By: Eugenia Jacobsen
Special to KCTS 9
In November 2008, the town of Silverton, Oregon became the unlikely site for a protest by four members of Westboro Baptist Church. The group has become famous for protesting at the funerals of American soldiers killed in action with the claim that God is punishing our country for allowing homosexuality. They were drawn to Silverton by the election of its newest mayor, Stu Rasmussen. Once in Silverton however, their protest was drowned out by the counter-protest of around 150 citizens of Silverton and supporters of Rasmussen.
Stu Rasmussen, who is also known as Carla Fong, was the target of Westboro Baptist Church’s ire for having been elected mayor by a decisive majority despite having chosen to go public with what had once been a secret he kept to himself. Plenty of politicians have become infamous for leading secret lives, but Stu Rasmussen is not just any politician.
Silverton, a small town of 9,500, has been Rasmussen‘s home nearly all his life. Until the late 1990s, his public life was no different than any other small-town politician: graduated from Silverton High School in 1966, attended the local Salem Tech (now Chemeketa Community College), held a series of jobs for software companies, and managed his father’s local Palace Theater. Beginning his political career in 1984 when he was elected as City Councilor, Rasmussen’s policies have been centered around fostering and sustaining Silverton’s “small-town lifestyle.” What makes Rasmussen’s story unique, however, is his decision to go public with his transgender identity. In 2000, Rasmussen received breast augmentation surgery and began dressing full-time in female clothing, making him the first openly transgender mayor in the United States.
As self-described, “dude, a heterosexual man who appears to be female,” Rasmussen states that he has been a cross-dresser all of his life, but it wasn’t until after he was well into his political career that he went public. He served two terms as Silverton’s mayor beginning with his election in 1988, was then re-elected as city councilor in 1992, and to the Silver Falls Library Board in 1996. He then took a break from city council positions until 2004 when he was elected again as a city councilor. Rasmussen began donning more feminine clothing in public. During this time, then-mayor Ken Hector instituted a business casual dress code for city council meetings, as an attempt to force Rasmussen to wear men’s clothing. Rasmussen later went on to defeat Hector in an election that caught national attention.
Just as Rasmussen has embraced his new lifestyle, his community, many of whom he knows personally, have been supportive of him in this new chapter of his life, electing him in 2008 with an impressive 52% to 39% against Hector. By becoming openly transgender, “I’ve blackmail-proofed myself,” Rasmussen said, as the campaign was dominated by policy issues rather than questions of his own changing public identity.
Proudly wearing lipstick, high heels and a full chest, Rasmussen adopted a name that suits his image, “Now, I write under the name Carla Fong, but basically, I’m Stu in Silverton. Honestly, it would be too much trouble to retrain the whole town.” Preferring the terms “crossdresser” or “transvestite,” Rasmussen has not considered having a sex change, “I can be perfectly happy in a man’s body,” he has said. Through the inevitable trials and turmoil of transitioning to be an openly transgender man, Rasmussen’s partner of over 35 years, Victoria Sage, has remained the love of his life and biggest supporter.
Outside of Silverton, Rasmussen has received an outpouring of support from LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) groups and has been widely celebrated for his bravery in “coming out.” His website proudly proclaims: “Apparently, I’m the first openly transgendered Mayor of any US city… this was a ‘first’ for the USA. Well, I guess somebody had to do it!”
If it’s true that “it takes a village to raise a child,” then maybe what Rasmussen’s story shows is that the child can grow up to raise the village. Silverton has widely embraced its unusual mayor perhaps because the town knows him so well that they don’t see anything unusual about one of their own with a record of successful leadership sitting at the mayor’s desk. When Rasmussen’s election drew protests from outside the community, it responded with support, compassion, and collective dedication. Seen from inside Silverton, the town’s “transvestite mayor” is just “the mayor,” whose election is a testament to the notion that when you care about others and work hard, you will be rewarded by the support of your peers.
Stu Rasmussen for Mayor of Silverton: Reality Check | Sturasmussen.com
The Oregon mayor's new clothes | latimes.com