Stu Rasmussen, who in 2008 became what is believed to be the first openly transgender mayor in America, died Nov. 17 at his home in Silverton, Oregon, where he had served in various elected offices for the better part of 30 years. Rasmussen, who identified as a woman but typically used masculine pronouns, was 73.
His wife, Victoria Sage, said the cause was prostate cancer.
Silverton, an agricultural community with about 9,200 residents and a jewel box of a downtown, is about an hour south of Portland and a half-hour east of Salem, the state capital. Despite an influx of people that tripled the population since Rasmussen was young, it was hardly the sort of place one might expect to find such a pathbreaking politician.
But Rasmussen defied many conventions, gender being just one of them. He belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association. He was socially progressive but fiscally conservative, and he butted heads with growth-oriented city leaders when he blocked new subdivisions or upgrades to local infrastructure.
He was intensely private — but also, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “easily the most recognized person in the community,” a fact established long before he went public with his new gender identity, in 1998.
A lifelong resident of Silverton, he was an engineer and entrepreneur who brought cable TV to the town in the 1970s — often wiring customers himself — and remained a reliable Mr. Fix-It for his neighbors, the person they called to repair a janky fuse box or a buggy computer.
He also co-owned and operated Silverton’s only first-run movie theater, the Palace. He sold the tickets, served the popcorn, ran the projector and often stood out front dressed as a character from whatever film was showing inside.
He entered politics in the mid-1980s, first on the City Council and then for two two-year terms as mayor, both times identifying as a man. He ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature, twice, before returning to Silverton politics in 2004, this time as a woman.
By then, the community had largely come to accept his new identity.
“Nobody really cared,” said Kyle Palmer, the current mayor of Silverton. “Everyone knew him, so that part of him didn’t get a reaction.”
He served two terms on the council before running again for mayor in 2008, defeating an eight-term incumbent and drawing international headlines for taking to the hustings in high heels and a low-cut blouse.
Three weeks after the election, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious group in Topeka, Kansas, known for staging hate-filled, anti-gay protests at military funerals and other ceremonies, held a small rally in Silverton, where they lofted signs condemning Rasmussen and the town.
But an even larger number of locals turned out for a counterprotest. Some 200 people, including several men who had dressed in women’s clothing for the occasion, held their own signs, reading “Jesus Loves Stu” and “Stu Rocks.”
The encounter, which also drew national attention, later inspired a musical, “Stu for Silverton,” which debuted in Seattle in 2013.
Despite his celebrity, Rasmussen spent his second stint as mayor, from 2009 to 2015, with his head down, focused on the sort of issues that undergird most of life in small-town America. He built a skatepark and a senior center. He established an early warning system at a nearby dam. He ran council meetings. He was, in most ways that mattered, no different from any other politician, and the town treated him that way.
“A lot of people who are transgender think, ‘I can’t be myself here. I have to go somewhere else, go to Portland or to San Francisco, and let the other side of me come out,’ ” he told the Salem Statesman-Journal in 2015. “I transitioned in place. And the community came along with me.”
Stewart Alan Rasmussen was born Sept. 9, 1948. His father, Albert, was a Danish immigrant who at various points in his life panned for gold, delivered mail and managed the Palace theater. His mother, Nan (Dowling) Rasmussen, was a homemaker.
Rasmussen received an associate degree in electrical engineering in 1971 from what is now Chemeketa Community College, in Salem, after which he spent nearly eight years working for a tech company in Beaverton, a western suburb of Portland. It was the only time in his life he lived outside Silverton.
Rasmussen began dating Sage in the mid-1970s, and they married in 2014. She is his only survivor.
Although he was considered a pillar of the community, by the mid-2010s many people in Silverton had soured on his leadership, which some felt was heavy-handed and too conservative. He lost reelection in 2014, as well as a comeback attempt in 2018, against Palmer, who had taken office in 2017.
He continued to run the Palace theater until early 2020, when the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit the Pacific Northwest. A few months later, he called Palmer to tell him he had terminal cancer.
“He was a thoughtful force for what he thought was good for Silverton,” Palmer said. “His legacy is as someone who gave everything he could in the time that he had.”