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Does Susan Stanton deserve an apology from the city of Largo?

One woman thinks so, and during Pride Month, she reached out to officials.
Writer Diane Daniel was sad, scared and angry when her hometown of Largo voted to fire its transgender city manager 14 years ago. Now, she says, it's time for officials to right a past wrong.
Writer Diane Daniel was sad, scared and angry when her hometown of Largo voted to fire its transgender city manager 14 years ago. Now, she says, it's time for officials to right a past wrong. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jul. 4

She was sitting in her kitchen, watching a video of a Largo City Council meeting on her laptop, listening to a government official read a letter proclaiming “Pride Month,” when she started weeping.

The news should have made Diane Daniel happy. Over the last few years, her hometown has become so much more progressive. It even raised a rainbow flag over City Hall.

But the proclamation felt hypocritical and hurtful, like opening an old wound.

“I hadn’t realized how much that affected me, even after all these years,” said Diane, 63. “I took it personally.”

On her screen, the official was saying that much of the city’s successes could be attributed to its diversity.

The purpose of Pride Month, the proclamation said, is to “acknowledge the history of prejudice and discrimination toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and non-binary individuals.”

To do that, Diane decided, Largo had to address its past. “I want the city to talk about what happened,” she said. “There should be accountability.”

She thought about recent reckonings: women calling out men who had harassed them in #MeToo, descendants of enslaved people seeking reparations, a U.S. congressman asking the government to acknowledge wrongfully firing thousands of LGBTQ people from the military and civil service.

She wrote a letter, asking for an apology.

The mayor and city manager of Largo wrote back to Diane Daniel. Her laptop shows the city manager's reply.
The mayor and city manager of Largo wrote back to Diane Daniel. Her laptop shows the city manager's reply. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The firing

Diane wasn’t there that night 14 years ago when Largo’s City Council was debating whether to fire the city manager.

Someone had told the media that Steven Stanton was taking hormones and wanted to become to a woman. At that point, many people had never heard the term transgender.

Hundreds turned out to support Stanton, then 48, who had overseen the city for more than a decade. Others called Stanton a liar, a sinner. National media picked up the story.

During the meeting, someone called in a bomb threat. The assistant city manager passed out and had to be taken by ambulance to the emergency room. And experts tried to explain what it means to be transgender and how someone can make a smooth transition at work.

After four hours of testimony and tears, elected officials voted 5-2 to terminate Stanton’s contract. They cited other concerns, including management style. But the audience felt certain it was because of the gender issue.

“When they fired Stanton, they were sending a message to the community about how the city treats people,” Diane said.

She was living in North Carolina then. But the night Stanton got fired, she was visiting her parents in Largo and watched it on TV.

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It made her mad. Disgusted. Scared.

She knew there was animosity, even violence, toward people who were transgender, but she couldn’t believe it was happening in Largo.

She called her partner and shared the news.

“Our secret wasn’t out yet then.”

The relationship

They met on Valentine’s Day, 2003, at a baggage carousel in Logan Airport. Diane, a freelance writer, had just moved to Boston and had struck up a conversation with a Dutch man on her flight. He introduced her to his friend, “a super curious, super smart” bicyclist who worked at a company that made medical devices.

“I was attracted immediately,” she said.

The Dutch friends told Diane they were heading to ice skate on the frozen Lake George. She asked if she could tag along and write a travel story.

“We started doing things together, hanging out a lot,” Diane said of the cyclist, who was “just so kind.”

The next year, when Diane was 46 and her partner was 40, they got married on Indian Rocks Beach in front of 40 friends. Neither had been married before or had children.

She didn’t mind that her husband sometimes liked to wear women’s clothes. But a couple of years later, when he told her he wanted to change genders, she was shocked. She collapsed on the couch.

“I couldn’t wrap my head around it.”

While her partner celebrated her new identity, Diane grieved the man she lost.

Eventually, they found a therapist who told them they couldn’t share each other’s joy or sorrow about the change, but if they really loved each other, they could make it work.

“It sucked,” Diane said. “But we supported each other. And that helped a lot.”

They talked to other people whose spouses had transitioned, researched transgender rights, went to support groups.

But when Stanton was fired, none of their family or friends knew that Diane’s husband had decided to become her wife.

“The firing made me angry and fearful,” Diane’s spouse, Selina Kok, wrote in an email. “Angry because it was another example of how trans people are marginalized, because they are trans. Fearful because it confirmed my fear that one could lose work, friends, and even worse, family, because of transitioning.”

Three years after Largo fired Stanton, in 2010, Diane’s spouse told a boss at a medical diagnostics company in North Carolina about their personal life.

“It was remarkable how they embraced her,” Diane said. “The message they sent employees was: You can feel however you want to, but as an employee, we will not tolerate abuse.”

Largo, she said, “sent the opposite message.”

Diane and her partner live as a lesbian couple now, though Diane is quick to say: “I’m not gay. I just happen to be more okay and open with the gender/sexual preference fluidity than most people.”

The couple, who have been married 16 years, recently moved to the Netherlands. When Diane drafted that letter from their home on Indian Rocks Beach, Selina already was abroad. She supports Diane’s request but doesn’t get involved in her advocacy.

