Stu Rasmussen is a great small-town mayor. Stu is a frank and funny native of Silverton, Oregon, where he runs the town movie theater on Main Street, is an local enthusiastic business booster, and has a lot of strong opinions about smart economic policies. But when the rural town elected him in 2008, the local politics made headlines nationwide. Stu is America’s first transgender mayor—people labeled him as male when he was born, but he is now (he’ll gladly tell you) the proud bearer of 36DD breasts, an extensive dress collection, and identifies as neither a man nor a woman. He doesn’t care what pronouns people use to describe him, as long as you don’t call him “it.”
You’ll often find him in the afternoon outside his theater, standing on the street corner in heels to greet neighbors, talk politics, and maybe even sell some movie tickets. I talked with Stu in the office of the downtown copy center run by his wife Victoria, who occasionally chimed in with a snide comment.
EASE INTO CHANGE
I had a very, very slow transition over 30 or 40 years.
I wish I could point to something in my past that said, ‘Aha! That was the seminal moment where I realized I was transgender.’ But I didn’t even know the word transgender until about 15 years ago. I grew up here and it’s a small town, I didn’t have a lot of access to information. You would hear stories sometimes about male to female transitions, but only as kind of magazine freakshow. I knew I was different around puberty, which was when I started crossdressing. I enjoyed looking like a female, I enjoyed looking in the mirror and seeing a female me look back at me. Why, how? I have no idea.
Like not everybody is short, not everybody is tall, we’re somewhere in between. I think I’m 40 to 50 percent between male and female. I do a lot of male things, I do a lot of female things. It’s not a binary system, there are shades of gray.
When I moved away from home to Portland [in 1968], I had a little more freedom to express my gender variance, but I was closeted for years. I would wear women’s clothing in the closet, but never go out, not even fantasize about it. Or, a couple times, I’d be afraid to go out in the daylight so I’d go out at night. Which, come to think of it, is the most dangerous behavior you could do. I don’t know that I ever encountered another cross-dresser, I don’t know where I would have gone to do so.
My awakening really came with the internet in the late 80s. Anonymously poking around on there, I found I was really not all that unusual. There’s a big world out there of people who are differently gendered. I just kind of slowly crawled out of my shell. At that time, there weren’t websites, there were just sort of like bulletin boards where you could post a message and other people could respond. I was up all hours of the night reading them. I was not alone.
That led me to find a Portland transgender social and support group in the early 90s called the Northwest Gender Alliance. I called an anonymous phone number and stammered to this other voice on the end and they invited me to the meeting. I thought I was going to a freakshow. I went in boy clothes, as most people do the first time out, because you’re just not comfortable cross-dressing in public. And it was weird; these guys were perfectly smart and normal except for this little picadilly of liking to dress as women. I talked to airline pilots, engineers, school teachers, marine architects, truck drivers, we just shared this quirk. For some, it was a stop on the road toward a sex change. For others, it was all that they wanted, the opportunity to express themselves in the opposite gender. I thought that’s where I was for a long time, until the allure of cleavage came up.
FIND PARTNERS WHO HAVE GOT YOUR BACK
In the seventies, I got a job working for a movie theater chain in Portland. In the 5th Avenue Cinema, there was a lovely young thing there selling tickets and popcorn. She was still in high school when we met, but I was smitten. Horribly. I’ll never get over it. We communicate mostly by grunts and sign language, these days. We’re very similar people, it’s a continuous source of annoyance.
If you’re just getting started in a relationship these days, I would go for 80 percent candor. A relationship that’s been going for a while, five years, 10 years, it’s almost dishonest to bring it out then, but you have to do it.
I was conflicted over the cross-dressing, but I was not conflicted in my own mind over whether I was heterosexual. The male hormones had taken over and I was pretty much on the prowl. I wasn’t comfortable cross-dressing in front of Victoria, but I finally came out to her about six years into our relationship. This monumental angst had been building up in me through the whole relationship. Eventually I was like, “Honey, there’s this thing that I have to do.” And her response was, “Meh, okay.” It was kind of an anticlimax.
Victoria: If my mother had warned me about men like you, it might have been different. But she didn’t and it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. I mean, I’d been wearing slacks for as long as I could. If you’d been thinking about [vaginal construction] surgery, I think it would have been different. I wasn’t getting into this to live with another woman, so that would be a big deal for me.
We didn’t equate gender with sexuality, we both understood we were heterosexual. I was not leaving Victoria for another man or woman.
I think a large part of our relationship dynamic is still male-female. Even though I happen to look like a woman sometimes, we’re still very conventional. Perhaps too conventional. She makes dinner every night. She’s a good cook.
When I decided I wanted breasts, Victoria and I had a couple discussions about it. I said, “What I’d really like is breasts, how would you feel about that?” It was not a big deal, as far as I can tell. We had a lot of issues in the relationship, but the gender issue just wasn’t one of them. I think that’s 99 percent thanks to Victoria.
