Roseburg City Councilor Bob Cotterell is facing criticism for recent comments he made about gender identity, including an off-color joke and the suggestion that if anyone is confused about their gender all they need to do is pull their pants down and take a look.
But instead of apologizing for his comments, as some had hoped, Cotterell is doubling down, dismissing the criticism as an example of political correctness gone too far.
“This is America. I fought in Vietnam and I know what free speech means,” Cotterell said. “I’m kind of getting tired with this woke culture we now supposedly have. I’ve never been asleep. It just annoys me.”
Cotterell’s comments have elicited a ripple of disdain in the community, including a call for his resignation. Cotterell has been on the council since January 2011.
Mark Lenihan, president of PFLAG Roseburg, a group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, said Cotterell’s comments were hurtful and a form of hate speech. The fact that Cotterell is an elected official makes his comments sting even more, Lenihan said.
“The man needs to be removed because he does not represent the people of this town. If he thinks he does, he’s just delusional,” Lenihan said. “This is not appropriate for anybody, let alone for someone in a role of civic leadership.”
The controversy dates back to June 28, when Cotterell and other city officials were preparing for the bi-weekly City Council meeting, which was to be held via Zoom. One of the councilors had misspelled their name on a roster and another quipped that they had considered using a woman’s first name in jest.
“Well that’s fine, you’re in Oregon,” Cotterell said, according to others who heard it. “You can be a boy today and a girl tomorrow.”
The chatter suddenly stopped and there was a moment of awkward silence as City Recorder Amy Sowa reminded people that those connected to the Zoom meeting could hear the councilor’s comments. No one said anything and the meeting went on without a hitch.
The following day, a woman named Lan Ha, who had considered speaking during the meeting and was hooked into the meeting, sent an email to city officials saying she was offended by Cotterell’s comment.
“This was not appropriate for a public hearing and does not help in bettering our community and actually isolates our LGBTQ+ members when made by our leaders,” Ha wrote. “I ask that our council is more thoughtful of this in the future during public meetings and for someone to actually stand up to discriminatory jokes/comments instead of just being silent after being told that there are public audience participants that are listening in afterwards.”
City Councilor Andrea Zielinski responded to Ha’s email, saying she also took issue with Cotterell’s comment — “Not OK or acceptable,” she said — and was sorry she remained silent.
“I will do my best to do better moving forward to make sure all feel welcome, cared about, and accepted,” Zielinski wrote. “Again, my deepest apology.”
City Councilor Brian Prawitz posted a similar apology on his Facebook page.
“I kinda blew it last night. Had a chance to stand up to an unacceptable comment regarding transgender people and missed it,” he wrote. “For someone who professes to be a supporter and ally of the marginalized, I need to do better.”
At the following City Council meeting on July 12 — held in person at city hall — Ha’s husband got up to speak. He called out Cotterell for his comment and Mayor Larry Rich for not condemning it.
“I’m pretty disappointed by the council, especially you Mr. Rich, for not stepping up,” Ryan Cram said. “I shouldn’t have to be here coming to talk to you guys. You are all leaders in the community. This is a community for everyone and you guys need to be inclusive.”
Cram returned to his seat, the City Council remained silent, and Rich quickly moved on to other business.
Zielinski and Prawitz both later said that they did not say anything following Cram’s comments because they were hoping Cotterell would.
Rich said he didn’t hear what Cotterell said, so he wouldn’t comment on it.
In an interview with The News-Review last week, Cotterell stood his ground. He said his stance on gender identity is rooted in science and dismissed the notion that individuals should be allowed to self-identify their gender.
“I believe it’s a joke, I really do. It’s magical thinking to become whatever gender you desire simply by saying, ‘That’s how I identify today.’ It’s foolish thinking,” Cotterell said. “To me, there’s two genders. If you pull the front of your pants down you can figure out which one you are. If you have an outie you’re a male, and if you’re an innie you’re a female.”
Cotterell also said: “If you want to be a female, that’s your deal, but you have to go through a lengthy medical and scientific process. You can’t just get up today and say, ‘Today I’m a woman’ or ‘Today I’m a man’ ... Do I care if someone wants to be a male or a female? No. But don’t tell me that you can decide daily what gender you want to be.”
At one point, Cotterell used panda bears to further illustrate his point.
“I like panda bears, so tomorrow if I self-identify as a panda bear, does that make me a pander bear?” he asked rhetorically.
Lenihan, the president of PFLAG Roseburg, said Cotterell’s initial joke was inappropriate.
His other comments went much deeper, Lenihan said, after taking a moment to compose himself.
“I am so angry right now I’m shaking,” he said. “This gentleman’s comments show he definitely has no understanding of what transgender people go through, the amount of self-loathing, the anguish that a transgender person goes through, the ideology of self-harm and suicide.”
Vyla Grindberg, a member of PFLAG Roseburg, said she is used to such hurtful comments and for the most part has become “desensitized to the vitriol.” But she worries about younger people who are struggling with gender identity issues.
“I worry about people who are just trying to figure themselves out, especially the youth, where a lack of support can lead to suicide, depression and other things like that,” Grindberg said, adding that studies show there is a higher rate of these problems in the LGBTQ community than in the general public.
Grindberg also said she is a county employee, and as such, she strives to treat everyone she encounters on the job equally. She expects the same from the City Council, she said.
“Your constituency comes first,” Grindberg said. “I know I help everybody from the county, and they need to start doing the same. These are people in elected positions. They need to start representing all of us and understand that their words matter.”
A LEARNING MOMENT
Zielinski and Prawitz defended Cotterell — noting his big heart and decades of public service — while not supporting what he said.
“Bob says things offhanded. I never think he truly means to offend people, but sometimes he does,” Zielinski said. “In this day and age, we need to think about everybody we represent and being inclusive and making sure they feel valued.”
Prawitz said he has seen Cotterell interact with the public over the years and has always found him to treat people with respect and dignity, no matter their orientation, gender, or ethnicity. Prawitz said he has discussed the issue of gender identity and the LGBTQ community with Cotterell, but the two remain far apart in their beliefs.
“My whole conversation with Bob has been, just leave room for the fact that they are here, they exist, and you represent them. And it’s a non-starter for him,” Prawitz said. “It’s very hard to move someone from their position when they have that attitude.”
Prawitz also said he hopes Cotterell “recognizes the impact of his words on this issue” and makes an effort to learn more about gender identity and repair any harm he may have caused by his recent comments.
“I want this to be a constructive moment, a moment of learning, and I do not want this to reflect on our city and our leadership,” Prawitz said. “The LGBTQ community lives here, they should feel safe and know that we represent them. Our council and our town could really be viewed as being insensitive and intolerant, and as far as the council goes, that’s not true.”
As for Cotterell, he continues to maintain that his position is based on “science and biological evidence,” and believes the entire matter has been blown out of proportion.
“I didn’t say anything that was false or a lie at the council meeting,” he said. “You are able to self-identify gender in this state and if that offends you I don’t know what to say. It appears that people want to be offended by something.”
Cotterell also said that when it comes to the call for training the Council on gender identity, which some members of the public and the Council have called for, he would attend but didn’t expect it to be very useful.
“You’ll never convince me that what I said was wrong no matter how much training we get,” he said. “Besides, there are more constructive things we can be working on that can actually make a difference.”