Stanton uses status to lobby

Doors open more easily for Susan thanks to her celebrity.

Published May 16, 2007

WASHINGTON -- As Largo's city manager for 14 years, Steve Stanton worked with Rep. C.W. Bill Young's office, but never met the long-term Florida congressman face to face.

But Tuesday, as a fired transgender official, Susan Stanton, chatted with Young in his Capitol office for almost an hour.

"As a city manager, I had no status," said Stanton, 48, who spent the day as a woman, a couple of weeks before she plans to make her transition full time. "I probably have more status now than I had before."

Nearly two months after being fired as Largo's city manager after announcing plans to become a woman, Stanton was one of about 120 people from 30 states who lobbied Congress on behalf of a pair of proposed laws: One that would protect gay and transgender people from employment discrimination; the other would expand federal hate crimes legislation to cover gay and transgender people who are victims of violence.

Stanton said she wasn't looking for a commitment to support the legislation on the spot. "Some people are receptive to the message. Others are in the wait and see mode," she said. "I ask them to reach out and educate themselves."

And some of that education was firsthand.

As Stanton and other transgender advocates walked into Young's office about 11:30 a.m., Young told Stanton, "You need to realize that this may be a little awkward for me. I've never dealt with anyone in this situation before."

"This is a little awkward for me, too," Stanton replied.

Young appreciated the candor: "That broke the ice and we had a nice conversation," Young, R-Indian Shores, said later.

He said he spoke with Stanton mostly about the nondiscrimination bill sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is openly gay. Young said he told Stanton he hadn't read the bill but would discuss it with Frank.

"We talked about a lot of things, frankly very personal, about her experience and the things that have been in the newspaper already," Young said.

Young has not said if he will support Frank's bill. But he said he signed a commitment that a person's sexual orientation and gender identity would not be a consideration in employment decisions for his congressional office.

About a dozen states have passed legislation to protect gay and transgender people from employment discrimination. A few of those recently passed bills are awaiting governor's signatures. But most states, including Florida, don't have laws to protect those groups.

The self-appointed lobbyists' message Tuesday: People are going to be fired for being transgender "until we have a law that says you can't cross that line," Stanton said.

The Largo City Commission fired Stanton in late March, just a few weeks after he disclosed his transition plans. Stanton, who has undergone hormone treatments and electrolysis to remove body hair, began a public transition to being a woman in earnest last week after she posed for a portrait for a story that ran Sunday in the St. Petersburg Times.

She plans to undergo gender reassignment surgery and was picked Tuesday as one of six finalists for the job of Sarasota city manager.

Stanton also met Tuesday with staffers for Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., whose staff told advocates that he anticipated sponsoring the Senate version of the Frank bill.

Not all the visits went as well as Young's, allowed Amanda Simpson of Tucson, Ariz., a test pilot for Raytheon and a board member of the National Center for Transgender Equality, which organized the lobbying effort. She spent most of the day with Stanton.

"We'll just say it was a courtesy appointment," Simpson said of a visit to Martinez's office.

Tuesday was the final full day of a four-day trip to Washington for Stanton, who started her day about 4:30 a.m., after sleeping for a couple of hours. About 8 a.m., she searched the street near her hotel looking for a restaurant that served salad. After a few failed attempts, she settled on grilled cheese.

About 9:15 a.m., she took a 90-minute tour near the Capitol with a crew from CNN, which is planning a documentary about her. She wrapped up her day, spent wearing a tomato red sweater tank and black sacks with a lace sash, about 6 p.m.

Stanton said her goal Tuesday was to put a human face on the issues facing transgender people. She just wanted lawmakers to listen to her story, and they did. Her visit with Young was a highlight.

"Both he and I are in a very unique position to make an impact much greater than my city or his district," she said.

Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or at (727) 445-4155.