For a long time I have noticed a great rift in my community of Silverton, Oregon. This rift is among the people of faith here about whether or not to support our mayor, Stu Rasmussen, who is the first openly transgender mayor in America. He is a controversial figure, more so to those outside of our community, being both praised as a pioneer of gender equality and derided as a sexual alien by many Christians. Yet it is a biblical command to pray for civic leaders whether we agree with everything they do or not, and also to pray for the peace of your city, even if that city happens to be Babylon.
Aside from being mayor, Stu also owns and operates the local movie theater. Many faith leaders and church members of our community have avoided both town hall meetings, as well as the movie theater in town. The avoidance of the theater was often done in the name of “protecting” small children (or oneself) from his racy dress, themed for big opening nights. It is easy to understand why a parent might not want to have an awkward conversation about Stu’s transgender journey with their child, but ostracizing a member of our community seems the opposite of what our leper-touching, sinner-and-tax-collector-loving Lord Jesus would do. I hadn’t really gotten an opportunity to talk with Stu and a class I am in this semester gave me just the opportunity. I generally went to the local theater when I saw a movie unless they didn’t have the one I came for, despite seeing him in a few shocking outfits. I did not go out of my way to avoid him or anything, it was just impossible to have a conversation at the ticket line with 100 people behind me waiting to get in.
He was easy enough to find and friendlier than I would have expected. For my social justice “experience” for a class, I invited Stu, and a core group of people from Silverton Friends, to Stone Creek Coffee House for coffee and discussion. I wanted Stu to experience Christian table fellowship, something Jesus freely shared with anyone in His own day. I also wanted Stu to know that people of faith want to meet him where he is at as a person and build relationships. I wanted him to meet Christians who are not out to change him (that is God’s job), who accept him as he is, without expecting him to check his boobs at the door before his voice will be heard. We listened to Stu share his vision for the community, and showed support for his work as a community leader. You simply do not have to agree with everything a person does in order to love them, pray for their work, and listen to their heart.
I really enjoyed our community building experience with Stu. It surpassed my hopes and I learned quite a bit about what is going on in my little town. I had a chance to truly see who Stu is and his heart for our community. At first, Stu seemed standoffish, unsure about what to expect from a bunch of Quakers. I did not know what to expect from a cross-dressing mayor with race-red nails and handcuff’s on his purse either. It helped that some of his friends from my church heard about what I had planned and wanted to participate alongside us. To be honest Stu seemed like one of the most intelligent people with whom I have ever spoken. He has a keenly rational mind filled with facts about this community, about theater and computer technology, and about religious teaching.
My meeting with Stu seemed remarkably ordinary. Most of the time was spent in active listening, with the occasional open-ended question to keep the flow going. Much of what we talked about was regular coffeehouse fare: general stuff about life in Silverton and what was going on in the community, leadership struggles, and biographical history. There were also more personal journeys, in Stu’s case a movement away from faith because of its seeming lack of rationality. For instance, he does not believe the God of the Universe cared about whether or not people wore clothing of mixed fibers. He had quite a few interesting things to say about religion. Stu shared his life-changing encounter with Rocky Horror Picture Show that gave him words to describe his sexual journey, and how people reacted to an eccentric local boy’s cross-dressing for movie nights and later epoch making boob job. Stu was certain his political career, and possibly his relationship with his significant other would be over when he returned home. Somehow, the transgender jump was worth the risk to him. Even as it is hard for me to get my head around why, and to suspend judgment on the merits of such an endeavor, it was easy to see that it took a lot of courage for Stu to be who he was before a community; to risk complete rejection for total transparency.
Stu shared a great deal about his experience with running for office, his journey through bouncing back from the recent theater fire, and was nearly moved to tears when sharing about how the community supported him when people from Westborough Baptist came all the way out from Topeka to picket and protest his election as the first transgender mayor. After it became clear that ignoring them would not make them go away, and sick of the hateful things they were doing in our community, the churches and local residents (some of them deeply conservative mind you) came together to form a mob dressed in drag and confronted the Westborough mob to drive them out of town. Stu was moved by the people, of faith and without faith, who would rather dress in drag in support of him than stand against him and the work he was doing. This gave me great faith for the church and even greater faith for my community.
It was amazing to think about how much a faith community changes over time, and to wonder how I might have changed if I had been here instead of Kansas during that time. Obviously, it is hard to stomach the things that the members of Westborough Baptist are doing and the havoc they are wreaking around the country. It touched my heart to hear of my community’s faith and love in action, working to correct Westborough Baptist’s error, and standing with one of their own in the face of such a circus. Hearing Stu’s account of conservative Christians, and even those who voted against him, dressing in drag to meet the ruckus head on gave me great hope for the future of the church. The church really does stand up for the oppressed and work for justice. My church actually does this and it makes me proud.