Another Election First: Transgender Mayor in Oregon

Silverton, Oregon has elected what may be the first transgender mayor in the United States (although given the history of transgender persons passing, it’s possible others may have so served without people knowing).

Here’s what the article says:

Stu Rasmussen served two terms as the Mayor of Silverton in the 1990s. But he hadn’t admitted to being transgender. He’s not the same man now that he was then. Today he wears a skirt and high heels. He has breast implants, and long red hair. He looks like a woman – but he’s not.

I think philosopher Sally Haslanger might have a problem with the last statement that Rasmussen is not a woman, given her distinction between sex and gender (and so might many others, especially since the writer refuses to use “she” in reference to the mayor-elect). However, in addition to the historic nature of Rasmussen’s election, the article draws attention to another facet of the story–the fluidity of how people understand gender, both as a general term and in application to themselves. Here’s how Rasmussen describes herself:

“I identify mostly as a heterosexual male,” Rasmussen said. “But I just like to look like a female.”

Rasmussen is a man. He even has a girlfriend. He says he’s always been transgender, but he only “came out” a few years ago.

Perhaps using “she” is not accurate, then? There is a lot going on in this short piece. There’s the assumption that Rasmussen having a girlfriend has implications for her/his gender identity (it doesn’t, since many biological females have girlfriends and there are FTMs who transition and identify as homosexual males). There’s the question of what is the dividing line between man/woman–if Rasmussen has breast implants and looks like a female, why say “Rasmussen is a man”? There’s the association between a mid-life crisis and “acquiring cleavage”, and the concluding description of a tear “gently running through his eyeliner, and onto his cheek.”

Regardless of the thorny philosophical (and journalistic?) problems this story raises, I think we can agree that Rasmussen’s election is a signal that gender identity is becoming less central to society’s judgment about people’s competency.

Readers…have at it. Your thoughts?

7 thoughts on “Another Election First: Transgender Mayor in Oregon

  1. Thanks, Orlando. This is such good news.

    I think you’ve asked really important questions. I don’t have the answers. I was surprised to find that Wikipedia’s discussion includes something like occupying an intermediate position as a way of being “transgendered.” From what the article says, referring to oneself in terms of the originally assigned gender but feeling not fully one gender and acquiring characteristics of ‘the’ other is a way of being transgendered. So he’s a transgendered male, from that point of view.

    NOT THAT WIKIPEDIA is THE authority, but it might be a useful start.

  2. Right, “transgender” is an umbrella term. But it is really interesting to have someone say they identify as “male” but want to look “female” – what kind of content is there to the identity of “male”, in this case? Is he(?) understanding it in terms of his(?) sexual orientation towards female-bodied persons? Or something else?

    Anecdotally, I know quite a few people who aren’t transitioning as FTMs, but who don’t identify as “woman”–terms like “transbutch” and “genderqueer” are often the ones they use, although “transgender” is sometimes also applied–though it tends to imply surgical and hormonal intervention these days.

    Oh, and I think that “Transgender Warriors” by Leslie Feinberg, “The Politics of Transgenderism” by Pat Califa are good resources, too (though in many ways the two authors are at odds). I also liked “The First Man-Made Man” (Pagan Kennedy) for historical descriptions of both the first surgical transition from female to male and from male to female.

  3. Statements about identity might have a funny semantics, and actually be more something like a performative than giving a description. E.g., someone who has dual citizenship and lives in one country (e.g., USA) might nonetheless say she is an Israeli really.

    I just asked Mr. jj, who has two passports which he is and he said “I don’t know.” It might be that there aren’t any facts he has to find out, but rather he needs to decide (if he wants to). So perhaps “I am a man” is like that for some transpeople. Of course, at the same time, for non-dual citizenship – and perhaps for non-trans – “I am English” or “I am a man” is more about facts, albeit heavily cultural ones.

  4. Impressive and excellent news, Orlando. And yes, just the sort of case philosophers working on gender need to consider– any binary theory of gender will have trouble with it, it seems to me (unless cases like the mayor’s are taken to be ones of people managing to get beyond gender entirely, which might actually be what they’d want to say).

  5. As a straight cross-dresser who identifies as male (but who might just have breasts if i had the nerve to do it), i have no problem with calling the new mayor of Silverton “he”, as that’s how i would identify in his heels. Bravo to him, and i’m sure if he preferred to be called “she”, he would say so.

  6. Biological sex and cultural gender notwithstanding, the FIRST? lol

    I think not. Maybe the first out.

    What year is it? 2009? and we’re still not clear that there are no absolutely all male nor all female humans on the planet and we are all a variation of the two?

    Cultural dress is really an insignificant ethnocentric little scandalous item for a nation at war to be concerned with when the other half of the world would be happy for a pair of shoes not to mention red patten leather come f-me pumps. choo?

    Really I wish humans would grow up and just be nice.

    Think about it, if it was the only one rule????

    be Nice.

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