Aug 19, 2010

New Stu

Reporter Aaron Scott brings us the story of Stu Rasmussen, of Silverton, Oregon, an avid metalworker, woodworker, and electrician - and in 2008 our country's first transgender mayor. News of his election swept the country, but what was it like at home?

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JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: And I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. Our topic today?


ROBERT: Choice and human destinies.


JAD: Yeah, with the way we are ...


ROBERT: Is that the way we're gonna stay?


JAD: Ah, very nicely put.


ROBERT: Yes. In the last section, we were talking about baboons and their propensity to serious change, which is a maybe or a maybe not. We don't really know.


JAD: Yeah, we'll know in a thousand years.


ROBERT: But let's switch our ape. We'll go to Oregonians, which is a rare subset of human beings.


JAD: [laughs] To set it up, we were thinking a lot about small groups on this show, you know, because that's what we are. We are small group primates. That's the phrase that's sometimes used to describe us humans. And it's a phrase that can carry some negative connotations. As in, "We evolved in these small groups, so we are predisposed to be small minded." No! Small is not always a bad thing. I'm going to tell you a story now that's a small group story. It's—just as a warning, contains a moment or two that's a tiny bit graphic, but we hope you'll stick with it because it's a really cool story. Takes place in a small town. Like, really small. The kind of town ...


STU RASMUSSEN: ... where you can dial the wrong number and still have a conversation.


JAD: Because you know everybody.


JAD: So tell me where we are, and ...


STU RASMUSSEN: Beautiful downtown Silverton. Essentially, our downtown has not changed since the late-'40s, early-'50s.


JAD: Oh, yes it has. But we'll get to that. This is Stu Rasmussen. He is our main character. And a little while back, Stu gave myself and producer Aaron Scott a tour.


STU RASMUSSEN: Movie theater on the corner. The old hardware store on this corner. This building ...


JAD: A tour of his favorite place on Earth: Silverton, Oregon, which is about 40 miles from Portland. It's about 40 years from Portland, actually.


STU RASMUSSEN: You know, it's the town I grew up in, and this is my image for what I want Silverton to be. You know, I rode my bicycle down this street and came to the hardware store to ...


MOTORIST: [car honking] How're you doing?


STU RASMUSSEN: We're doing good. Vince. How are you?


JAD: Does that happen to you a lot? People just honk and wave?


STU RASMUSSEN: All the time. It's a small town. Everybody knows me.


JAD: If it were up to Stu, this town would never change. It would stay frozen in that quaint Norman Rockwell, candy-coated image from his boyhood. The weird thing though, is that that image in his head would probably never have included a guy like Stu. At least Stu as he is now. And if this is a show about change, here is a story about a pretty radical bit of change where you wouldn't expect to find it.


JAD: Speaking of which, can you describe where we are and what we're looking at?


STU RASMUSSEN: Well, we're standing in front of the Palace Theater on the corner of Oak and Water Street.


JAD: This is one of those Gone With the Wind theaters, where it's the big marquee and the bulb lights and everything.


STU RASMUSSEN: Built in 1935 and in continuous operation ever since.


JAD: Stu pulls out some keys and opens it up.


JAD: It's starting to get really cold.


JAD: He suggested that we do the interview here in the town's only theater.


JAD: Mmm, it even smells like a gilded-age theater.


JAD: Which at 1:00 p.m. still smelled like popcorn from the previous night, and was filled with nothing but 200 empty red velvet seats.


STU RASMUSSEN: It's not what you expect in a small town theater.


JAD: No, this is beautiful!


WOMAN: Are you gonna go ahead and turn the lights off?




WOMAN: Okay. See you later.


STU RASMUSSEN: Okay. Thank you.


JAD: We plopped ourselves ...


JAD: Right here. What do you think?


JAD: ... best seats in the house. Right in the middle.


JAD: Let's sit and pretend we're watching the movie of your life.


STU RASMUSSEN: [laughs] Well, there's a dull movie.


JAD: [laughs]


JAD: Hardly. So the movie of Stu begins in 1975. He's 27, and he's in a theater just like this.


STU RASMUSSEN: Seminal moment in my life was when The Rocky Horror Picture Show came out.


