tampabay.com

Stanton stars at a fundraiser

Equality Florida benefits from the former Largo official's presence.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published May 23, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG -- They backed her when she was a man, but they loved her as a woman.

Making her first public appearance in the bay area as a woman, Susan Ashley Stanton was greeted with applause and whoops of praise Tuesday night by Pinellas County's leading gay and transgender group, which came to her defense earlier this year when she was fighting to keep her job as Largo city manager.

At the Second Annual Pinellas Equality Florida fundraiser, Stanton mingled with about 300 guests for nearly an hour before addressing the crowd from the porch of the historic Rutland Estate on Little Bayou.

"When I first began my journey in Florida, I thought it was a lone journey," but it's not been, Stanton said as she thanked the group for its support with unprepared remarks.

Stanton, formerly Steve Stanton, was fired by the Largo City Commission in March after Steve Stanton revealed he was transgender and planned to transition to being a woman. Stanton had held the job for 14 years.

Stanton appeared to have helped draw nearly twice as many guests for the group's fundraiser as last year, said Phil Farley, whose approximately 10,000-square-foot French country-style mansion was used for the event.

Also attending were several local politicians: St. Petersburg state legislators Bill Heller and Rick Kriseman; Tarpon Springs City Commissioner Robin Saenger; and St. Petersburg City Council members James Bennett, Jeff Danner and Herbert Polson.

Equality Florida was the most visible supporter of Stanton in the days after his announcement. Hundreds of members wrote Largo City Hall and showed up at two commission meetings to urge city leaders not to fire Stanton. At the first meeting, the group's executive director, Nadine Smith, was arrested after handing out fliers inside Largo City Hall. Police had said she did so despite requests not to. They also said she resisted arrest. Earlier this month, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office declined to file charges against her.

Brian Winfield, the group's communications director, said Stanton was asked to be the keynote speaker to give members a chance to meet the person who inspired so many to take action.

Stanton was clearly a hit, as many guests asked her to pose for pictures with them. "You're a wonderful pioneer," said Equality Florida member Len Leeb, 66. "Not only that, you're gorgeous."

Last year's fundraiser brought in about $75,000. Organizers hope to raise at least as much this year, Winfield said. Equality Florida, which has about 25,000 active members, focuses on education and the passage of local human rights ordinances that protect gay and transgender people from discrimination. It lobbies on issues such as ending Florida's ban on gay and lesbian adoption and making schools safe for gay and transgender students.