trans friends. Soon she was an organizer of the group, hosting regular girls’ nights at Sue’s, a lesbian bar in Dallas’ “Gayborhood.” Over time, she came out to her daughters, and to most of her friends and all of her consulting clients. Her days as Jeff dwindled as she spent more and more time getting to know herself as Jess. And in 2015, with Debbie’s blessing, she started hormone replacement therapy.
Now that she was mayor, she knew that it was only a matter of time before her transition would become “particularly obvious.” And at first, she figured she’d resign when the time came. But Herbst liked being mayor; she was good at it. Turns out, Mayor Hamm mismanaged the town, keeping poor records, not paying bills, abolishing the planning and zoning commission and the municipal court. “There was no real kind of government. So, I could either walk away and leave it like it was, or I could stick it out and try to get everything fixed,” Herbst says. “But if I was getting everything fixed, I had to explain to them about me.”
In November, Herbst decided to come out to her colleagues in the town government. She met each of the four out of the five other city council members (one of whom is her eldest daughter, who already knew) one by one to tell them that she would no longer be known as Jeff. She asked each one if they wanted her to resign, and every single one asked her to stay. It was the town treasurer she worried about most: Bob Parmalee, a conservative Christian. Parmalee believes exactly what you’d expect: that gay marriage and gender fluidity are social ills contributing to moral decay in this country. His wife, Judy, is a bit more liberal about it: “Trans people know they’re trans even before gay people know they’re gay,” she says. “We all deserve to be happy.” (Which is why Herbst made sure that Judy was present for the meeting.)
“I don’t understand it, but if that’s what she wants to do, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Bob says. Both of the Parmalees agree that Herbst is a superb mayor, and that’s what really matters. “When we showed up to the meeting Jess called to tell us [about her transition], we were just surprised. Bob had a harder time of it,” Judy says. “But honestly, we both walked out of there thinking ‘well, at least she didn’t give us a project.’” Apparently convincing volunteers to step up for her town is one of Herbst’s specialties.
Next up: The challenge of telling the citizens. Which is why she wrote the letter coming out, publishing it on the town’s website on January 23. It was a bold move, especially considering Trump was now officially president, but by this point she was resolved to whatever was going to happen. Perhaps she’d be forced to resign, or protestors would assemble, either way she figured living her life completely in the open would be worth it.
Herbst was in the shower getting ready for the first town meeting as her true self when the first writer called, from The Texas Observer. Debbie barged into the bathroom with the phone, and Jess confirmed the details of her story right there, dripping wet. By the time, she got home that night, the story had made it to the U.K., and by morning she had officially gone viral. A fleet of local news trucks assembled in her driveway. Her email exploded with press inquiries, and her phone rang nonstop.
This attention was astounding and, yes, a little bit flattering, Herbst recalls over a classic Texas lunch of chicken fried steak three months later. But this worldwide spotlight means very little to her when compared to the way her constituents and neighbors reacted. “Within a few hours [of publishing the letter], I started getting emails: ‘Congratulations, we think that’s wonderful,’ and, ‘I’m proud to live in the town,’” she says, taking a pause from eating to wipe a tear from her cheek. “You know, nothing I was expecting. I’m bracing for ‘We’re gonna run her out of town,’ and, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ I got no pushback whatsoever.”
Three months later, the biggest issue for the townspeople seems to be getting the pronouns right. They feel awful when they slip up, but they’re glad Jess is understanding. Everyone I talked to agreed the bathroom bill was a waste of time. Herbst is sure there are those in the town who aren’t fans of the whole thing, but they don’t care enough about it to be outwardly hateful. And for now that’s good enough for her.
“She’s doing a good job for the town. She’s very knowledgeable,” Sanner, the roads commissioner, says. Over and over again, the neighbors had the same to say about their mayor. “I don’t know that there’s anybody else who could do a better job than her,” adds Duke Monsen, who sits on the water board.
So far the people of Anna have also been accepting of Johnson; neighbors have come to meetings specifically to congratulate her. But since she’s an appointed rather than an elected official, it’s up to the council to decide if she will be re-appointed as chairman of the commission for her next and last two-year term. She finds out later this month.
And of course that will be the real test of progress, for both Johnson and Herbst: Now that their neighbors know the truth, will they keep their seats? Johnson says she expects to be re-appointed. As for Herbst, according to my very small and unscientific polling at least, odds are good for her, as well: Bob and Judy Parmalee nod their heads yes when I ask: “Mhmm, no complaints,” Bob says.
“Absolutely,” Monsen says. “And if it starts to seem like she won’t win, I’ll be going door-to-door.”
“Yes I will vote for her,” Sanner says. “If she doesn’t run for something else.”
For all Americans, trans or not, the town of New Hope offers a shining example of what happens when self-governance outweighs all else; proof that the partisan rancor and senselessness in Washington and many state legislatures does not easily trickle down. Because beyond ideology and rhetoric, the residents here continue to do what they’ve always done: set aside everything else to come together once a month and collectively make decisions for the betterment of their town. That they’re able to live with each other even when they don’t always understand one another is the democratic promise made manifest; it is, what you could call in Trump’s America, a new hope.