JAD: Stu is in the projectionist booth because that's his job. He's changing the reels. And at some point during one of the musical numbers, he glances at the screen.


STU RASMUSSEN: And it was like, "Oh!"


JAD: What was—what was the, "Oh?"


STU RASMUSSEN: Here was this movie with a guy in drag on screen.


[FILM CLIP, Rocky Horror Picture Show: I'm just a sweet transvestite ...]


STU RASMUSSEN: He's a sweet transvestite.


[FILM CLIP, Rocky Horror Picture Show: ... from Transsexual ...]


STU RASMUSSEN: From Transsexual Transylvania.


[FILM CLIP, Rocky Horror Picture Show: Transylvania.]


STU RASMUSSEN: Those are words that I've never heard. I watched that again and again.


JAD: Fast forward 10 years, Stu now owns the theater, just like his dad had before him. He's an upstanding member of the town. He's on the Silverton city council, then on the library board. And then he starts to transform. And everyone will tell you it began with the nails.


STU RASMUSSEN: I think I probably started having my nails done in '94 or '95. And it started out with very masculine nails without polish and square ends, and then slowly grew them out. And then I went into what I considered a masculine nail color of blue.


JAD: And then he says he gradually started to paint them red. Then he put acrylic tips, which got longer and longer.


STU RASMUSSEN: This was the first test of the community.




LORI: Good evening, sir.


STU RASMUSSEN: How are you?


STU RASMUSSEN: Because I would be at the theater taking tickets.


CHILD: Can I have two tickets?


JAD: He'd be dressed as usual in his plaid shirt and jeans.


STU RASMUSSEN: And this hand would come out for their ticket, and ...


[FILM CLIP: What in the hell are those?]


STU RASMUSSEN: You can't miss it.


DENNIS BEAN: And, you know, he had the long fingernails.


JAD: That's Dennis Bean, longtime Silvertonian.


MEGAN DISALVO: One time when I had to give him my ticket ...


JAD: And that's Megan Disalvo. She's 17.


MEGAN DISALVO: And he rips it and, like, his nails, like, went down the palm of my hand and just gave me the chills.


CAL PALMER: Yeah. I think probably his nails were the first thing most people noticed.


JAD: Cal Palmer, veterinarian and city councilman.


CAL PALMER: Born and raised here in Silverton.


AARON SCOTT: Like, was there talk? Were people ...


CAL PALMER: Oh, definitely talk. But it happened so gradually.


JAD: Which is something you hear again and again, "It happened gradually."


CAL PALMER: You know, first it was the nails and, and then at some point in time, he changed the focus of the movie theater, and was really making a game attempt to get new releases down in the theater.


KEN HECTOR: And frequently, you know, when there was a theme kind of movie, he would get into costume. My name is Ken Hector, former mayor of Silverton, Oregon. And very often, the costume would be female attire.


JAD: This is step two of Stu's very careful transition. According to everyone we spoke with, for years after the nails he would "promote" that week's movie by dressing up.


CAL PALMER: One of the new Star Wars movies was out, and it wasn't a coincidence he was dressed as Queen Amidala.


[FILM CLIP, Star Wars: Come back! I love you!]


CAL PALMER: Whatever name is from the movie.


JOHN BUCK: Years ago, I remember—some years ago there was a movie called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.


JAD: That's John Buck, also a lifelong Silvertonian.


JOHN BUCK: That whole day he wandered around town in a wedding dress, complete with a veil.


LINDA WEBB: That, of course, got everybody talking.


JOHN BUCK: Yeah, a lot of people laughed about it.


LINDA WEBB: And at first, I don't think people put it together with ...


JAD: This is Linda Webb. She's a registered nurse.


LINDA WEBB: Sexuality, transgender or any of those things. I think we thought he was just dressing up to go along with his—with his movie.


CAL PALMER: There was clearly a, "Let's go by the movie theater tonight, because we've got to know what Stu's wearing.


JAD: But for Stu, this was just the beginning of something. He was—he wasn't just clowning around.


JAD: When did your gender complexities begin?


