Q&A: Fla. Transsexual Talks About Firing

Last week, Largo, Fla., city manager Steven Stanton jolted townspeople with the admission that he was a transsexual who was planning to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Residents flooded city hall with e-mails and phone calls, mostly calling for his ouster. On Tuesday night, the city commission gathered for a tumultuous 3½-hour meeting packed with both supporters and opponents of Stanton. In the end, commissioners voted 5-2 to pass a resolution that initiated the process of firing him. As Stanton, 48, ponders his next move (he has five days to appeal), he spoke with NEWSWEEK's Lynn Waddell. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What have you been doing since the meeting Tuesday night?
Steven Stanton:
Other than talking to reporters? [Laughs.] I've been talking to citizens, people in Largo suggesting I sue their city. I've had 40 people in the past hour demanding, "You challenge this" … In the last seven days I probably have gotten seven to eight hours of sleep. I didn't sleep at all Tuesday night.

Were you surprised by the outcome of the meeting?
I never anticipated that I would be fired. In the same sense I understand that the city commissioners are under extreme pressure. The city has almost been held under capture by the most outrageous, meanest e-mails generated primarily by three different churches. When you hear from that many people, whatever it is, you want to get rid of it. The difficult thing is I love my organization. I love my city. I can't believe I'm being fired. I've worked for a lot of cities. Largo is the dream job.

Do you worry about losing friends at city hall?
That's the second biggest aspect of discomfort to me. I have hired every department director who's worked for the staff except one. So the management staff reflects my professional philosophy, as well as all being personal friends.

The city commissioners [who voted to fire me] said I have no followers. Who the hell has been hugging me all week? That's why I planned to talk to each one individually [before the news got out]. You need to give yourself time and need to get some information and know what [being transgender] is about. The first time you get that information you do feel violated. It creates a very strange anger. My wife, she went through that herself.

How has your wife, who has known about your gender identity for 2½ years, been handling this?
She has been super. It's not that she approves of this thing at all. We as a family are gonna have to confront and deal with this ourselves. We didn't know if I was going to have a job, or if I was going to be able to get a job. She is going back to school [to get] a real good job. [At this point in the interview, flowers are delivered to Stanton's house. The note reads, "Be courageous."] I don't know who they are from. I've never gotten flowers before. This [kind of response from the community] has been happening.

Have any religious groups or people who spoke against you at the meetings confronted you directly?
They have thrown eggs on my car. Someone sent me a nasty porno card. The biggest thing was going to a public meeting to hear so many who professed to have a close relation with God be so vicious in their loathing—particularly, the spewing out of hate [from] preachers.

Let's go back to last week. The St. Petersburg Times contacted you on Feb. 20, and you asked them to hold off until you could talk to your 13-year-old son. They agreed to give you some time. What happened next?
They weren't going to run the story until [Feb. 22]. Then they stuck it on the Internet [on Feb. 21]. I wasn't aware of it until I pulled into the parking lot [at work] that afternoon and people were telling me "You need to get out of the building. There's a press conference in 10 minutes about you." All of a sudden we were inundated with TV cameras, print media. They were there with pen and papers and microphones, all demanding to be fed. Under our plan, a lot of people should have known first. It was not on my schedule. It was on the Times's schedule.

How has your son handled this?
He's been super. We talked about love, what it means to be courageous. He thinks courageous means climbing tall buildings to save someone. I tried to explain that being courageous is being willing to stand when others are willing to sit. To stand up to do what's right in the face of adversity is showing profound leadership.

My son has not missed a day of school. School was made aware in case there was any potential disruption or teasing. One of the things that was driving my family timeline was to get Travis out of the community. He and my wife were going to fly to Kansas [in May].

Some city commissioners criticized you for only informing a few city employees, the transition team, of your decision. Who did you tell and why only them?
A former city commissioner, the mayor [Pat Gerard], her husband who is in media adverting and was advising us on how to control the media, the fire chief, police chief and the human-resource director. We had been contacting a half dozen media-organization consultants to learn how to deal with workplace transitions, to help answer people's questions like, "What do we call them now? Where are they going to bathroom?"

