Chris Lehman, Northwest News Network
The mayor of Silverton, Oregon is one of a kind. Stu Rasmussen is the nation’s only transgendered mayor. It’s a distinction that generated international headlines and even a protest by the anti-gay group, Westboro Baptist Church. Now, Rasmussen’s saga has a new twist: A musical about his life. It’s hitting the stage in Seattle this summer.
In a small rehearsal room in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, long-time actor Mark Anders is preparing for a role like none he’s had before.
Anders has the lead in “Stu for Silverton.” Stu Rasmussen is and remains a man. But he dresses like a woman and has breast implants. You can see how this might lend itself to an interesting stage production.
One scene is in the mid 1970’s. As a young man, Rasmussen had an epiphany watching the cross-dressing movie Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A line from a song goes like this: “What I see in front of me is the kind of man I want to be. I feel like I’m alive for the first time at the Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
But “Stu for Silverton” is as much about the town of Silverton as it’s about its mayor. The opening sounds an awful lot like “Our Town” as a narrator extols the virtues of this small farming community.
“A town named for Silver Creek, which flows just south of Water Street. A geographical trivium which should surprise no one. Listen close. Go on. You can hear the water rushing.”
I came here to Silverton to talk with Stu himself. He remembers the day he got a phone call from the director and creative force behind “Stu for Silverton,” Andrew Russell.
“When I hung up the phone after having that conversation, I looked at Victoria and said ‘You’re not going to believe this. There’s a guy on the phone that wants to do a musical,’” Rasmussen says.
Victoria’s his partner of more than 30 years, who’s supported Stu’s transition. I met up with Stu in front of a downtown coffee shop, where he’s munching on a cream cheese bagel and doing a crossword puzzle. He says his response to the idea of making a musical out of his life was basically, go for it. With one caveat:
“I wanted to be sure that Silverton was treated fairly,” Rasmussen says. “This is a great town, and we’re not going to be made fun of, we’re not going to be insulted.”
There’s a reason why Rasmussen is so fond of Silverton. It’s not just because he was born and raised here. It’s not just because in 2008, the town elected him the nation’s first transgendered mayor. Then re-elected him. Then re-elected him again. There’s more. Stu also loves Silverton because of what happened after Jonathan Phelps of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church came to town shortly after the 2008 election.
Rasmussen knew the Kansas-based group was coming.
“My response was, well the best thing we can do was to just ignore them,” he says. “Then they’ll go away and they’ll collapse under their own weight. Apparently the town was not going to have any of that.”
The people of Silverton flocked to Stu’s defense. Some of the men even wore dresses as a sign of support. Bill Jones held a sign that said “Jesus Loves Stu.”
“I just want people to know that in fact Jesus did not preach any kind of hatred or judgment, and that he loves everyone,” Jones says.
That showdown took place just down the street from where I interviewed Stu. And as he tells me the story, tears fill his eyes.
“Sorry, it’s four years, five years now,” he says. “And I still tear up when I recall these events. It’s just an amazing town and an amazing response. I love it here.”
A few weeks after I covered that protest, I got a call from the producers of the public radio program “Radiolab.” They were doing a story on Stu and wanted to know if I could send them some tape. So I did…and guess who eventually heard the piece?
“Stu for Silverton” director Andrew Russell.
“I remember very vividly where I was biking and listening to the story,” Russell recalls. “At the time, I was living in Manhattan and it was right along the Hudson River.”
What struck Russell most about the saga of Stu Rasmussen was not the cross-dressing or the protesting. It was the fact that after all these years, Stu still lives in Silverton.
“I grew up gay in the Midwest and my psychology was always okay, well, I will one day leave. I will go to the east coast and then I will finally be myself,” Russell says. “And never had it entered my mind that if I had just stayed put and trusted in the love of people around me that they would come round.”
So in the end, says Russell, “Stu for Silverton” isn’t really about someone who decided to get breast implants and dress up like a woman. It’s about everyone who’s ever felt different and decided to embrace it.
“Stu for Silverton” debuts at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre on July 20th.
On the Web:
“Stu for Silverton” - Intiman Theatre Festival
Mayor Stu Rasmussen - City of Silverton