STU RASMUSSEN: Probably 14 or 15. I think I was a shy young man, and interfacing with girls—my mother was a bit strange on that, in that girls were evil and they would—no girl was good enough for her son and da da da da da. So ...


JAD: Did you date at all?


STU RASMUSSEN: Not until I was out of high school.


JAD: So girls were kind of scary, it sounds like.


STU RASMUSSEN: Oh, girls were scary. Yeah.


JAD: While everybody else went on dates, he says, he would build computers from scratch. And even today in his basement, you'll find an entire electrical shop.


JAD: Oh my God!


STU RASMUSSEN: Fun stuff. RF generator, spectrum analyzer, logic analyzer, another logic analyzer.


JAD: In any case, Stu says the best that he can explain himself gender-wise, it's just to say that when he looks in the mirror, he likes himself better when he's dressed as a woman.


STU RASMUSSEN: I don't know how to describe it. It's just—I can't understand it. I mean, some people like to dress up and look like a cowboy or a lumberjack or whatever. You know, it's your mental image of yourself that you look in the mirror and you like.


JAD: So after the nails, after dozens of episodes of socially-acceptable cross-dressing, Stu took the next step. He began to perform some experiments. Like, he would go to the lumberyard just to get some stuff.


STU RASMUSSEN: A couple of pounds of nails or something.


JAD: All the while, he would be wearing a padded bra under his flannel shirt, just to see what would happen.


JAD: So this for you was like a test. It was like a calculated test to gauge ...


STU RASMUSSEN: Absolutely. If it was possible. If I could survive with breasts.


JAD: So when he was 52, he drove into Portland, visited a doctor who put him to sleep. And the doctors made two small incisions.


STU RASMUSSEN: One under each breast, about an inch and a half or two inches long.


JAD: Then they pulled back the skin on each side, slid in an uninflated balloon.


STU RASMUSSEN: And then pumped it up with water until the skin was stretched to the point that it was almost transparent.


JAD: That sounds very painful. Was it?


STU RASMUSSEN: Well, I was asleep at the time.


JAD: But when he woke up he was a different man, because he now had several pounds of new stuff hanging off his chest.


JAD: What were you thinking at that moment?


STU RASMUSSEN: I was thinking, "What have I done?" It was like there's no going back.


LINDA WEBB: I can remember being in Mac's Place, downtown at a table, and he was coming across the street with his breasts prominently showing. And it was the first time any of us realized that he had actually had surgery. And one lady was going, "Look! Look!" And the other lady was going, "Don't look! Don't look!"


KEN HECTOR: You know, you would see Stu going across the street and oh my God, look at Stu!


LINDA WEBB: My God, what is he doing?


KEN HECTOR: It's just sort of shocking.


CAL PALMER: There was a buzz around town.


JAD: Was it a situation where he'd walk by and then heads would turn, hushed voices would ensue.


VICTORIA SAGE: Yes, basically.


JAD: This is Victoria Sage, Stu's longtime girlfriend. They've been together for 36 years.


VICTORIA SAGE: So we would be walking in our local Goodwill and we'd be a few aisles away from each other, and I would hear, "That used to be Stu Rasmussen." Like he had changed somehow. Stu's just trying to fulfill that body image he's got in his head.


JAD: But he's also kind of in a way asked you to adjust your body image of your mate. Has that been difficult?




JAD: Okay.




JAD: [laughs]


VICTORIA SAGE: No, I'm sorry. If you—if you want to get kinky about it, a man with tits is kinda cool.


JAD: Huh! Okay. Did—was there ever any concern?


VICTORIA SAGE: There was for me. Not so much for Stu, I think, partly because he didn't hear as many whispers as I felt I did. But I was concerned for the theater business.


JAD: Not without reason. A lot of kids in the town stopped coming to the theater because their parents wouldn't let them. Ticket sales took a hit, and it wasn't long before pickup trucks full of teenage boys would drive by the theater yelling slurs.


VICTORIA SAGE: Oh, I don't know that I go so far as—well, yeah. I guess—I guess "faggot" is a slur, I guess.


JAD: So you get to this point in the sped-up movie narrative of Stu, this point right here, where even though he took it so slowly and was so careful, it's still easy to imagine things turning ugly.


