Empathetic with Stanton

An interfaith service gathers those who support transgender people.

Published March 13, 2007

The Rev. Erin Swenson says she has a good sense of what Largo City Manager Steve Stanton is going through as he faces dismissal for planning to become a woman.

In 1996, Swenson, an Atlanta minister who will turn 60 on Thursday, became one of the few - and, she says, the first known - mainstream Protestant clergy member to change gender publicly while remaining ordained and serving a congregation.

When she disclosed her plans to become a woman, she almost lost her job. Her name was Eric then.

"I was open with the church the same way Steve was open" with the City Commission, Swenson said Monday. "Their initial response was pretty negative. They threatened to take away my ordination."

And when things became tense, she and her bosses would "talk about it and pray about it."

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Swenson will help lead an interfaith service of hope and healing at Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg to support Stanton.

Along with Swenson, a transgender Presbyterian minister from Atlanta, the service will include the Rev. David Wynn, a transgender associate pastor who serves at a church in Sarasota.

Stanton, 48, was placed on paid leave by the Largo City Commission on Feb. 27, less than a week after he disclosed that he plans to change his gender and take on the name Susan. He is appealing the suspension, which the commission enacted as it prepares to fire him. A hearing has not been scheduled.

Having survived the ordeal personally and professionally, Swenson now leads services at Morningside Presbyterian Church in midtown Atlanta, and is a licensed marriage and family therapist.

She said she is in awe of the moral courage, strength and compassion transgender people, especially those in power, can exhibit. "Transgender leaders can be exceptionally effective leaders," Swenson said. "They've faced the greatest challenge society can offer."

She remains devoted to her former wife, who she said "is as close to a saint as I've ever seen," and her two grown daughters, and still spends holidays with them.

Wynn, 41, associate pastor of Church of the Trinity Metropolitan Community Church in Sarasota, made the transition from female to male four years ago. He is married to a woman who was his partner before he became a man. The couple have a little boy.

Because he made the change while serving at a Metropolitan Community Church, which was founded by a gay man and serves gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people, he said professionally at least, he had an "easier time of it" than Stanton.

Still, Wynn said, it's "a heartbreaking journey and an exhilarating one at the same time."

"It's heartbreaking because you grieve with your family, who feel they are losing a daughter and a sister, but exhilarating because you just feel so free," he said.

He said he accepted an invitation to speak at the service because he wants to raise people's awareness about gender diversity and promote tolerance.

Harry Knox, the director of the Human Rights Campaign's Religion Council in Washington D.C., also will attend.

"We work to give a megaphone to faith leaders around the country willing to speak out for justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," he said.

When Stanton was dismissed "our e-mail and phones lit up with outrage," Knox said. "The whole nation is watching to see if justice will be done in Largo."

Stanton said he recognizes that this is no longer about Steve Stanton, but about "society's discomfort in dealing with human sexuality," and building an inclusive nation.

While he wants to attend the service, he doesn't know if it's his place.

"I want to be there as long as my presence wouldn't be disruptive," he said Monday.

"I feel foolish in a sense," he said.

"When I started this plan, I really felt kind of alone. I knew no other city manager had done what I did, and I felt angry I was alone in this struggle. Since then, the outreach has been overwhelming. I never thought there would be this many people who would care."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.


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Interfaith service

An interfaith worship in support of Largo City Manager Steve Stanton will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, 719 Arlington Ave. N.