There was a lot of talk in town before that, a lot of buzzing because I’d been easing into the transition, wearing bright red nails sometimes. I think Victoria took the worst of it, people asking, “What’s up with Stu and the nails?” She’d day, “Why don’t you ask Stu?”
YOU NEED A COMMUNITY—WHATEVER THAT LOOKS LIKE
Some of the trans people I knew had moved to Portland from podunk, where they had a life that couldn’t express their gender identity and they thought that moving to the big city and starting over again would be the panacea to make it work. And for some, I think they were right.
I think family has a lot to do with it. If your family isn’t supportive, if you grew up in a family with strict gender roles assigned, it would be very difficult to come out. But if you move, you’re uprooting yourself from everything that you know and love and starting over again in a place where you don’t know anybody or anything and you’re trying to do it all in a new body. That’s a very steep hill to climb.
For me, it was such a slow transition that everybody in Silverton just kind of came along with it. So it worked for me, but I don’t know if it would work for everyone. If I could do it all over again, would I do the tempting thing and move to a big city and start over there? No, absolutely not. Victoria and I moved back to Silverton in the mid-80s. I was a closeted cross-dresser but outwardly as macho as this little guy could get. I ran the town movie theater and the TV channel, so I kept that other part of my personality submerged.
I first ran for city council in 1984 and served for about ten years, but after I was no longer on the council, that’s when I was reading a lot online started thinking about what I really wanted to do and what would make me happy. I was done with politics as far as I knew, so I thought I would do what I wanted to do.
On March 1st, 2000, the twins came into the world. I did not dress much as a woman before the breast augemntation. Even after that, it was about a year of working up to dressing around town in the full regalia. It was something that was hard for me, but I took baby steps. I pushed the community a little bit, they pushed back a little bit, until finally it was just, “Oh that’s just Stu. He’s a little weird, but he’s a halfway decent guy. A halfway decent girl. Halfway decent whatever.”
In retrospect, I think 99 percent of what I was afraid of was between my ears, that I wasn’t ready or that I was uncertain of myself. I wish I knew what I was scared of. Public reaction, I guess. I was concerned about how the community would support my business with a freakshow owning it. Business did drop, but it came back.
In 2004, people were by that time pretty much used to me in this town, I ran for city council again and I’m sure behind my back there was a lot of hubbub, but I made a good case and got elected. I think it’s a small enough town that most people know me, good or bad. I have a reputation for an abiding care for the community, it’s genuine, it’s not a political statement, my heart is here. This is the community I grew up in, so there’s just no question about that.
I think we’re at the point where people overlook my appearance and vote for me as a person. It’s clearly not a beauty contest around here, because then I’d be in deep doo-doo.
I don’t mind any pronoun other than “it.”
To people around town who’ve gotten used to me as Stu over the past 60 years, I’m still a “he.” People who got to know me in other lifestyles know me as “she.” It doesn’t really matter to me, I don’t care which pronoun they use. That’s one of the problems with gender presentation, the first time people meet you, they don’t know what pronoun to use and they don’t want to offend you—or they do want to offend you—and they stumble over it. It’s really hard for someone who’s not in the gender community to know what pronoun to use and not be offensive.
If you just get past that and don’t care, your life smoothes out. It’s still amusing to meet someone new and they think I’m female and they use female pronouns. When that happens, I think, “Oh good, I’m passing really well today.” Or, ‘“hey need to get glasses immediately.”
Being in politics, you get a totally different feel for how this works. Half the people despise you even if you do the job well. So you just have to get over it.
I unseated the guy who’d been the mayor for 16 years and thought he was annointed rather than elected. He still has his cadre of darklings who find criticism with anything I do. I think my gender expression has a bit to do with that, and also that when I was elected and the news went worldwide, they were pissed as hell. Not only did their guy not win, but Silverton went in the spotlight because the people had dared to elect someone not of their mold as mayor.
But the people that hate me are a small percentage and they’re easily ignored. It really isn’t relevant to my life what your opinion is because I know you’re wrong. You may be under the impression that the sun rises in the north and sets in the south, but the facts are otherwise. It still hurts when you’re dealing with stupid, but there’s no shortage of that.
At a younger age, I was very concerned about others’ opinions about me, I didn’t want to do anything off the map. If my 20-year-old self were in 2012, I’d say, “Buck up kid, just go do it.” But talking to my 20-year-old self in 1968, when the world didn’t know anything about that, I would consider that advice insane. The position that I’ve put myself in has brought a lot of young people to me asking advice and I tell them, “You have to be true to yourself and go do it.”
Gender identity is none of your damn business, get over it. Once you realize: this is my life and I’m going to run it, things become a lot easier.