RESIDENTS OF SILVERTON, OREGON, like to say their town is "40 miles and 40 years from Portland." If you visit in early January, the sign on the Assembly of God church may still read HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS. If you're friendly when you check into the lone hotel, the clerk will likely thank you "for the smile." And if you stop by the Rolling Hills Bakery, which has the best muffins around, you'll probably learn that it was recently saved from bankruptcy by a handful of locals who stepped up to cook, clean, and work behind the counter—without pay.
On the first Monday night of the year, the parking lots at the community center on Water Street are full. Most of the cars belong to the women who've mobbed the Jazzercise class. The rest belong to the 30 or so people on hand to watch the newly elected mayor take the oath of office. Though the gathering is small—a good 2 million heads fewer than the crowd that will greet President Barack Obama at his inauguration—the occasion is momentous, at least for the 9,500 citizens of Silverton. Stu Rasmussen is about to become the nation's first openly transgender mayor.
"Normally, I dress to thrill," he says. But on this evening, instead of the custom-made corsets and leopard-print bathing suit he favors as tops, the 60-year-old Rasmussen—who prefers to be called not Your Honor or Mr. Mayor but rather Stu—has donned a demure red sweater that clashes with his dyed auburn hair. It does, however, match his acrylic nails—which he wears at a length Dolly Parton would admire—as well as the tights he reveals whenever he crosses his legs, opening the Beyoncé-length slit in his black silk skirt. Try as he might to tone down his look, he cannot keep the sweater from clinging to his chest. To all who rubberneck at the sight of the breast implants he got in 2000, Rasmussen says, "Yeah, they're real—real big!"
Longtime mayor Ken Hector, who lost his bid for re-election by 519 votes, stands quietly next to the man who beat him. He's dressed in a red sweater vest. To honor Hector's 16 years of service, Rasmussen presents him with a crystal clock. "Now you'll have plenty of time on your hands," he says. Rasmussen then places his left hand on a Bible, raises his right hand in the air, and pledges "to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of Oregon, and faithfully perform my duties as mayor." After some handshakes, he takes a seat on the dais, puts on a pair of reading glasses, and props his chin atop the crimson-tipped fingers he once used to rebuild a Chevy Suburban engine. He leans forward and, in the voice of a man introducing a burlesque act, says, "You're probably wondering why I've asked you here."
STU RASMUSSEN WAS BORN in Silverton in 1948, and except for a few years in the eighties when he worked for electronics companies in Portland, he has lived in his hometown ever since. Like his father before him, he manages the single-screen Palace Theatre, where a general-admission ticket will set you back $5.95. He started dressing in women's clothes in his mid-teens, when his mother's fifties-housewife look caught his eye. "My mom was a classy dresser," he says. "I have her hair and my dad's face." In his mid-twenties, while commuting to Portland to work as a projectionist at the Fifth Avenue Cinema, he met the woman who would become his girlfriend of 35 years. "She was a popcorn girl," he says. "It was lust at first sight."
Victoria Sage now works at Silverton's Silver Creek Coffee House, where, leaning over the counter during the lunch shift, she recalls the day she found a bra in her boyfriend's apartment. They had just started dating, and he hadn't told her yet about the miniskirts and five-inch heels that seemed to suit him better than the sloppy flannel shirts and jeans he wore every day. Some five years later, she says, he announced that he had this deep, dark secret. "I thought, This is scary. But when he told me, it was like, What's more threatening? A bra that's his or someone else's?"
In 1984, his secret stowed safely in the studio apartment he shared with Sage and in the basement of the theater, Rasmussen ran for a spot on the city council and won. In 1988, he was elected mayor. And then again in 1990. But he surprised the citizens of Silverton in 2000, when he "got tits," as Sage puts it. After a year of strapping silicone breast molds under his shirts to make certain he wanted to go through with what he calls "adopting the twins," Rasmussen paid $4,000 for 425-cubic-centimeter saline implants, better known to all mankind as 36Ds. The way he sees it, they're purely cosmetic. "To go entirely female didn't appeal to me," he says. "This body is exactly where I want to be." So he remains a fully functional male. But now he fills out the thrift-store showgirl dresses he buys on his semiannual trips to Vegas. And . . . "anytime I want I can fondle the breasts of a 19-year-old girl," he says. As for Sage, her reaction to her boyfriend's cantaloupes is ho-hum. "If it makes him happy," she says, "that's fine." Little by little, Rasmussen's outfits got tighter, until they started turning heads. He wore a strapless green leather dress to the St. Patrick's Day parade and squeezed himself into a fluffy white number to collect tickets for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Soon the citizens of Silverton started wondering, "What's going on with Stu?" Sage heard the whispers at the grocery store. Parents stopped bringing their kids to the movie theater. But over time, most of the townspeople got used to seeing their former mayor trekking to the tanning salon in a gold shift (he goes about twice a week, to mask his stubble). Every once in a while, one of the guys might tell him, "I saw this woman walking through town. She had nice legs, great cleavage—and then I was like, Oh, it's Stu." A local mother told Sage that her 3-year-old son had tottered out of a closet in high heels and said, "Look, Mom—I'm Stu."
In 2004, Rasmussen was re-elected to the city council. In 2006, he decided to take another run at mayor. He ignored the skeptics who questioned whether a man in lipstick could lead the town, and he lost. So he ran again in 2008, only this time he altered his strategy, posting a photo of himself in a revealing black top on his website. During the town-hall debate, he squared off against Ken Hector and a candidate named Jim Squires. When all three men were asked how they planned to increase tourism, Squires and Hector pointed to the Oregon Garden, an eight-year-old, 80-acre refuge that drew about 6,000 visitors a month. Rasmussen pointed to himself. "If you're looking for a tourist attraction," he said, "elect me."
No matter what he wears, it seems, the man is a savvy politician. Describing himself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, he artfully created a campaign that resonated with people who liked things as they were. There was no need for the two stoplights Hector had installed for $1.4 million, Rasmussen argued, when stop signs would do just fine. "I had a vision of this community as it was when I was growing up," he says. "I said, 'Let's not destroy it. Let's be a really good small town.'" And so he went to war with the slogan "Keep Silverton Silverton."
On the night of the election, Rasmussen and Sage sat with a Kleenex box labeled CRYING TOWELS on one side and victory flags on the other. He won 52 percent of the vote, to Hector's 39 and Squires' 9, and Silverton, once known as the place where Clark Gable worked in a lumber mill, suddenly became a small town with big-city tolerance. These days it's not uncommon to find reporters from People magazine and TV crews from CNN shadowing the mayor as he strolls from his office downtown to the coffeehouse, where he fields questions from his constituents. When Fred Phelps, founder of the Baptist church that launched the website godhatesfags.com, led members of his congregation to Silverton from Topeka, Kansas, last November to protest the coronation of a man who carries a purse, nearly 200 residents greeted them outside City Hall. More than a few were dressed in drag. "Go home," they chanted. "We like our mayor." Sitting in the café, over a cup of coffee and a bagel, Rasmussen tears up at the memory of the brush-off Phelps and his foot soldiers received. "They were treated like freaks," he says.