“What I hoped,” Selina wrote, “was that Diane’s letter would lead to a public response and acknowledgment that Stanton’s firing should not have happened.”

Courtesy of Selina Kok.
Selina Kok, left, and Diane Daniel at Indian Rocks Beach, where they own a home. The couple has been married 16 years. When the city fired Steve Stanton, no one knew their secret.
Courtesy of Selina Kok. Selina Kok, left, and Diane Daniel at Indian Rocks Beach, where they own a home. The couple has been married 16 years. When the city fired Steve Stanton, no one knew their secret. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The emails

In her June 9 letter to Largo, Diane addressed the mayor, the community engagement specialist and the city manager — who used to be Stanton’s assistant, the one rushed to the hospital the night of the firing.

She shared her story and lauded the city for its “purposeful progress” in revitalizing the downtown, improving the cultural center and adding sustainability efforts. “And now an entire month devoted to Pride,” she wrote. “That makes me so happy.”

Then, she recapped what happened to Stanton — who has been living as Susan since being fired.

“Here is my request,” Diane wrote. “Please apologize to all of us. Please apologize to the citizens of Largo and beyond, and to Susan Stanton and her family and co-workers for firing her on the basis of her gender transition. Please apologize to me for the message your city conveyed, which caused my spouse and myself a huge amount of fear. Please apologize loud and proud, the way IBM did to Lynn Conway last year, who they had fired decades earlier for being transgender.”

“Please be bold and brave by showing you truly care about LGBTQ people, past as well as present. Then may you fly that Pride flag blemish free.”

Diane doesn’t know Stanton and hasn’t reached out to her or her family. But she thinks about her, and all she had to endure, and hopes, maybe, a public apology will help, even if it’s only a few words.

In 2007, Largo City Manager Steven Stanton's transition became national news. Here, Susan Stanton poses for a 2010 CNN documentary, "Her Name Was Steven."
In 2007, Largo City Manager Steven Stanton's transition became national news. Here, Susan Stanton poses for a 2010 CNN documentary, "Her Name Was Steven." [ Courtesy CNN ]

Stanton went on to testify before Congress for transgender rights and became, for a while, a face for the movement. She moved to Sarasota, then to Lake Worth and California, working as a city manager.

In September 2020, she was ordained as an Episcopal priest. She worked as a chaplain at a college medical center, and recently moved to Los Angeles, where she is chief financial officer for the diocese there.

Stanton hadn’t heard about Diane’s request. She said she never expected an apology, and as a former city manager, she understands why they would be reluctant to issue one. “I can see a city saying, ‘We choose to focus on what is going on today, not yesterday,’ “ Stanton said. “Besides, by addressing a wrong, the city could incur a liability.”

Though many people told her to, Stanton never thought about suing the city she loved. And she said she forgave those who voted her out.

Still, she said she would like them to reach out to her directly, or at least admit to themselves, “I regret doing what I did, and the way I did it.”

“That would go toward some personal healing,” she said. “At least a little bit.”

She’s not angry about what happened. More sad and disappointed.

“But I did okay,” she said. “I’m okay.”

The reply

What good is an apology?

It wouldn’t give Stanton back her job or make up for the fear and pain that the decision caused all those years ago, to Diane, her partner and countless others.

But it would acknowledge a wrong, Diane said, and could help forge a more inclusive future. It might even make marginalized people feel safer. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said.

Five days after she sent the letter, she hadn’t heard back from anyone. The next day, she called and the community engagement specialist wrote back, thanking Diane for sharing her story and concerns. “City leadership is having internal conversations across departments to ensure we provide you with a comprehensive response,” she wrote.

Then Mayor Woody Brown replied, reminding Diane he wasn’t on the commission that fired Stanton. “I do assure you that Largo is purposefully striving to include and celebrate all of our diverse residents,” he wrote.

She emailed back, to say thank you. “I much prefer a response to the public and not to me alone,” she typed, “as it’s not about me.”

The next day, she got an email from the city manager. “We are deeply sorry for how events in the City of Largo’s past added to the fear you and your family felt in 2007,” Henry Schubert wrote.

He said the city was trying to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion into its work and training. “We deeply regret any events in the city’s history that led to personal hardship for any of our community members.”

Largo is grateful for Stanton’s service, he wrote, and supports “her future success.”

The refusal

Diane was not satisfied. “I’m extremely disappointed that you have chosen to not publicly discuss the incongruity of your former actions with your current ones,” she wrote Schubert, “because I can guarantee you I am not the only one who remembers or cares.”

Schubert didn’t reply. In an interview Monday, he told the Times that he wasn’t surprised when the city commissioners fired Stanton. “It was a really complicated issue,” he said. “There was a lot more involved than gender reassignment.”

He said he understands Diane’s feelings, but — just as his former boss Stanton predicted — he doesn’t plan to make a public apology.

“It’s something that happened a long, long time ago, and most people in Largo weren’t even around then,” Schubert said. “As an organization, we’ve matured and are focusing on moving forward.”

Besides, he said, the city shouldn’t apologize for something elected officials did.

“We don’t feel it’s necessary to address the issue with the community at large,” Schubert said, “because we’re not getting any demand from the community.”

Except for Diane.