Stewart “Stu” Rasmussen, believed to be the first out transgender mayor in the U.S., has died at age 73.
Rasmussen died Wednesday after suffering from metastatic prostate cancer, Kyle Palmer, the current mayor of Rasmussen’s town of Silverton, Ore., posted on Facebook.
Rasmussen was a self-described “gender anarchist” who used both he/him and she/her pronouns. Assigned male at birth, he served two terms pre-transition, beginning in 1988, as mayor of Silverton, a town of about 10,000 in western Oregon, near the state’s capital city, Salem. After coming out as trans, he was elected mayor again in 2008, making him the nation’s first known trans mayor. He served until 2014.
Three weeks after the 2008 election, protesters from the hateful Westboro Baptist Church arrived in Silverton. The town’s residents stood up for Rasmussen.
“It was a pretty unique moment,” Palmer told the Salem Statesman Journal. “Our citizens who dressed up in dresses. Many of them made signs saying ‘not in our town,’ ‘leave,’ ‘Stu is our mayor.’ I know it was extremely moving for him.”
Rasmussen held several other elective offices, with stints on the Silverton City Council and the Silver Falls Library Board. She also worked in technology and electronics; she was a video engineer and producer at Tektronix in Beaverton, Ore., early in her working life, then was a contractor for a variety of companies and an inventor.
Besides politics, though, his most lasting career was as co-owner of the Palace Cinema in Silverton. He and business partner Roger Paulson ran the single-screen theater from 1974 to 2020.
“I will never forget being allowed to see Star Wars twice a night for seven straight days as an eleven-year-old in 1977, but it also wasn’t uncommon to go to the Palace for the popcorn and just happen to enjoy a movie in the background,” Palmer wrote on Facebook. “The ridiculously low ticket prices and the fact that a whole family could have popcorn and a drink for less than $10 was a welcome relief as movies elsewhere became unaffordable for many.”
Running the Palace was one way Rasmussen fought to preserve Silverton’s small-town charm, which sometimes put her at odds with fellow politicians who advocated for pro-growth measures. “Change is not necessarily progress,” she told the Statesman Journal in 2015. “This town is really good at being a small town. It has charm, it has character, and you don’t want to destroy that.”
Rasmussen was gratified by the acceptance he found as a trans person in Silverton. “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,’” he said in the 2015 interview. “I transitioned in place. And the community came along with me.”
Rasmussen gave many speeches about her experience, and she became the subject of a stage musical, Stu for Silverton, which was produced in Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, and elsewhere. The creators of the musical recently finished filming a documentary about Rasmussen, focusing on the Westboro protest and the community’s response.
His life inspired many other trans people, said Victoria Sage, his partner since 1974 and wife since 2014. He received numerous letters, and “each is different, all are beautiful and heartwarming,” Sage told the Statesman Journal.
While there were some who criticized Rasmussen’s vision for Silverton, “the time for those conversations has long passed,” Palmer wrote on Facebook. “His volume of service to city government, his role as a longtime downtown business owner, and his impact on the LGBTQ population in Silverton and beyond leaves a huge legacy behind.”