Interview: America’s First Transgender Mayor
Campaign advice and more from the nation’s first out crossdressing mayor.
Stu Rasmussen, a lifelong resident of Silverton, Oregon, was recently reelected for his third term as mayor. This time, however, he campaigned in heels. We spoke with Stu about his career, his relationship with 30-year partner Victoria Sage, and being an out transgendered elected official.
The Girl Inside: Do you feel you’ve received more national attention since your reelection? What do you think fuels their curiosity?
Stu Rasmussen: Well, I think it’s — I hate to say it — but it’s sort of a freak show. It’s like, “Well what in the world are these people in this little Oregon town thinking, electing a transgender person to be their mayor?” And the closer you get to Silverton, if you’re inside the city limits, it isn’t even an issue. People have passed over that long ago. It’s like, honestly, when maybe the first black person moved to town there would be a stir because that was different, and the first Hispanic family moving to town — I mean, this is way before my time — it was different in the community but they got over it. And it’s just life here and business as usual. But it’s unusual to people on the outside and I think people in my situation are considering to be [sigh]… what’s the kindest way to say freakish? I mean, there isn’t a kind way. It’s just so far off the map for people to connect that somebody who’s transgendered might have some real qualities to them. And the community of Silverton has accepted that and either overlooks or fully accepts that well, yes, Stu’s transgendered, but he’s still Stu — or she’s still Stu — we go through the pronoun problem occasionally, too.
TGI: Yeah, I was going to ask which pronouns you prefer?
SR: [Laughs.] Anything but “it.” … You know, what do you call yourself? It really doesn’t matter to me what people call me. It’s what makes them comfortable, because that’s good for me. So people who have known me all my life will use “he,” and people who want to be politically correct or aren’t entirely sure will use “she,” or “ma’am” or whatever — and that’s perfectly fine too. There’s no correction to be done here. They are both right.
TGI: As far as you know, do you stand alone in the pool of transgendered politicians or is there an underground wellspring nobody knows about?
SR: Oh, I would guess that there is probably 3 to 5 percent of the male population that cross-dresses regularly and I would then call them transgendered. And out of that 3 to 5 percent, I’m sure some of them have had the public service bug bite them already. I am probably the only out transgender mayor in the United States, but I will bet you dollars to donuts that there are other city counselors, other mayors, other library board officials, other fire board officials, or whatever who are transgender and are still closeted. They may stay that way or they may be emboldened by my move to step above and poke their head up and say, “Oh, me too.” It is absolutely not possible that I’m the only one. I’m just the poor soul out in front.
TGI: How did you get involved in politics?
Stu Rasmussen: Hmm, I don’t think anybody voluntarily gets involved in politics. I was, years ago, concerned about a city issue and frustrated with the way it was dealt with. I said “Well, I can handle it better than that,” so I ran for office and figured out how the system worked … It was my intention to make at least local government a little more user-friendly.
TGI: Do you think you’ve managed to make it more user-friendly?
SR: I believe that I did at the time. … Things like having the business office opened later in the day than 4:30 or 5 o’clock. This is a commuter community. A lot of people who live here actually work out of town. So by the time they get home at 5:30 or 6, the city offices had all closed, and there was no way for people to get a hold of city government. So we instituted later weekday hours to handle business for people who couldn’t make it during the normal workday. We’ve streamlined some of the things we did in the way of building permits. We’ve adjusted some fees that seemed unreasonable, because we should be charging for fees and services based on what they actually cost to provide, not just an arbitrary number that we picked out of the air and said, “Well, we’ll charge $50 for that because that sounds like a good number.” That sort of thing.
TGI: Have you perceived a difference in attitude from the first… how many times have you been mayor?
SR: This is the third time I’ve been elected mayor. I was elected to the city council in 1984, elected mayor in 1988, reelected mayor in ’90, ran again for the council in ’92, spent four years on that term, and then I went off and sewed some wild oats. I tried to run for the state legislature at that time and was unsuccessful in those runs, so when I came back to city government, I got on the local library board for four years — ’96 to 2000 — and then from 2000 to 2004 I was operating businesses and various things and then ran again for city council in 2004 and got elected. So this is the end of the 2004 term and starting a mayor’s term which is two years.
TGI: And this is your first time as mayor presenting as a woman?
SR: That’s true, although in 2004, I was already what I am now and the community elected me with no problem.
TGI: So you haven’t noticed a perceived difference in the way that they regard you?
SR: No because I think I had the street cred starting out to be a reliable representative regardless of what the package looked like. That was really the issue. I mean if I ran on a platform of, “Elect me because I’m transgender,” it would’ve been a non-starter.
TGI: How did you make the decision to come out?
SR: Well, it was sort of an evolutionary thing. I mean I’ve been a cross-dresser since my teens. Deeply closeted, I found the Internet in the early ‘90s and found out I wasn’t the only person in the world who dressed in women’s clothes — it was actually an active support community out there — and I found a group in Portland, hooked up with them for a while and got comfortable with myself and came out a little more and a little more and a little more. And the earth didn’t open up, I didn’t fall into a sulfurous pit, and it was just a natural evolutionary process.
TGI: What was life like before coming out in comparison to the way things work now?
SR: Oh, I don’t think my life has changed significantly. I have to admit that I’m much happier not having to hide this aspect of myself from the rest of the world. If you spend all of your time worrying about what’s going to happen internally to you if somebody finds out this deep dark secret of yours, and it eats and eats and eats at you, you’re not happy. And I made the choice to come out and slowly crawled out that way, you know, testing the waters as I went along. It seemed the community was ready for it long before I was. I needed to do a check-up from the neck-up and get my head in the right place.
TGI: So is it everything you thought it would be?