LINDA WEBB: I don't know. What was that movie about the boy that was, you know, drug and beat to death because he was gay in a small town in the Midwest. You know, what ...


AARON: Matthew Shepard?




JAD: Might be a little extreme, but according to Linda Webb, Silverton's not so different from Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard lived. It's a small town.


LINDA WEBB: Very traditional.


JAD: Very conservative.


DENNIS BEAN: You know, you got a lot of rednecks in Silverton.


JAD: That's how Dennis Bean puts it. So it's not crazy to expect the worst. But here's the surprise, and the whole reason we came here to Silverton.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: Monday, January 5, 2009.]


JAD: The worst did not happen.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.]


JAD: There was no redneck rebellion. In fact, the opposite happened.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: Please raise your right hand ...]


JAD: Something historic.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: ... and repeat after me. I ...]


JAD: On January 5, 2009, the town of Silverton elected Stu mayor.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Silverton City Council meeting: .. of the city of Silverton, Marion County, Oregon. Congratulations.]


[NEWS CLIP: Silverton has elected the nation's first openly transgender mayor.]


[NEWS CLIP: The nation's first openly transgender mayor.]


[NEWS CLIP: Well, change is definitely in the air this election. Take Stu Rasmussen for example.]


[NEWS CLIP: ... as openly transgender.]


[NEWS CLIP: As he runs his hometown in heels.]


[sound of heels on the floor]


JAD: Speaking of heels, this is in fact the sound of Stu's four-inch heels pounding on linoleum as he goes to a city council meeting.


STU RASMUSSEN: Hello, Harold.


HAROLD: How are you?


STU RASMUSSEN: Couldn't be better. How are you? Good.


JAD: Now call us, you know, city elitists or whatever, but a mayor in a plunging v-neck sweater and a black miniskirt? Not what you would expect in a tiny conservative Republican town.


JAD: So we want to know, you know, why did this happen here?


JAD: So producer Aaron Scott and I walked around town for a couple of days, and we interviewed dozens of people, including a guy named Ken Hector, who Stu beat out for mayor. He's a conservative Republican, definitely not one of Stu's big fans.


KEN HECTOR: It was just a difference in philosophy about—I don't want to sound pretentious but, you know, as a mayor, I think there's certain expectations about professionalism that you should exhibit. He would come in with a tight, clinging top with cleavage down to here.


JAD: You're almost pointing at your belly button there.


KEN HECTOR: Well ...


JAD: A little bit higher.


KEN HECTOR: Come on! You know, when you're at the council meeting, show some dignity here and just dress in the appropriate attire for the occasion.


JAD: Ken even tried to get the city council to impose a dress code on Stu. But when we asked him, you know, are you surprised that the town has embraced Stu, and even gone so far as to elect a mayor? He said ...




JAD: Not in this case.


KEN HECTOR: You know, Stu's a rarity in that, you know, there's a lot of people in this town who are extremely religious, very conservative people. Were it a stranger who came into town suddenly, I'm sure that the support and perception might've been different. But you're talking about a native son who grew up here.


JAD: And he said, "Look, Stu runs the only theater in town. So he's out there every weekend."


KEN HECTOR: Standing out in front of the Palace Theater taking tickets.


JAD: So everybody knows him. Not only that, back in the day, he used to be the cable guy. So he's literally been in everybody's home. He's still the guy you'd call if you have trouble with your computer. So it might sound strange to you, but it's really not. And that is when it hit me: actually, under the right circumstance, a small town can be like the most progressive place on Earth. And it's exactly because everyone's all up in your grill. You are forced to know people. Like, for instance ...


JAD: How long have you known Stu?


SUSIE SIMAS: Oh my goodness. I grew up with Stu. I mean, we—I remember when Stu was, like, an altar boy at the church with my brother.


JAD: This is Susie Simas, a retired teacher.


SUSIE SIMAS: Yeah, his parents and my parents were friends.


JAD: Like a lot of folks in Silverton, she has known Stu for so long and in so many different contexts that you can't do that New York thing with him where you're like, you see someone on the sidewalk and you size them up instantly and think "Ah, freak!" No, to her, he's way too complicated for that. You know, to her, he's Stu the altar boy, Stu the computer geek.


