Steve Stanton professed his love for the city and asked the people of Largo to support his decision to undergo a sex change and allow him to keep his $140,000-a-year job as city manager.
To his sorrow, the answer came back no.
Almost 500 people packed City Hall on Tuesday night for a special meeting to decide if they would accept someone named Susan instead of Steve as their top official. And while many spoke eloquently in his defense, more called for his ouster.
“If Jesus was here tonight, I can guarantee you he’d want him terminated,” said Pastor Ron Saunders of Largo’s Lighthouse Baptist Church. “Make no mistake about it.”
At the end of the 3½-hour meeting, the City Commission voted 5-2 to begin the legal process of firing Stanton, who went public about his sex-change plans after learning that a local newspaper was about to reveal his secret. The 48-year-old married man and father of a teenage boy can appeal his dismissal, and the commission must vote again to formally fire him from the job he has held for 14 years.
Transgender activists Wednesday called Stanton’s firing a “shameful display of ignorance and bias.” But they suggested Largo’s dismissal of the respected government official may be the example they need to persuade Congress to extend employment protections to gays and transsexuals.
“We think this is a really clear example of the type of employment discrimination that transgendered people face every day,” said Simon Aronoff, deputy director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington. “By all accounts, he was doing a good job. The only reason he was fired is because he made the brave decision to live openly.”
'He has changed the work environment'
Mathew Staver, founder of the conservative Liberty Counsel legal group, said the city had a duty to reconsider the employment of a top official planning such a drastic change.
“The city hasn’t changed the work environment. He has changed the work environment,” Staver said. “I think it would be more difficult for the city to retain this person because of how it might undermine the representation of the city in the eyes of the community. It could become very awkward.”
The vote came only a day after a Christian university in Michigan fired a male professor living as a woman a few days after she legally changed her name. The university claims the former John Nemecek did not honor the terms of her contract.
“I think they decided to terminate me rather than call me Julie,” said Nemecek, a Baptist minister who worked for 16 years on the faculty of Spring Arbor University. Both sides are scheduled to be in court-ordered mediation in March.
Despite such setbacks, Aronoff said the transgender movement is gaining ground.
“We think this is our year,” he said.
Last summer, a judge ruled that a cook in suburban New York City who claims he was fired from an upscale restaurant because he was a woman living as a man was covered by the state’s human rights law, even though it doesn’t mention sexual orientation. The ruling cleared the way for a $3 million discrimination lawsuit to proceed.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation estimates 10 states and more than 90 local governments have included gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies.
Stanton supported a similar ordinance in Largo that failed to pass in 2003, and the fact he kept his personal life to himself back then intensified the anger directed at him Tuesday night.
“I do not feel he has the integrity, nor the trust, nor the respect, nor the confidence to continue as the city manager of the city of Largo,” said Commissioner Mary Gray Black, who introduced the resolution to fire Stanton.
'I have no followers'
Stanton listened with hands clasped throughout the meeting.
“It’s just real painful to know that seven days ago I was a good guy and now I have no integrity, I have no trust and, most painful, I have no followers,” Stanton told the crowd before the vote.
His announcement stunned this city of 76,000 near St. Petersburg. Stanton said he had planned to reveal his secret this summer when his 13-year-old son was out of school.
Stanton said he struggled with his secret desire to be a woman since childhood and hoped to “outrun it.” In 2003, he began counseling.
In a memo to city employees last week, Stanton said he intends to live as a woman for a year to learn whether he is ready for the operation. He said he has gone out in public as a woman only a few times in cities far from Largo.
Preparing for surgery
He said he is taking hormones in preparation for surgery. At Tuesday’s meeting, there was nothing womanly about his appearance as Stanton, a trim figure with a full head of graying hair, faced the crowd in a dark suit and tie.
“I’m going to be embarrassed if we throw this man out on the trash heap after he’s worked so hard for the city,” said Mayor Patricia Gerard, one of the few people with whom Stanton shared his secret before last week. “We have a choice to make: We can go back to intolerance, or we can be the city of progress.”
City Commissioner Gay Gentry praised Stanton, but said, “I sense that he has lost his standing as a leader among the employees of the city.”
Stanton left the room before the votes were cast, head down.
Gerard and Commissioner Rodney J. Woods — the first black commissioner in the city’s 102-year history — cast the only votes in his favor.