After a lifetime of agonizing over his gender identity, Steven Stanton decided to become a woman about two years ago. "It wasn't something I wanted to do," says Stanton, 48, the city manager of Largo, Fla. "It was something I had to do." He started hormonal therapy, gradually shedding body hair and losing muscle mass. He began to feel breast pain when he went jogging—a problem he remedied by following a doctor's recommendation to wear a sports bra. On trips away from home, he began venturing out dressed as a woman. Although he confided all this to his wife and a small circle of friends, he knew that one day he'd have to tell the townspeople he served. So he prepared meticulously for that moment—aiming for May, when his 13-year-old son would be away—and created a detailed eight-page plan. "When you tell somebody this, it's devastating," he says. "It is like an element of betrayal."
Stanton's plan foundered two weeks ago when the St. Petersburg Times published an article about his plans for a sex change. In the ensuing upheaval, church leaders condemned him and angry residents demanded his ouster. At a tumultuous meeting last Tuesday, city commissioners voted 5-2 to begin the process of firing Stanton, who has received mostly solid reviews in 14 years as city manager. "I do not feel he has the integrity, nor the trust, nor the respect, nor the confidence to continue," said Commissioner Mary Gray Black. Now on paid administrative leave, Stanton has until Tuesday to decide whether to appeal. Civil rights and transgender groups have rushed to his defense. "It's been a long time since I've seen that degree of just flagrant discrimination," says Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and now Stanton's lawyer.
Stanton has struggled with his identity since he was a child. He used to try on his sister's dresses and continued accumulating women's clothes over the years. When he married in 1990, he hoped to stifle his yearnings and eventually tried counseling. But "you go and try to get fixed," he said at last week's commission meeting, "and you learn you can't get fixed." In 2003, while city leaders were debating a human-rights ordinance that would protect transsexuals, the then Commissioner Pat Burke criticized Stanton for not lobbying hard enough for the measure (it didn't end up passing, but the town did adopt an internal policy barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity). Stanton, who was possibly wary of accusations of favoritism, responded by confiding his secret to Burke. When he showed her photos of himself in drag, she laughed affectionately and offered him fashion tips. "It was a light dress, and it didn't work," she says.
Stanton's case comes at a time when the transgender community is gaining acceptance. There's "a growing trend among mental-health professionals to get the social environment to adapt to the person rather than force the person to conform to gender stereotypes," says psychiatrist Jack Drescher. Federal civil-rights law offers no explicit protection for transgender workers, but eight states (not including Florida) and the District of Columbia do. In the corporate world, 122 of the Fortune 500 companies now have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Yet Stanton's experience shows the limits of such acceptance. The Largo city commission could vote to finalize his firing as early as Tuesday. Stanton, who initially refused to take legal action, is now contemplating it. "I never anticipated so many people calling up from the community saying, 'Please, promise me that you'll fight this'." As Stanton told his son, "Being courageous is being willing to stand when others are willing to sit." After years of battling himself, perhaps he's ready to take on a broader struggle.