Who else knew other than your family and those at the city?
Medical staff.

Who do you think leaked the information to the press?
I don't know.

Do you know any other transsexuals?
I know two retired people who are transsexuals. Since this came out I've been contacted by people from national associations.

When did you decide to make the transition?
It wasn't something I wanted to do. It was something I had to do. Nobody can imagine the turmoil. Around 2005 I realized, "I can't continue living part time." A couple of years ago we had a police officer who committed suicide. I did not understand how anybody could take their life until this thing started creeping in on me. You can't go back, and you're too afraid to go forward. When I started thinking that way is when I realized I needed to re-evaluate my life.

When did you know that you were different?
Probably around age 6. When you're that young you don't know what you're feeling, you just know it's something you should not be feeling.

Did you talk about it with anyone?
Absolutely not. I knew this was so wrong, I knew it was wrong to be thinking about it.

Who have you had to relate this to now other than your son?
My dad found out. I'm not talking to him. He's adjusting to it, too. You can imagine a phone call a son makes to his dad, "How's it going, Dad? You know I forgot to mention I'm a transsexual." He asked me if I was sure. I apologized. He said he appreciated the phone call: "Good luck and I'll talk to you later."

What are you plans now?
This is such a process. I've not been fired yet. I'm on paid administrative leave, and I've not decided yet to appeal. Initially I said I would not appeal or do anything, but I never anticipated so many people calling up from the community, saying "Please promise me that you'll fight this."

I understand you are meeting with Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
[Yes.] There's the interest of Steve Stanton, then there may be the greater issue ... Does the employer have the right to fire [a transgender person]? It is not unlawful on the federal level at least.

Does the city of Largo have an ordinance against discrimination?
Some cities pass a citywide ordinance that requires people in businesses not to discriminate based on sexual orientation as well as gender identification. The city of Largo considered that a couple of years then decided not to adopt it because the same people who spoke out against me spoke out against it. The city did adopt a policy that we don't discriminate against anything other than [on the basis of] job performance.

When were you planning to make the transformation to being Susan Stanton?
I was in the stage to begin the real-life test [when he would begin dressing as a woman]. I had been waiting to do this in May. My wife was going to be completing her formal, clinical [medical] training. Then it was going to be moved up to March, which wouldn't give me much time. I've been going through heavy hormonal therapy the past two years.

So many people have been focusing on surgery [which Stanton says he would pay for]. Gender reassignment is something I ultimately want to do, but not until I go through the medically recommended procedure of a year of counseling. It's a good year away.

Have you gone out in public dressed like a woman?
Not locally. I have gone to other cities for personal business.

So what do you call yourself, a transsexual? Transgender?
Personally I hate the label transsexual. But what you do call it? Most people know it as this. I just want to be myself. After living 47 years as a male I doubt whether I will ever be a woman. I just want to be who I am, and there's not a good word for that.

What kind of physical changes have you experienced since taking hormones? Has it changed your voice?
A little bit it has. I've never had a deep voice. It's really more intonation, the way people use their voice. I used to have more defined muscles, which I lost. You lose a lot of body mass. I find myself unable to control my emotions the way I used to do.

There are secondary sexual characteristics that impact your body as well. I noticed this pain I was getting in my back. It was after I had been taking the hormones about six months. I was running and my chest was in terrible pain. I went to the doctor and after the exam, he said, "I assume you realize if you are running you need to be wearing a sports bra."

What about looking like a woman?
You know dressing like a woman is more difficult. That's an issue because I need to look professional. I've always been a sharp dresser, looking really professional. Women have so much more variety in the things they wear. Men don't think about these things.

Have you talked to your wife about these things?
No. We typically have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Are you going to stay together?
We haven't finalized it yet. It's extremely difficult for both of us. She wants a full-time person in her life. We just haven't talked about it. Obviously we have some issues as a family we are going to have to work out. It will be difficult whatever the outcome. We're not doing a divorce now, but it's one of those questions we will have to confront.