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Florida UUs rally in support of fired city manager

Ouster of official undergoing gender reassignment captures national attention.
By Donald E. Skinner
3.16.07

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Ministers at March 6 rally

The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi (left) and the Rev. Manish Mishra (right), Unitarian Universalist ministers, rally March 6 in Largo, Fla., in support of city manager Steve Stanton, who was fired after announcing plans for gender reassignment. With them is the Rev. Sue Sherwood, a Presbyterian/UCC minister. (Robb Sanborn)

Unitarian Universalists and people from many other faith groups rallied around Largo, Fla., city manager Steve Stanton last week when the city commission began the process of firing him after he announced he was undergoing gender reassignment surgery.

The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi and the Rev. Manish Mishra, ministers of UU congregations in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, along with a Unity minister, organized a March 6 rally at city hall in Stanton’s support that drew 350 people, including 60 Unitarian Universalists.

“We believe that Mr. Stanton is a human being worthy of being treated with respect, compassion, and dignity,” Janamanchi told the gathering.

Janamanchi and Mishra were at the city council meeting a week earlier when commissioners voted 5-2 to begin dismissal proceedings by placing Stanton on administrative leave. At that meeting many speakers demanded his dismissal, claiming this to be “God’s will,” according to Janamanchi. “After that, it was just a very obvious thing to organize the rally,” he said.

The rally drew 30 religious leaders including three rabbis, a Muslim leader, and representatives from Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Metropolitan Community, and Presbyterian churches. Other UU ministers who took part included the Rev. Liz Brown, interim minister at the UU Church of Tampa, the Rev. Millie Rochester, assistant minister at UUs of Clearwater, and the Rev. Carole Yorke, of the Treasure Coast UU Society in Stuart.

The total turnout of 350 was a pleasant surprise, said Mishra. “I had thought we might have 100 people and a dozen clergy.” He noted that the sentiment at the initial city council hearing was overwhelmingly in favor of firing Stanton, but that a poll of Largo residents by the St. Petersburg Times found that 65 percent of residents opposed firing him and 70 percent said they’d be fine with a transgender coworker. “I think the city commission had the pulse of its constituents wrong,” said Mishra.

Stanton filed an appeal March 8, requesting a public hearing on his dismissal. The hearing will be held by early April. In 2003 the city adopted an internal policy protecting employees from discrimination or harassment based on “gender identity or expression,” but because Stanton is employed at the will of the commission, he can be terminated at any time with or without cause, according to his contract.

Mishra organized an interfaith “service of hope” at his church, the UU Church of Saint Petersburg, on March 15. He is also helping to organize ministers to go in groups of two and three to meet with each of the five commissioners who voted to terminate Stanton. “We hope they’ll reconsider their decision,” he said. “We want to have a dialogue with them.” He noted that only one additional commissioner would have to change his vote in order for Stanton to remain. Dismissal of a city manager requires five of seven votes.

Janamanchi said he is also reaching out to some of the Christian leaders who are urging Stanton’s dismissal. “We are both driven by beliefs,” he said. “That does not mean we cannot try to understand each other better,” he said.

Stanton, 48, has been Largo city manager for 14 years. He said he was “overwhelmed” by the support from those at the rally. He told the St. Petersburg Times: “I love my job. I absolutely want to come back. If I come back the city will get a better city manager.”

The story has attracted the attention of human rights activists nationally. Representatives of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, are supporting Stanton. They hope his case will draw attention to and support for passage in Congress of an amendment to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to protect transgender people. ENDA has been under consideration for several years, but has never garnered enough support for passage.


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