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In Florida, sex change and the city

Largo officials affirm the firing of the transsexual city manager despite an emotional hearing.

March 25, 2007|Jim Stratton | Orlando Sentinel

LARGO, FLA. — In the most closely watched hearing of this small city's 102-year history, supporters made emotional pleas early into the morning Saturday to convince city commissioners that City Manager Steve Stanton, who has announced he is having a sex change, deserves to keep his job.

It didn't work.

After six hours of testimony and discussion, Largo commissioners voted 5-2 to reaffirm their earlier decision that Stanton had to go. Those who supported his firing insisted he was being dismissed not because he was a transsexual but because they questioned his judgment, integrity and ability to lead.

"Honesty, integrity and trust" are the basis for any relationship between a city commission and city manager, Commissioner Andy Guyette said. "Without trust, there's no longer a foundation for any relationship."

Mayor Pat Gerard, Stanton's most vocal proponent, said she didn't know why her fellow commissioners thought the longtime city manager had misled them.

"I don't understand them on that," she said. "I certainly don't subscribe to that point of view."

The vote came after Stanton and his attorney had offered up several experts and supporters who insisted that he would remain an effective leader even after he becomes "Susan."

At 7:15 p.m. Stanton stepped to the lectern.

In an earnest, sometimes rambling presentation, he urged commissioners to reconsider a decision they made late last month to dismiss him.

"I'm asking for you to give me a chance to show you I can do the job," he said. "I'm asking the City Commission to give the community an opportunity to show they can embrace a transgender city manager. Nothing more than that."

Just before returning to his seat, he added, "I'm asking you to realize that I'm still the same person I was four weeks ago."

As the hearing entered its fifth hour, he stood in an adjacent meeting room, snacking on M&M's. Though commissioners had said virtually nothing by that point, Stanton seemed to sense which way the decision was headed.

"This train," he said, "is too far down the track."

More than 70 people spoke, some traveling more than two hours to address the commission. Some, fighting back tears, implored commissioners to reinstate Stanton, saying anything short of that would be discrimination.

"No matter what language you wrap around it, it will be discrimination," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a Pinellas County-based gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.

Stanton's supporters included college students, Largo residents and representatives of local churches. First United Church of Tampa presented a resolution asking that Stanton be reinstated. Several speakers were transsexuals themselves.

Stanton's backers insisted that he was being dismissed because he was different.

His detractors included residents, current and former city employees, and a former mayor. They maintained that Stanton, 48, was unfit to lead, had made poor decisions and would set a bad moral example.

"This little thing has made Largo the laughingstock of the whole country. It's a disgrace," resident Jimmy Dean said. He said that if the commission allowed Stanton to keep his job, Largo would become "a weirdo town" that appealed only to "weirdos."

"The man is sick and needs help," Dean said.

Former Largo Mayor Bob Jackson said he didn't care that Stanton was planning to become a woman.

"The issue is a matter of integrity," said Jackson, who alleges Stanton has treated employees unfairly. "The media has made it an issue of sex change."

The Stanton episode has overwhelmed this city of about 76,000 tucked between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. City Hall has been inundated by thousands of e-mails, letters and phone calls. The meeting, which began Friday evening, was interrupted briefly by a bomb threat.

Some residents carried signs -- "Stop Christian Facism" read one -- while others sat quietly outside.

Joe Saunders, 23, a University of Central Florida graduate who attended, said the commission's decision was "blatant discrimination, pure and simple." He doesn't buy the assertion from some commissioners that they were concerned about Stanton's judgment and his ability to lead. "Anyone who says this isn't about him transitioning [to become a woman] is just fooling themselves," he said.

Testifying on Stanton's behalf was Susan Kimberly, the former deputy mayor of St. Paul, Minn., a transgender woman who has been involved in local government and politics for 30 years.

A doctor who specializes in transgender cases spoke, as did Margaret Stumpp, the chief investment officer of Quantitative Management Associates, a subsidiary of Prudential Financial, who used to be a man.

Stumpp, who oversees more than $60 billion in investments, sought to reassure commissioners that most employees, when treated with respect and educated about transgender people, have no problems working for a transgender manager. About 300 companies have guidelines about transgender employees.

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