Stewart “Stu” Rasmussen, who made history in 2008 as America’s first-ever openly trans elected mayor of the Oregon town of Silverton, has died at the age of 73.
Rasmussen, who used both he/him and she/her pronouns, passed away on Nov. 17 “after a number of weeks under home hospice care for metastatic prostate cancer,” according to a statement posted on Facebook by the current mayor of Silverton, Kyle Palmer. In the post, Palmer shared a message from Rasmussen’s longtime partner, Victoria Sage, who said Rasmussen “went bravely into the unknown on his own terms.”
Prior to the 2008 mayoral election that made her a household name, Rasmussen, born Sept. 9, 1948, was already a well-known figure in Silverton, the town she called home her entire life.
A local politician whose career spanned decades, Rasmussen began his tenure in public service in 1988, according to the Statesman Journal. After completing her first term as mayor, Rasmussen later served another term in office in the 1990s before a third landmark win in 2008. In the intervening years, Rasmussen remained a Willamette Valley mover and shaker as a city councillor.
Despite Rasmussen’s veteran status as a public official, his 2008 campaign was the first in which he ran as an openly trans person, then in her late 50s. Speaking with The Independent at the time, Rasmussen described his decision to come out later in life in lighthearted terms. “Some guys’ mid-life crisis is motorcycles or sports cars or climbing mountains or trophy wives or whatever,” she joked. “Mine is different. I always wanted cleavage, so I went out and acquired some.”
Described by The Oregonian as someone who “[cut] a distinct figure among his flannel-clad neighbours,” Rasmussen felt a deep tenderness for the people of Silverton, a city he once described as “a place that takes you for who you are.” The adoration was seemingly mutual, with Rasmussen winning the 2008 election by a 15-point margin, per The Independent.
Following her win, Rasmussen attracted international attention—and some controversy. As the New Statesman noted, members of the Westboro Baptist Church traveled to Silverton sto protest Rasmussen’s election and were met by Silverton citizens in counterprotest, many of whom wore dresses in solidarity with the mayor.
These events, in turn, inspired the 2013 musical Stu for Silverton, which was based on Rasmussen’s life story. Written by composer and lyricist Breedlove and playwright Peter Duncan, Stu for Silverton premiered at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, Washington. In their write-up of the show, the Seattle Times called the production “a fond tribute to small-town Americana at its best, and to the kind of tolerance ordinary citizens can rise to.”
In 2018, the musical made its Broadway debut as a staged reading and starred trans activist, author and performance artist Kate Bornstein.
Recalling Rasmussen’s ability to forge genuine, lasting bonds with the community she served, Palmer said his predecessor “had some way of connecting to people that made everybody feel like they knew him.
“I could talk all day about him because I don’t think many people knew him deeply,” Silverton’s sitting mayor told the Statesman Journal.
Rasmussen, a socially progressive but fiscally conservative Democrat, held mayoral office until 2014, when he was defeated by Rick Lewis. Despite the loss, Rasmussen remained a town fixture as a co-owner of the local movie theatre.
In his Facebook tribute, Palmer expressed the enormity of Rasmussen’s impact on the city, along with the importance of the legacy she leaves behind.
“Throughout his career as an elected official, Stu advocated for many things on behalf of those who shared his vision for Silverton,” Palmer wrote. “Although citizens can debate their support or lack of support for some of those visions, the time for those conversations has long passed. His impact on the LGBTQ population in Silverton and beyond leaves a huge legacy behind.”
In a 2015 interview, Rasmussen shared hopes that his successful tenure as an out-and-proud trans mayor in small-town America would inspire others within the LGBTQ2S+ community to carve out spaces to thrive. “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,’” Rasmussen told the Silverton Appeal Tribune. “I transitioned in place. And the community came along with me.”