SR: Well honestly, I’m having more fun than a drunkin’ cowboy with a brand new pick-up. Since I didn’t know what I thought it would be, it was unknown territory to me. It has turned out just fine. Had it gone in some other direction, I may have changed course at the time. There were continuous course adjustments as the process evolved and certainly things could be different. They could be better or they could be worse, but I am very pleased with the way my life has turned out. I’m very pleased with the active support and acceptance I’ve gotten from my community. I mean this is absolutely the best place on earth.
TGI: In light of the Prop 8 campaign that passed in California two weeks ago, how receptive to you are the religious communities in Silverton?
SR: I think that’s a tough nut to crack and I have not had any overt hostility — any organized overt hostility. There are one or two people that aren’t on the bus just yet and are harboring their own difficulties and fantasies with their lives. They will eventually get over it. … I’m not going away.
TGI: After 40 years, I think not.
SR: Well it’s beyond 40 years, I’m 60 years old. … I got a late start into politics. I think I was… what was I, 40? I guess I was late 30’s when I first got elected to something … 37 or 38.
TGI: How would you describe the political climate in the state, especially towards LGBT people?
SR: Well Oregon has always been a very progressive state. I think the last legislative session passed a non-discrimination ordinance that even included gender presentation and gender identity. So on the state level, we are doing just fine. Honestly, I haven’t kept track of gay marriage in the state because it’s not an issue for me, being that I identify as heterosexual. But I think there was a legislative action that allowed for gay marriage or gay unions and a group of religious people got together and tried to put a referendum on the ballot and didn’t get enough signatures to put it on. So for the time being, the state is in good shape. Constant vigilance is always required.
TGI: And how would you compare Silverton against the state?
SR: Silverton is a rural community and by definition that makes it somewhat more conservative than the rest of the state. The big cities like Portland and Eugene are relatively liberal compared to the rest of the state and because of the population numbers there, they sort of drive many of the social issues throughout the state. Silverton is more conservative and they have been able to accept me because I’m me; I’m not an unknown strange quantity from somewhere else; I am a local person that they have had a chance to grow up with and watch the evolutionary process and it’s happened slowly enough that they are comfortable with it. And that shows.
TGI: Do you have any advice for trans or cross-dressing people who are working towards a leadership position?
SR: Do it. What’s holdin’ them back? I will confess that twenty years ago I would not have said something that I perceived to be that foolish at that time — it was “Oh god, I couldn’t, no no no, what will people think? It will be terrible, it will be awful!” — and 99 percent of that is just between your own ears. The rest of the world has way too much on their plate, in their own lives, to worry about what you’re doing. If you are qualified and confident for any job, most employers — most electorates — don’t really care about your personal life as long as it first of all doesn’t impact them, and that you can get the job done.
TGI: Is it better to get the transgender issue out on the table or do you just deal with it when it comes up?
SR: If you are comfortable keeping it hidden and think that you can do that, then that’s up to you. But it’s the kind of thing that if you’re in the middle of a campaign, working towards an election, and you’ve given this impression that you are the straight-arrow heterosexual all-American guy, and your opponent finds out, “Oh, well he has a Victoria’s Secret catalog and he orders from it regularly,” that information coming out will kill a campaign. So, what I have done is, I call it blackmail-proofing myself. I did it years ago, so that if somebody in the town starts a whispering campaign, “Did you know that Stu wears women’s clothes?” and the whole town knows it, it’s like “Yeah. So?” It becomes a non-issue. We hear of other campaign where people are unfaithful to their wives or they’re closet homosexuals and the information comes out — your campaign is over. Regardless of how good a candidate you are, that information will just poison the entire rest of the campaign. You can’t get over it. So it’s easier to have it out in the first place.
TGI: Many of our readers are in committed relationships with women who get involved in their cross-dressing to varied extents, so we’re wondering how your partner, Victoria, has been involved in your coming out process.
SR: Well, honestly, when we first got together which was 1973, my cross-dressing was in the closet so I don’t think she knew about it. But, slowly as trust developed between the two of us and the urges to cross-dress became larger and larger, you know we moved in together and all of that, so I came out to her and she said, “OK.” You know that was the first indication that maybe this isn’t as bad as it could be OR that Victoria is the most special person in the world to me, one or the other. But it was very supportive. We are inveterate shoppers. We do thrift stores and Goodwills and we just both love clothing. Actually, me more than her — she lets me be the pretty one. But we collect costumes, we collect period pieces, and she has been my biggest supporter and I am her biggest fan.
TGI: So did you make a lot of decisions together about, for instance cross-dressing full-time or getting breast implants?
SR: Well you know we’ve been together and we are a unit, so a lot of this stuff got discussed before it happened but I’m not sure how the relationship would have faired had I not been able to be myself. So that fact that she was supportive has kept us together. And I don’t think she’s being supportive to keep us together, she just is and was. I know from talking to other transgender people that not everyone is in quite that good a relationship. Some marriages will fall apart over that issue or that may be an excuse for the relationship to fall apart if it wasn’t that good a relationship to start with. You really don’t know, it’s hard to analyze that as a postmortem. If the relationship is bad and there’s cross-dressing, that’s just going to put a log on the fire. If the relationship is good and there’s cross-dressing, it may not be a problem.
TGI: Have you guys had to navigate any tough spots regarding these issues?
SR: Oh we had a counselor for a while… actually the cross-dressing was never much of an issue in counseling, it was interpersonal communication and the usual relationship kinds of things. It was surprising that because she was so accepting of it that that didn’t come up at all. It was a side issue that said, “Oh well he wears dresses and he looks better than me.” It was like, nobody cared. … The lucky thing for us is we don’t wear the same size clothing, so she has hers and I have mine. We don’t fight over stuff.
TGI: Thanks so much Stu for talking with us today!
Image Credit: The Oregonian