Earlier session's limits won't apply to hearing

Published March 9, 2007

LARGO - City Manager Steve Stanton requested a public hearing on Thursday to convince his bosses he can do his job as Susan Stanton.

And he won't be coming alone.

Advocacy groups have rallied to Stanton's side and hope to use his case to build support for federal legislation to protect gay and transgender employees from discrimination.

Stanton, 48, had been Largo's city manager for 14 years before he was suspended less than a week after he disclosed Feb. 21 that he plans to become a woman.

"A high-profile case like that can put a face on a problem we've known about for a long time," said Simon Aronoff, deputy director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C.

"Employment discrimination against transgender people is blatant and common," Aronoff said. "That's why we need protections on the federal level for transgender people."

The hearing, to be scheduled later, will be held between March 23 and April 9.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, a San Francisco-based legal organization that supports gay, bisexual and transgender people, is helping Stanton respond to the media, explore his legal options and prepare his appeal.

"I hope that commissioners will listen and thoughtfully reconsider their initial decision," said Karen Doering, a St. Petersburg lawyer who is the group's senior counsel.

Doering said her group will bring in top experts to educate city leaders about transgenderism.

After a highly charged four-hour meeting on Feb. 27, commissioners voted 5-2 to place Stanton, who makes $140,234 annually, on paid leave and begin the process to fire him. The vote followed testimony from scores of speakers, most of whom demanded his termination.

Stanton said he will need up to three hours to present his case, featuring specialists in medicine, psychology and the workplace transition for transsexuals.

"I'm realistic enough to know it's going to require an extraordinary step to stop the train going down the track with a certain degree of speed and to confront some of the folks back in the commission chambers who will be talking about what Jesus would do," Stanton said.

Stanton's appeal sets the stage for what could be an even bigger showdown than the one Feb. 27.

That meeting drew nearly 500 people, but it was not a public hearing, so commissioners could limit comments to Largo residents and business owners. At the public hearing, city leaders won't be able to limit the number of speakers or restrict who can speak.

In light of that and the national and local media attention, city officials are bracing for a much larger crowd.

Equality Florida, a statewide advocacy group for gay and transgender people, said it will be there to support Stanton.

More than a thousand of its members have written and called the city to support Stanton, and the group intends to encourage members to show up at City Hall for the public hearing, said communications director Brian Winfield.

"It's going to be very important to get folks who live and work in Largo to turn out, and we certainly intend on doing that as well," Winfield said.

Various religious groups and the American Civil Liberties Union also have offered help.

Those who say Stanton must go will likely be there, too.

"This is the time, if you live in a community, to voice your opinion," said the Rev. Charlie Martin, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, which turned out dozens of people for the first meeting.

While Stanton requested a hearing for April 5, it will not be scheduled until later this month.

Since Stanton was placed on leave, commissioners have received almost 1,400 e-mails. As of Thursday, the commission's secretary had logged 105 calls supporting Stanton's termination and 111 opposing it.

After the hearing, the commission may vote to remove him at any time. The charter requires five votes out of the seven commissioners to fire the city manager.

In 2003, Largo officials adopted an internal policy protecting employees from discrimination or harassment based on "gender identity or expression." But as an at-will employee, Stanton can be terminated at any time, "with or without cause," according to his contract.

City commissioners who moved to fire Stanton said they didn't do so because he's transsexual.

Commissioner Gay Gentry, who supported an unsuccessful bid to pass an ordinance protecting gay and transgender people, said she voted to fire Stanton because he was stingy with praise but quick to discipline his staff.

"He's asking for time, tolerance and acceptance, and I don't see that was how he dealt with people," she said.

Stanton has not decided if he will sue if his appeal fails, but he said he can't see himself doing so. "That is not the argument I want to make. I cannot imagine litigating this issue."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Fast Facts:


Transsexual: Someone who identifies himself or herself as a member of the opposite sex and who acquires the physical characteristics of the opposite sex.

Transgender: An adjective that can encompass preoperative, postoperative or nonoperative transsexuals, female and male cross-dressers, drag queens or kings, female or male impersonators, and intersex individuals.

Source: National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, www.nlgja.org/resources/stylebook_english.html.