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Introducing Susan Stanton

In February, Steve Stanton's secret was out. He lost his job as Largo city manager. Then the world came calling. But not for Steve.

By LANE DeGREGORY
Published May 13, 2007


LARGO -- She couldn't sleep. She lay for hours in the dark.

In the morning, she would pose for her first portrait, at age 48. All her life, she had dodged and wavered and contemplated every avoidance, even suicide. Now, 12 hours to go.

She got up at 1 a.m., made coffee. She took a mug into the den of her Largo home, pulled out her red journal and started to write:

So here I sit. Alone in the early morning hours. Waiting for the rest of my life to begin.

She had spent years planning for this day. In the last month, she had frantically built a wardrobe, learned makeup, fretted over her too-short hair. She thought she looked good. Pretty. Professional.

Her debut would come after four decades of self-examination, in the dust of a leader's best-laid plans, in the remnants of her family. It glowed with the promise of possibility. Like new skin.

But what if others didn't see her the way she saw herself?

She had already lost her job, her friends and her home -- the things that gave her an identity -- for admitting she wasn't the person they knew. Now that she was showing them a second self, would they reject that person too?

She knew that some people would never even see Susan Ashley Stanton.

They would see a man in a dress.

Shedding a life usually means starting over, quietly, somewhere else. Slip town. Get a new job in a place no one knows your name.

For Steve Stanton, that wasn't an option.

He had been Largo's city manager for 14 years. He had rappeled with the firefighters and broken his nose with the SWAT team. When he decided to become a woman, he told only a few people. His wife knew, his son did not. But in February someone told the newspaper.

Then came the speedy firing, and then CNN, the Daily Show and Larry King. Then came the pack of lesbian lawyers telling him whom to talk to, what to say.

As Steve, he was forceful, powerful in a governmental, almost dorky kind of way. Now he took orders. He waffled.

No one really wanted Steve any more. They wanted Susan. But who was she? She was a celebrity no one fully knew. Not even Steve.

Atlanta's Gay Pride Parade asked Susan to be grand marshal. A Chicago transgender convention invited her to speak. The city of Sarasota named Susan a finalist for its city manager job.

Tiptoeing through this transition is Steve-Susan. He is a thinner, longer-haired version of his former self, wearing too-big suits and folding his hands in a girly way.

On Tuesday, things change. Susan will meet with U.S. congressmen to lobby for trangender rights.

Paparazzi will mill around the Capitol. Gone is the carefully crafted plan of how to control the image of Susan. When she emerges in Washington, her photo will likely hit the AP wire and be transmitted around the world.

I always thought Susan's first appearance would be climbing the steps to Largo City Hall, Susan wrote in her journal. Instead, I'll be climbing the steps to Congress.

She consulted with her handlers, and, against their advice, agreed to head off the paparazzi with a hometown newspaper portrait taken Wednesday. She still had some control.

- - -

When Donna woke, Steve had to put aside Susan. His wife knows Susan, but doesn't want to live with her. Once Steve is Susan full time, he has to move out.

So Steve padded around their kitchen in running shorts and a tank top, scrambling eggs for their 13-year-old son. Travis still hasn't met Susan. He's only seen a blurry photo, snapped with a tripod and self-timer.

"Is it going to take two hours for you to get ready now too, Dad?" Travis asked. "Once you're her?"

The pronoun thing is hard, even in the Stanton house. Steve drives Travis to school. Susan goes shopping. Steve-Susan has been sleeping in the guest room for years.

One afternoon, running late, Susan had to change into Steve in the car. She forgot to take off her mascara. So he wore sunglasses to Travis' school.

A few days ago, Susan called home to say she was on her way. She was wearing a peach tank top and white capris. Having a good hair day.

"I'm coming home as Susan," she told Travis. "I want you to meet her."

Travis hid in his room.

- - -

Finding Susan was as indelicate as renovating a house. It was spackling, painting and draping. For years, Steve needed a helmet wig, pancake makeup and foam breasts to be a woman. Lately there's been peeling and stripping -- shedding the wig, the beard, letting the hormones transform him into a size 10 and a B cup.

To some, it seemed fake. A macho man wearing a bra? They labeled him a liar. Steve said he was just trying to find his true self.

But how can you be authentic -- how can you even know who you are -- when you haven't been allowed to try?

Steve has never felt like a man. "What kind of man would want to cut off his b----?" he asks.

He doesn't know if he feels like a woman. How could he?

He supposes he's somewhere in the middle.

"I'm still me," he says.

