Stanton awaits his fate

But it's not just about him anymore, he says, as a whole community looks toward Largo.

By Lane DeGregory
Published March 23, 2007

LARGO - He expected the nasty calls, the angry e-mails and the outcry. He worried that commissioners of the city he had led for 14 years might vote to fire him.

So when those things happened, Largo City Manager Steve Stanton wasn't surprised.

What has shocked him, said Stanton, is the support from across the globe, from groups he had never heard of before he announced he wants to be a woman.

On Friday night Stanton, 48, will go before the City Commission to fight for his job.

After a lifetime of hiding his secret in a suitcase, suddenly Stanton is surrounded by strangers who want to help.

In one month he has become the face of a movement.

"I know they're not participating in this case because of me, but because of the impact my case could have on thousands of people like me," he said. "I'm just a small part of this now."

They're expected to pack City Hall: all these organizations with acronyms Stanton didn't understand. Two months ago, he had no idea that LGBT stood for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. He isn't gay. He couldn't admit he was part of that community.

When some of these same activists first flocked to Largo to support a 2003 human rights ordinance, Stanton was sort of scared of them. "Men in dresses," he called them.

Now he's part of their movement, whether he's entirely comfortable with it or not. Under that beard-free face, there's still a bit of that old Steve in Stanton. He doesn't go by Susan yet, though some groups want him to change his pronoun.

Now, his lawyer is from the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "I've never seen a case that has caused this much outrage and galvanized this much passion," says attorney Karen Doering. "Folks across the world are watching Largo."

Someone - Stanton says he doesn't know who - set up a Web site: www.savestanton.com. Soon groups from Canada and Great Britain, New Jersey and California were backing Stanton.

The ACLU offered support. The local chapter of the National Organization for Women. Even TCOPS: the Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs.

The head of the National Center for Transgender Equality flew in from D.C. and bought him dinner. It was the first time, Stanton said, that he'd had a conversation with someone like him.

Equality Florida, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, started scheduling Stanton's interviews.

His lawyer wouldn't let him talk without her.

"I'm used to telling lawyers what to do," Stanton said Thursday. "Now this thing is bigger than me. They're telling me what to do." His lawyer didn't sanction that statement. "Oops," he said.

The funniest fallout has been the merchandise, Stanton says. Along with books on being transgender, the Web site sells T-shirts saying : "Largophobe" and "Not So Populargo." A baby bib says, "Free Largo." A black thong reads, "Largo."

Stanton says he didn't sanction the sales, but the profits are supposed to help pay his legal fees. He said he hasn't taken money from individuals or groups, but diverts offers of support to subsidize his volunteer lawyer.

While support has poured in, Stanton's critics have been busy too. People have sent hostile cards, left threatening messages. One day while he was running, someone jumped from a bush and scratched his face.

Stanton and his wife started picking up their 13-year-old son at school so he wouldn't be harassed.

A group called Florida Family Association, "working to improve and protect our moral environment since 1987," sent an e-mail asking people to lobby against Stanton.

And Charlie Martin, senior pastor of the 6,000 member First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, asked parishioners to pray and come to the meeting if they can. City commissioners "are under attack from Equality Florida, a homosexual activist group that has national ties," the minister wrote in an e-mail. He alluded to possible legal and ethical violations but wouldn't elaborate.

At Friday's hearing, Largo commissioners will vote on whether to affirm Stanton's firing. If one commissioner changes his or her mind, Stanton will keep his job - and soon come to work as Susan.

Either way, the issue has become larger than Largo City Hall, bigger than this one vote.

"Whatever happens, I want to have a party - a going away party or a staying party," Stanton said. "I don't know if that's possible, but I want to celebrate my experience in Largo."

Times staff writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or 727-893-8825.



What to expect

On Feb. 27, city commissioners voted 5-2 to put Stanton on leave and prepare to fire him a week after he announced he planned to become a woman. None of the commissioners has indicated a change of mind. At this meeting, Stanton will make his appeal and the commission will vote again. If they vote as before, Stanton will be out of his $140,000 job with a 12-month severance package. If anyone changes his or her mind, he should be able to come back to work. The hearing starts at 6 p.m., but if you go, you'll want to get there early. City officials have no idea how many people will show up, but they're preparing for a significantly larger crowd than the 500 who came to discuss Stanton's contract three weeks ago. About 375 people will be allowed inside City Hall. The rest will be able to hear the proceedings through speakers set up outside. Largo City Hall is at 201 Highland Ave.

4 p.m : Sign up for speakers begins. Group representatives must be joined by group members if they want additional time to speak.

5:30 p.m. : The public will be allowed to enter City Hall.

6 p.m. : Steve Stanton and his attorneys have up to three hours to present his case.

About 9 p.m. : Public comment begins. Speakers have up to three minutes. Group representatives have an additional minute - up to 10 minutes total - for each member who waives the right to speak. Officials don't know how long the hearing will take but are prepared for it to go well into the morning.

On TV: Largo residents can watch the hearing on Channel 15.


E-mails: Since commissioners moved to fire Stanton, the city has received more than 1,425 single e-mails and an additional 2,367 e-mails sent via mass mailings from two or three different servers.

Tip: If you want to hand out fliers, there will be areas outside and on the lawn near City Hall to do so.