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How will Largo handle official's sex change?

Moral and legal questions abound the day after the announcment.

By LORRI HELFAND and ROBERT FARLEY
Published February 22, 2007


LARGO — Largo City Manager Steve Stanton made clear as he announced his plans to undergo a sex change that he wants to hang onto his job.

A day after Stanton went public, some commissioners are ready to keep him. Others are waiting to hear from residents.

“Community reaction is going to determine what happens,’’ City Commissioner Gigi Arntzen said. “I don’t know if this community can deal with this or not.”

On Thursday, City Hall received more than 60 calls and dozens of e-mails, both supportive and critical, plus a call from TV’s Inside Edition. Stanton attended meetings and took his usual 6-mile run at noon, changing clothes in a unisex restroom instead of the men’s locker room.

He also received a basket of daisies and carnations with a note saying, “If anyone has the strength and courage to see this through, it’s you.”

Others said Stanton’s plan is unacceptable.

“What he does in his own time I don’t care, but this is terrible for the city,” said resident Curtis Holmes, a frequent critic. “If it were San Francisco or Key West, I don’t think anybody would care. But we’re not. This is Largo.”

City employees are beginning to think about what Stanton’s change means for them, said Police Chief Lester Aradi.

“The typical questions are, 'What do I call him?’ and 'When do I start to call him by a different name?’ ” Aradi said.

Stanton said in a memo that those issues will be resolved in April, when he plans to begin using the name Susan and start coming to work as a woman.

When that happens, could the City Commission legally fire Stanton because he changed his gender? The answer is murky.

Stanton is an at-will employee. His contract states that he can be terminated at any time, “with or without cause.” All it takes, said city attorney Alan Zimmet, is a vote of five out of seven city commissioners.

In 2003, Largo City Commissioners voted down a proposed human rights ordinance that would have banned discrimination against transgender people. Two months later, Largo officials adopted an internal policy protecting employees from discrimination or harassment based on “gender identity or expression.”

That policy applies to Stanton, said Largo human resource director Susan Sinz, but the City Commission could decide that the community’s reaction to Stanton’s change in sexual identity renders him ineffective in his job. The policy would not protect him from being terminated on that basis, Sinz said.

At a minimum, Stanton’s contract contains a severance clause that would require the city to pay him 12 months salary unless he was convicted of a felony, violated the state code of ethics or “for other actions constituting gross misconduct.”

Stanton’s rights under state and federal law are less clear.

Nine states expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression. Florida is not one of them.

“It’s one of those fuzzy areas of the law,” said Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Florida’s civil rights laws protect against discrimination based on gender-stereotyping, said Doering, who works out of St. Petersburg. The Florida Civil Rights Act might protect Stanton if he was fired solely because he’s going through gender reassignment, Doering said.

“But it’s not crystal clear in the law,” she said.

In a public position like city manager, where controversial decisions are part of the job, it can be hard to prove someone was terminated due to transgender status, she said.

In 1992, the state Commission on Human Relations sided with a male lieutenant at the Jacksonville Correctional Institute who was terminated after a patrolman came across him fixing a flat tire while wearing a women’s bathing suit.

But Tampa attorney Theresa Gallion, a managing partner at Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm, cautioned against putting too much stock in that case, noting that it is not binding on Florida courts.

“The bottom line is that there are very few protections unless you live in one of the states’’ that specifically list transgender people in their anti-discrimination laws, she said.

Christopher Daley, director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, said that while federal law does not speak to the issue directly, federal courts in Ohio twice ruled that the federal Civil Rights Act protected the employment of transgender people, one a firefighter, the other a police officer.

“Hopefully, it won’t get there,” Daley said, predicting that Stanton “is not going to be any less effective.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Will Van Sant contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.