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LARGO, Fla. – Steve Stanton didn’t think it would be easy. But he also didn’t believe that his decision to transition into Susan and have gender reassignment surgery would manage to overshadow his 14 years of service as city manager of Largo, Fla., a Tampa Bay town of 76,000, and result in his firing. Yet that’s exactly what happened at a tumultuous city meeting Feb. 27.
“No city manager has ever attempted to do this before,” Stanton told the St. Petersburg Times. “I was naive enough to think I could.”
The trouble started for Stanton, 48, when the Times revealed in their Feb. 21 edition that the city manager was undergoing hormone therapy in preparation for the surgery. Prior to that time, Stanton had only told his wife, doctors and a select number of top officials at City Hall. He had, however, thought about how to make the transition as easy as possible for his staff, and had even prepared an eight-page plan on how to best begin the process in June, after his 13-year-old had finished school for the year and could be taken out of town and protected from the publicity. But someone in a city hall had a plan of their own, and leaked the news to the press.
The reaction was swift as a special meeting was called by Commissioner Mary Gray Black. Nearly 500 folks showed up, including dozens from two area mega-churches. After four hours of comment from community members on both sides of the issue, the Largo City Commission voted 5-2 to fire Stanton.
“His brain is the same today as it was last week,” said Commissioner Gay Gentry. “He may be even able to be a better city manager. But I sense that he’s lost his standing as a leader among the employees of the city.”
Mayor Pat Gerard, one of two who voted in favor of keeping Stanton, disagreed.
“I’m going to be embarrassed if we throw this man out on the trash heap after he’s worked so hard for the city,” the mayor said. “We have a choice to make: We can go back to intolerance, or we can be the city of progress.”
Progress v. police brutality
Outside the hearing, in the City Hall lobby, activist Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, was passing out pink fliers that simply read “Don’t Discriminate” when she ran afoul of the boys in blue. Smith was handing a flier to Charlie Deppish of Tampa when she was approached by Sgt. Butch Ward and ordered to take the flier back.
When Smith asked why, “He said, ‘I’m not going to argue with you,'” Deppish, a Stanton supporter who had asked for the flier, told the Times. “She said, ‘I’m not arguing. I’m just asking, why?'”
But Ward had no time for answers. Instead, he forcefully led Smith to an area that had been set up for potential arrests. Once there, Ward said that Smith allegedly resisted arrest and that it took four officers to restrain her. Times photos show Smith forced to the ground face down, her hands being cuffed behind her back. The images have outraged lgbt activists around the country who know and have worked with Smith for years. They say that Smith believes in non-violence and would never have resisted arrest – she was simply trying to ascertain why she was being accosted by the lawmen.
“Nadine Smith is a nationally recognized social justice leader with two decades of experience in non-violent public education and advocacy,” said Amy Mandel, board chair of Equality Florida in a statement the agency released. “She was peacefully participating in the Largo hearing alongside Mr. Stanton’s many supporters. We believe Nadine is completely innocent.”
The arrest has also caught the attention of the nation’s two leading lgbt advocacy groups.
“We condemn this outrageous and unprovoked attack on one of our community’s leading advocates,” said Matt Foreman of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “This directly associates the Police Department of Largo with the appalling bigotry expressed by the hundreds attending the poisonous hearing attacking an outstanding public servant, Steve Stanton.”
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, shared a similar sentiment.
“HRC joins the Task Force in condemning these actions by Largo police,” he said. “Arresting a community leader for simply handing out a flier is disgraceful. “The city’s bigoted action against Steve Stanton was shameful in and of itself; its treatment of a citizen standing in support of Stanton is doubly appalling. We hope actions are taken immediately by city leaders to remedy both intolerable situations.”
Battle not over
For his part, Stanton has begun the process of appealing the ruling. He is being represented in the process by Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“I hope that commissioners will listen and thoughtfully reconsider their initial decision,” Doering said to the Times.
Stanton told the paper that he realizes the odds are not in his favor.
“I’m realistic enough to know it’s going to require an extraordinary step to stop the train going down the track with a certain degree of speed and to confront some of the folks back in the commission chambers who will be talking about what Jesus would do,” Stanton said.
Regardless the outcome, trans leader says some good can come from the situation.
“A high-profile case like that can put a face on a problem we’ve known about for a long time,” said Simon Aronoff, deputy director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Employment discrimination against transgender people is blatant and common. That’s why we need protections on the federal level for transgender people.”