tampabay.com

Stanton carefully built 'circle of trust'

The Largo city manager began revealing to other officials in 2003 that he is transsexual.

By LORRI HELFAND, ROBERT FARLEY and WILL VAN SANT
Published February 25, 2007


LARGO - As the debate raged about transgender people, Largo City Manager Steve Stanton sat mute.

It was 2003, and religious conservatives had converged on the City Commission to fight a proposed ordinance that would protect transsexuals from discrimination.

Afterward, then-Commissioner Pat Burke confronted Stanton in his office. She knew he believed in the ordinance, which was defeated. Why not stand up for it?

"There's just not enough support," he said.

Burke told Stanton she was disappointed in him.

Days later, he asked her to lunch. It was the first in a series of quiet conversations with colleagues at Largo City Hall. Stanton had a secret, one that could destroy his career. And he knew he needed support.

In that first lunch, over pumpkin soup at an outdoor cafe on North Redington Beach, Stanton looked calm and composed, Burke recalled.

"I don't know how you are going to judge me," he began, "and if it will change our friendship. But I have to let you know something, because it is who I am.

"I am a transsexual," he said. "Now maybe you can understand why I am somewhat silent on the human relations ordinance."

"Oh, God," Burke said. "Honest to God, I thought you were going to tell me you were gay.

"This doesn't change how I feel about you as a city manager, as a person and as a friend."

Burke was the first official - and one of the first people other than Stanton's wife - to know that he was a transgender person.

Over the past year, that circle grew to include other Largo officials, including the fire chief, the police chief and mayor.

Stanton told those who could make his transition in the workplace as smooth as possible. He only chose people who were good at keeping things to themselves. He trusted them implicitly. His worry was that they would think of him in a negative light.

None anticipated his secret, and not all understood his decision at first. But he had their support.

At the end of that first conversation - after Stanton had shared a photo of himself dressed as a woman, and Burke had laughed at his panty hose, much too heavy for the outfit - he told her one other thing.

"I don't know where all this is heading."

* * *

Fire Chief Jeff Bullock and Stanton had run 7 miles at lunch since Bullock was promoted to deputy chief in 2003.

During those outings, they talked about work, their lives, their families.

Stanton, who had run marathons, was fast and steady. But, as hormone treatments began changing his body, he began having trouble keeping up with the bigger and beefier Bullock. He sometimes stopped to catch his breath.

Bullock didn't think much of it at first.

But on a hot sunny day about six months ago, Stanton told Bullock he had something to tell him.

Bullock thought how Stanton had told him he had been seeing a doctor. And about how skinny Stanton, who was in the process of shedding nearly 35 pounds, was getting.

He wondered if Stanton was sick.

Halfway through the run, as they neared Taylor Lake, Stanton told Bullock he was transsexual.

"At least you're not dying!" Bullock said.

Stanton said little more, but later that day he called and asked Bullock, "Are we all right?"

Yes, Bullock said. He was glad that Stanton was okay, but he couldn't wrap his head around the fact that the toughest man he ever worked for wanted to be a woman.

Bullock, a Methodist, prayed for guidance. He watched a Discovery Channel special on transgender people. And, gradually, as Stanton explained more and more, he grew to accept it.

For months, they talked about how and when he might make the transition.

Stanton told Bullock he was afraid people would think he was weird or perverted. And he worried about how to tell his son.

They discussed who he would tell next and how he would do it. Alluding to the movie Meet the Fockers, they jokingly referred to the people who knew as the "circle of trust."

* * *

Police Chief Lester Aradi thought maybe he was out of a job.

One day last fall, Stanton came up to him in the parking lot and said they had to talk - away from work.

A few nights later, they took a booth at Mugs 'N Jugs, ordered a pitcher of Miller Light and a tray of appetizers.

"Boss," said Aradi, "what is this all about?"

Stanton sipped his beer, looked down and began to talk about his childhood, the feelings inside he couldn't understand.

It seemed like Stanton was going to reveal he was gay. How silly, Aradi thought, to waste an evening over such inconsequential news.

Stanton talked about how much he loved his wife.

How hard he had tried to ignore his secret impulses.

How he wanted to dress in women's clothing.

Then he said he was transsexual.

That he had been undergoing hormone treatments and electrolysis to remove body hair.

That he intended to change his gender.

Aradi told him he couldn't care less whether his boss was a man or a woman. What mattered was how they did their job.

And he knew this was serious. After three decades as a cop, Aradi knew of cases where transsexuals, unable to find understanding or support, had taken their lives.

That night, when he got home, Aradi's wife asked what was going on with Stanton.

Marriage trouble, he said.

* * *

For months, Stanton told Mayor Pat Gerard that he had to tell her something that would have a big impact on both of them.

She worried he might be planning to leave the city.

On New Year's Day, with City Hall empty, the two met in Gerard's office.

Teary-eyed, Stanton said that from a very young age, his perception of himself didn't match his body.

After years of struggling with that, he learned he wanted to become a woman.

He had been in counseling and undergoing hormone therapy to prepare for a sex-change operation.

She wondered if he was okay. And she wondered how she could have been oblivious about his transformation.

"What do you think?" Stanton asked.

"Did you ever doubt that I would support you? she asked.

Stanton started to cry.

Her mind flashed back to the human rights ordinance hearings and the awful things people said.

Here we go again, she thought.

* * *

As Stanton told more people, Bullock joked that the "circle of trust" was starting to resemble the five-ringed symbol of the Olympics.

Stanton planned to announce his transformation in June, so his 13-year-old son could be out of town. He and Bullock talked about how each time the circle grew wider, the chance increased that the secret would leak out.

A few weeks ago, after Stanton told a couple of people, Bullock teased him. The number of people who knew - including city officials, family and medical professionals - had grown to about 15.

Stanton's circle had become a Slinky, Bullock said.

And as everyone soon found out, Slinkies have a way of getting tangled.

* * *

On Tuesday, a Times reporter approached Stanton, told him the newspaper had received information that he was getting ready to make a big change in his life and asked if it was true.

Stanton first declined to answer the questions, as did Gerard. Later in the day, the two and the newspaper scheduled an interview for 7 a.m. Wednesday. For Stanton, the fact that there would be no story in Wednesday morning's paper would give him a little more time to have one critical conversation, with his son.

Tuesday night, Stanton went to a City Commission meeting. He said he didn't tell his son then because he didn't want go home, have the conversation and leave his son with the news.

After Wednesday morning's interview, Stanton began telling department managers and others at City Hall to prepare them for the news. He also planned to send an e-mail to all city employees.

With the news spreading, Times editors posted the story on www.tampabay.com. That brought in more media.

By Wednesday evening, Stanton's secret was on the 6 o'clock news. But after school, his son Travis played computer games and hadn't heard.

Now Stanton would have the conversation that had weighed on his mind for months. He had two important things to say.

One, he wanted Travis to know that even though he changed, his love for his son would not.

Also, he wanted to say that just because he went through this, didn't mean Travis would.

About 6:30 p.m., Stanton and his wife, Donna, called Travis into the living room for a family meeting.

Stanton started with a question.

"What's the most important thing in Mommy's and Daddy's world?"

Travis answered.

"I am."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.

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What's next

Largo city commissioners have scheduled a special meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 201 Highland Ave., to discuss Steve Stanton's employment contract.