Cross Dressing for the Gospel

Okay, face it – you clicked on this post because of its title…or maybe the picture. Either way, indulge me while I set it up.

Radio Lab is one of my favorite radio programs that I almost never listen to. Not, I swear, because I don’t love it – it’s just that I rarely find the time to sit and listen – to anything! – for an hour, so even when I download episode after episode most of them sit in my iTunes queue waiting for my next road trip.

But this Saturday I happened to be running some errands. A lot of errands. And since most of them involved lots of driving and only minimal in-and-out of the car, I got to listen to most of an episode. And I’m so glad I did because now I get to share it with you. The larger episode is called “New Normal” and invites us to reframe our ideas of normalcy in light of various evolutions…sometimes worked out across generations and sometimes in a single life. This particular segment is titled “The New Stu.”

Stu Rasmussen grew up in Silverton Oregon, a little town that hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years. He runs the local movie theater, has worked as the cable guy, ran one of the first computer stores, and knows just about everyone in town. And now he’s the major.

Quaint story, right? Except that in 1975, while Stu is watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he sees a transvestite. And he’s intrigued. Actually, more than intrigued, this image somehow speak to him, stirring something deep inside. It starts out small, as little by little, Stu begins to change. First he paints his nails. Then he dresses up in costumes of characters – usually female characters – from the movie. (You know, Princess Amidala from Star Wars and the like.) Next he starts wearing a padded bra. And before long Stu has had his actual breasts surgically enhanced and he is full out cross-dressing. (And still dating his girlfriend.)

It causes a little bit of a stir – okay, more than a “bit” – as lots of folks just don’t know what to make of it. People start whispering. Kids stop going to his movie theater. His friends begin to wonder if there’s going to be a backlash.

Which makes what the citizens of Silverton did in the fall of 2008 all the more amazing – they elected Stu the mayor, making him the first transgendered mayor in the U.S. That’s right – this sleepy little conservative town elected cross-dressing Stu Rasmussen its mayor.

How did this happen? Keep in mind, he grew up here. People went to church with him, watched his movies, had him in their homes installing their cable, went to him for help with their computers. In short, they knew him, and because they know him so well and for so long they, well, just accepted him.

Don’t get me wrong, not everyone was wild about this development. The election was very close and his doubters didn’t stop doubting. Some because of their religious convictions, some simply because cross-dressing just goes against their sensibilities.

But then something else amazing happened. After his election, and before his inauguration, a group from the Westbro Baptist Church came to town. (A quick side-note: this isn’t your typical Baptist church. In fact, this is an extremist group not affiliated with any major Christian tradition.) They came with signs – “God hates Silverton,” “God hates your mayor” (and these were the more polite signs!) – and with their slurs, determined to protest Stu as an abomination. And although Stu encouraged people not to give them the time of day, folks in the town staged a counter-protest…where lots and lots of ordinary, everyday folks cross-dressed. Men dressed as women, grandmas dressed as men. Kids joined in. Liberals, conservatives, young, old, on this day in Silverton it just didn’t matter. They were determined to stand with Stu, to identify with him, to stand up for him.

And that, I think, is what it means to echo and embrace God’s solidarity with us. You don’t stand with other folks because they agree with you or look like you or believe like you. You stand with them just because they are like you: human, fragile, vulnerable…and beloved children of God one and all. We confess that Jesus came and took on our life and our lot, identifying with us in every possible way, so that we might know God’s love and in turn identify with and love each other.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, where Jesus says that when he comes at the end of time he will divide all people into the righteous and the unrighteous. And what will be the criteria? Well, according to Jesus, he “will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Mt. 25:34-36). And when the righteous wonder when in the world they ever say Jesus in such straights, he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40).

How do we imagine “the least of these”? Hungry, alone, naked, thirsy? Sure. But maybe even more “the least of these” is simply the one – anyone – in need. And on that day, the people of Silverton, no more aware of what they were doing than the righteous folk in Jesus’ parable, stood in solidarity with Jesus by standing in solidarity with Stu, and unexpectedly gave witness to the love of God by cross-dressing for the gospel. (Which is where the title that drew you to this post came from. ☺)

So there you have it. But if you want to learn more by listening to the story of Stu and Silverton first hand, I’ve placed the 20-minute segment below.

You can also download the segment or check out the website for more information on this episode.