Roseburg City Hall

Roseburg City Hall.

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.

Bob Cotterell

Bob Cotterell

“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.”

CONTROVERSIAL COMMENTS

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.”

Andrea Zielinski

Zielinski

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.

‘WORDS MATTER’

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.

Brian Prawitz

Prawitz

“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.”

Scott Carroll can be reached at scarroll@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4204.

Or follow him on Twitter @scottcarroll15.

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(16) comments

mworden

For everyone who disapproves or doesn't understand this whole non-binary business, all we really need to know and understand is that we have people in our community struggling with acceptance, bullying, self-hatred and suicidal thoughts because no matter how hard they try, they just can't conform to how they're supposed to feel, act and look to make other people happy. Offering kindness instead of denigration to LGBTQ+ people seems like a small thing to ask.

In equal fairness, I'd like to offer kindness and understanding to city councilor Bob and hope that he can turn this into a learning experience for all. It's how we grow as people.

"More than half of transgender male teens who participated in the survey reported attempting suicide in their lifetime, while 29.9 percent of transgender female teens said they attempted suicide. Among non-binary youth, 41.8 percent of respondents stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

"Many transgender young people experience family rejection, bullying and harassment, or feel unsafe for simply being who they are - all of which can be added risk factor for suicide."

https://www.hrc.org/news/new-study-reveals-shocking-rates-of-attempted-suicide-among-trans-adolescen

Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24.1

LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.

Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.

https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/

LoveThisPlace

I’ve read many of the links shared, as well as many more articles and research on this topic. Even in the links provided the authors acknowledge that there isn’t universal agreement in the health community, much less a legal framework that conforms to multiple genders. Yet somehow Bob is supposed to only see one side of this argument or should step down? Please don’t pretend the issue is resolved on this and that to assume otherwise is ignorant. Only when or if the issue is medically resolved and legally defined with Bob then acting against the legal definitions should one call for his resignation. Just because you disagree with him on this issue doesn’t mean he is a bad person creating bad policy. He is required to make decisions that are consistent with our existing legal framework, to make policy based on anything other then this is inserting one’s personal opinions into policy which can be quite dangerous.

MI Go Beav

The Left: Believe the science (except the part about chromosomes - don't believe that).

farmrdave

If that's all that was said, what's all the fuss about. Seems like an irrefutable statement to me.

MI Go Beav

farmrdave, please stop making sense with facts - you are confusing the Left.

NJ

“You’ll never convince me that what I said was wrong no matter how much training we get,” And that is why it's time for you to retire from public service. The public can't be your version of perfect Bob, humans are just human like that. It will never be the world according to Bob. You're shortsighted, out of touch with reality, and willfully ignorant of the world around you. Time to exit. Go be intolerable on your own time.

MI Go Beav

So Bob is intolerant according to you so he has to go. Who's the one being intolerant again? You literally can't make this stuff up. What a joke!

MI Go Beav

There are three sexes:

1. Male

2. Female

3. Look at me! Look at me! Hey, everyone, look at me!

NJ

1. Look at this! Look at this! Hey Beav, look at this! https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/lgbtq-health/body-self

christobel

Mr. Cotterell has made a few things clear regarding his position of not understanding the reality of sexual identity. I'm not sure how many pants he's pulled down, but not everyone was born with clearly identifying pieces and parts. Furthermore, none of this is about political correctness. It's about reality. It's about knowing that even sexual organs and chromosome distribution are not binary. If he hasn't learned that in his many years of public service and/or has no desire to learn the truth now, then it's time for him to move on from a position of civic leadership. Leaders with integrity do not shut the door on educating themselves. Leaders deserving of respect acknowledge when they're wrong or have more to learn. Mr. Cotterell has clearly demonstrated in his words during and after the incident that he cares not about leadership, integrity or respect, but more about his pride. And, should City Council fail to officially call him out on the statements he has made, then everyone of those individuals seated are complicit in this sort of blind arrogance and failed leadership.

Mike

I find Roseburg City Councilor Bob Cotterell disgusting comments and behavior no different than the white Alabama Councilman who is being asked to resign from his position for saying this week during a council meeting, “Do we have a house n----- in here?”

It's time for Cotterell to step down and allow someone into that policy making position who has more sensitivity, inclusiveness and certainly brains.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/white-alabama-councilman-who-used-n-word-at-a-council-meeting-says-he-wont-resign/ar-AAMp3Mv?li=BBnbfcL

MI Go Beav

Yes, if we eliminate heterosexuality future generations will thank us.

Mike

Please point to where I said anything about eliminating heterosexuality. You can't because I never said that.

christobel

Mr. Cotterell seems to be making his remarks based on a lack of actual knowledge on the subject of human sexuality. If he would take time to tone down the divisive rhetoric and crack open a science book now and then, he would soon realize that humans are born with varying numbers of X and Y chromosomes, sometimes with clear indication of male v. female and other times having characteristics of BOTH. It is often doctors making the "assignment" of one or another at time of birth. This is not a widely discussed topic but it should be discussed in light of folks such as Mr. Cotterell who care to exploit their own level of ignorance on the subject.

Mike

[thumbup]

MI Go Beav

Right on, christobel! We should give all newborn babies numbers rather than names until they are ready to determine their own gender identity.

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