On July 20, Stuart Rasmussen, the mayor of Silverton, Ore., population 9,222, sat in the third row of Seattle's Intiman Theatre, surrounded by a sold-out crowd. His partner of more than 30 years, Victoria Sage, sat on his left, occasionally squeezing his arm. Andrew Russell, the director of the night's performance, sat on his right. As the house lights dimmed, the three intently watched the stage: Stu for Silverton, a musical about Rasmussen's life, was about to begin its world premiere, and neither Rasmussen nor Sage had any idea what to expect.
"It was the most surreal experience of my life," Rasmussen said afterwards. "And I'm talking about a life that's had more than its share of surreal experiences."
Stu for Silverton tells the story of Rasmussen, a Silverton native who, in his mid-40s, began to dress publicly as a woman. Rasmussen had always been deeply involved with his community, a former timber-mill town near the state capitol of Salem: He ran the local movie theatre, was active in local politics, and had a knack for fixing computers and cars. Though he'd long recognized his desire to dress as a woman, he kept it private, afraid of his hometown's reaction. Finally, with the fierce, steadfast support of Sage, he began his metamorphosis.
First, he simply manicured his nails. He followed with acrylic tips, then red acrylic tips, and then the occasional skirt and padded bra. In 2000, Rasmussen traveled to Portland for breast-implant surgery. (He remains biologically male.) Today, at age 64, he wears a cascade of bright red curls and favors miniskirts, three-inch heels and revealing necklines.
Most of his neighbors were shocked and scandalized, just as he had feared. But their initial consternation faded with time and familiarity, and in 2008, Rasmussen became the country's first openly transgender mayor. By that time, even his political opponents were more likely to complain about his cautious approach to community growth than his unusual silhouette. ("I'd basically blackmail-proofed myself," Rasmussen comments.) And when members of the Westboro Baptist Church came to town to protest Rasmussen's election, some 200 Silvertonians of all political convictions organized a noisy counter-demonstration. A dozen or so men attended in dresses. Rasmussen still chokes up when he talks about the show of support.
When Russell approached Rasmussen about creating a musical based on his life story, Rasmussen granted him full creative control, requesting only that Silverton and its citizens be portrayed positively. Russell agreed, and made good on his promise. While Rasmussen and Sage are clearly the play's heroes, one of the most poignant lines is spoken by Rasmussen's estranged best friend, a composite character who struggles with Rasmussen's transformation. "You see the rest of us making do with the cards we're dealt," he says angrily. "What makes you think you can go fishing for the cards you want?" Rasmussen's radical leap of faith created not only confusion and fear but also a kind of envy. With strong performances, catchy lyrics, and what The Seattle Times called "vivaciously clever" staging, Stu for Silverton is rich in emotional subtleties.
The play takes some liberties with the facts, rearranging timelines and simplifying events for dramatic effect, and is in some ways a fairytale of small-town generosity and acceptance. In reality, Rasmussen has his detractors like any other politician, and his wardrobe isn't always applauded: In 2009, for example, he was censured by his city council for wearing an especially short miniskirt to an elementary school function. But the essentials of the play are true. Mayor Stu, a model of fiscal if not sartorial restraint, remains personally and politically popular, and he was re-elected in 2010 and again in 2012.
In the theatre's courtyard after the opening performance, Russell raised a toast to Rasmussen, thanking him for his trust in the project. Rasmussen, who wore a black V-neck dress and black patent-leather heels, surveyed the cast, crew and audience -- which included about a dozen Silvertonians -- with a dazed expression. The crowd cheered wildly.
Since opening night, many more Silvertonians have made the trek to Seattle to see their mayor portrayed on stage, and both Rasmussen and Sage say the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. "No one in Silverton would be unhappy if I'd never come out as transgender," Rasmussen acknowledges. "But I'm happier now than I've ever been."
"Can I second that?" says Sage. "Because I see it, too. He is somewhat easier to live with."
Rasmussen laughs. "Somewhat. Only somewhat."