Susan still wants to scale walls with firefighters. She still loves Gator football and driving her Jeep. She has a softer handshake than Steve. She tries to remember to soften her voice, and still talks like a city manager, peppering long sentences with words like "absolutely" and "typically."

Hormones, she says, have softened her biceps and her personality. Steve could be a jerk, she admits. "I'd have probably fired me too."

Since Steve was fired, none of his former employees -- his friends -- have called. He had always thought that if he left Largo, they would give him an award.

So last week, he went to the engravers and picked out a trophy: blue, 16 inches with a marble base. On the plaque, he wrote the words he had hoped someone else would write: To Steve Stanton: The World's Greatest City Manager.

He needed a tangible reminder of his legacy in Largo. Before he becomes a full-time woman, he needed to acknowledge that he had been a good man. Soon, that $135 trophy will be all that's left of Steve.

- - -

Susan spread her new outfit on the guest room bed. She still had a hard time accessorizing. Men's suits were so easy. And boring.

Steve's closet had been a sea of gray and black. He liked pink shirts and coral ties. Now pink and coral tops crushed against the suits. Twenty pairs of women's shoes -- size 8 1/2 -- cluttered the floor.

Steve never understood the shoe thing. Susan does.

"Shoes make the look. It's like washing your car and not Armor All-ing your tires," she says. She laughs. "Is that a guy thing to say?"

To choose her look, she had navigated International Plaza with her wardrobe consultant -- her electrologist -- and tried on at least 60 women's suits.

Even with her new shape, nothing fit right. She still has no hips. Her square shoulders felt squeezed in the narrow jackets.

She finally chose a charcoal gray jacket, a flowing skirt, and a rose colored knit shell. (No shirts with collars, her handlers said. Too mannish.)

The clothes are Steve's colors, the muted hues of a librarian, of a government wonk.

Steve-Susan loved evening gowns. Steve-Susan loved the clothes a man would choose for a woman. New Susan is learning to dress for herself.

That morning, she studied her image in the mirror. At first, all she saw was her face. She could not stop smiling.

She checked her watch: 8 a.m. Only two hours to do her hair.

- - -

Steve had gone to the same barber since he moved to Largo. He couldn't tell the guy who had given him the perfect side-part for 17 years that he aspired to highlights and shoulder-length layers.

He was rescued by the police chief's wife. For months, Diane Aradi trimmed Steve's growing hair, taught him to finger curl it into loose waves.

The morning of the photo shoot was Susan's first attempt at doing on her own.

She armed herself with a blow dryer. Dug out her new round brush. But she couldn't get that lift like Diane did. Four times, she wet it down and started over.

By 9:30 a.m., Susan flopped on the bed in tears. Steve would have never cried over his hair.

"I can't do this," she moaned into the pillow. "I don't know how to be Susan."

Two more tries, then she dialed hair 911. She told the chief's wife: "This is an emergency."

- - -

Are they going to laugh? Should she even show up?

On the way to the photo shoot, she stopped at Barnes & Noble to browse. Books calm her. That's one reason she chose the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times, as the location for the portrait. It's semiprivate, intellectual.

At the bookstore, she flipped through the biographies. Some day, she hoped to see her own story on the shelves. An agent is already peddling Susan's autobiography. By January, those journals she has been keeping since high school could become a book.

She checked the cafe's clock: 10:50 a.m.

The drive to the photo shoot was too short. Nervous, she parked blocks away. As she got out, she peeked in the mirror one last time.

- - -

It was over in a couple of hours. After all the primping and posing, trying to figure out what to do with her hands, crossing and uncrossing her legs, sitting and standing, turning side to side, tilting her head, and working her way from stiff and scared to relaxed and chatty, she asked for a paper towel to blot her makeup.

Someone gave her a bottle of water. The photographer opened his laptop and said she could see herself.

She leaned in. Scanned frame after frame.

That was her? That woman with the great hair?

"I look so happy."

- - -

She wanted to shop. She still needed another suit for her trip to D.C. But it was getting late. Travis had an appointment with the orthodontist.

Time to go back to being Dad.

As she steered her Lexus up the interstate, listening to Celtic folk music, her smile, so bright in the photo, began to fade.

Turns out, after all of that, this was the toughest part. After the years preparing, after she finally felt good about the way she looked, after she finally made her public debut -- and no one laughed! -- she drove slowly.

She didn't want to go home.

She wasn't ready to hang Susan back in the closet.

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

About this story
Reporter Lane DeGregory has followed Steve Stanton's transformation for months. She shopped with Susan last week and was with her May 9 when her portrait was taken. The scenes from the night before and early that morning were recreated through interviews with Stanton and from her journal entries.