Voting for Change

updated 02/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

Stu Rasmussen grew up here, in Silverton, Ore., a bucolic town of fewer than 10,000 people and more than 18 churches. He has long run the downtown movie theater. He served two terms as a popular mayor ending in 1992 and, despite some major life changes during his time out of office, has just been elected to a third term. If you are one of the few people who doesn't happen to know Stu, as everyone calls him, these days you can easily pick him out at city council meetings: He's the fellow in the miniskirt and size-11 pumps.

As of his Jan. 5 swearing-in, Rasmussen, 60, is the country's first openly transgender mayor. "The Rosa Parks of transgenderism," he says with a delighted smile, quoting a supporter. Running on an antigrowth platform that pledged to maintain Silverton's small-town atmosphere, Rasmussen, a Democrat, won 52 percent of a vote split among three candidates. His in-person campaigning was limited: He would shake hands during jaunts to garage sales, where he would just as often pick up a cute top. "I didn't need to go door-to-door," he says. "I'm a known quantity. Same Stu, just in a different package."

Rasmussen, who is heterosexual and in a 35-year relationship with graphic artist Victoria Sage, started wearing women's clothing in secret as an adolescent. "I knew I was a cross-dresser from age 13 or 14. You grow up in a small town, and the only time you see men wearing women's clothes is on TV for laughs. There was a terrible stigma attached to it." As a suit-and-tie- wearing adult, Rasmussen became a successful entrepreneur, establishing the town's first cable company.

After 10 years together, he revealed his secret to Sage. "I thought, 'This is going to end the relationship.' But I told her and she said, 'Okay.' It was no biggie." In fact, adds his girlfriend, the news was a kind of relief. Before they had moved in together, "I came across a brassiere in his room," recalls Sage, 53. "Cross-dressing is a lot less threatening to a relationship than another woman."

Out of the house, Rasmussen kept his ruffles strictly in the closet until the early 1990s, when access to the Internet changed his outlook. "For the first time I found a wealth of information on cross-dressing," he says. "For a small-town boy, it was a revelation to see that it wasn't just freaks and weirdos." He was still in the mayor's seat then, and he began quietly attending transgender support group meetings in Portland, about 45 miles away. But a few years later, after two failed runs for state office, Rasmussen began to let his hair down in public. "I started having my nails done," he says, "and wearing falsies. When I saw it didn't make a difference to anyone, I said, 'Let's go for it.'" In 2000 he had a $4,000 implant surgery to get size- 36D breasts. (He calls the procedure "adopting the twins.") He otherwise remains anatomically male and doesn't take female hormones—he speaks in a baritone voice and still shaves. "Finally, when I looked in the mirror, I liked what I saw: an attractive female body," he says. "It made me happy."

And, perhaps surprisingly, it didn't much bother the locals in Silverton. At first, a few parents stopped bringing their kids to his movie house, but by the time his mayoral run drew national attention, most ceased caring about Rasmussen's cleavage. "He's smart and has been mayor before. I have no problems with how he looks," says Cliff Harris, a retired Realtor. "Let him now do his job." There is still the rare jeer, but Rasmussen tries to ignore it and carry on. "There's no shortage of ignorance, but sometimes me just being me helps to educate [people]."

In November a church group from Topeka, Kans., traveled to Silverton to protest his election. Marching with signs reading, "You Are Going to Hell," they were met by more than 100 locals, from grandmothers to young kids, attorneys to farmers cheering "Stu Rocks" and "Our Town, Our Mayor."

"There's a mutual love between me and this community. It's the kind of happy ending you see only in movies," says Rasmussen, dabbing a tear with a manicured finger. "Though I can't imagine Jimmy Stewart in heels."

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