SUSIE SIMAS: Yeah, I probably would call him a geek.


JAD: Stu the city councilman, Stu the mayor. Or ...


SUSIE SIMAS: He's just Stu.






CAL PALMER: Whatever. That's him.


KEN HECTOR: You know, go on about your business.


JAD: Now to be clear, a lot of the people we talk to, in fact, some of the same folks who said, "Yeah, Stu's just Stu," are still not happy about the situation.


TOM SMITH: No, I mean, I don't think God's a cross-dresser.


JAD: They either felt it was morally wrong, as in the case of this minister, Tom Smith.


TOM SMITH: In Genesis 1:27, it says, so God created man in his own image.


JAD: Or some folks like Linda Webb's husband John, just felt like he takes it way too far.


JOHN WEBB: And it's right there. It's in your face. He dresses kinda like a streetwalker.


LINDA WEBB: You feel that that's confrontational?




JAD: But most of the people who had objections, it was a little more nuanced. And it went something like this.


JOHN BUCK: Well, I personally did not vote for him for mayor because I didn't feel that it was a good idea to have someone that looked like that representing us. But on the other hand, he is a good man and he's got this town at heart.


JAD: In other words, according to John Buck, the problem really isn't Stu or the town, it's the outside, all those people out there who are gonna hear about Stu and then judge them, which is what makes November 25, 2008, such an interesting day. Stu had just been elected mayor. He'd squeaked it out by about 400 votes, but he hadn't yet been sworn in, when a group of Christian extremists from Kansas showed up in town and started marching up and down Main Street, yelling at people. And at one point, they even unfurled an American flag, put it on the ground and stepped on it, just to show how offensive they found Stu.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, protester: It's our duty to come out here and preach to everyone. The man is disgusting.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, protester: These folks hate Stu because they will not by any means warn him about the sin that's taking him to hell.]


STU RASMUSSEN: So unpleasant. And then bringing up signs that say things like ...


CAL PALMER: God hates Silverton. God hates your mayor.


JOHN BUCK: God hates fags.


CAL PALMER: Your pastor is a whore.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, protester: It's an abomination for a man to put on women's clothes and to be the opposite sex.]


JAD: A few folks from the town decided to start a counter-protest.


DENNIS BEAN: We stood across the street from these people, by and large.


JAD: Just a few guys at first. Now earlier, someone had suggested ...


JESSE DAVIDSON: All the guys ought to dress up as girls, and all the girls ought to dress up as guys.


JAD: Jesse Davidson said his initial reaction was, "Yeah, right." But there he was in a dress.


AARON: Was that the first time you got in a dress in public?


JESSE DAVIDSON: I admit it, but that really actually was the first time.


JAD: He says that at first, he and the two or three other guys who had on women's clothing felt a little weird. But then ...


JESSE DAVIDSON: People just started coming. It was just amazing.


DENNIS BEAN: It was a couple of hundred people. I mean, men dressed like women, women dressed like men.


JESSE DAVIDSON: Some of the people that I saw down there were surprising to me, because I had labeled them in my head as conservative. And people would drive by, people with signs. "God loves Silverton." "God loves Stu." With the costumes.


DENNIS BEAN: The town was really alive.


CAL PALMER: And the crowds just kept getting bigger and bigger.


JAD: What were you—what were you thinking at that moment? From what I understand, you were standing off to the side, just watching. What was going through your mind?


STU RASMUSSEN: Yeah. Well, honestly, I tried to discourage people from even giving them the time of day, saying don't give them any attention. I couldn't get that to happen. They were so angry. They came out. 200 people. Men in dresses, grandmothers, babies. It's just amazing. And that was the town, that wasn't me. Sorry, I get a little emotional.


JAD: That must've been a turning point for you.


STU RASMUSSEN: The biggest one, yeah.


JAD: Before we go to break, just want to give props to Aaron Scott, who did a huge chunk of the reporting for that piece, and co-produced it with me.


ROBERT: We'll be right back.


[ISSA: Hi, this is Issa St. Claire calling from Philadelphia to read the credits. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at Thanks, guys.]

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