Cutting Across Oppression
General Assembly 2008 Event 4028
Presenters: Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, Rev. Manish Mishra, Janice Carney, Allyson Diane Hamm
Steve Stanton was the city manager of Largo, Florida. He has worked for the city for 15 years and it has been a very successful career. But in February 2007, his career was brought to a dead end when the St. Petersburg Times outed him in an exclusive story as a transgender person.
In retelling the story of this transgender former city manager, Mishra shared his own odyssey as an Asian American of East Indian descent coming out as a gay man at the age of 20. The loneliness and the fear of loss he had felt then had driven him to the brink of suicide.
When Steve Stanton was outed by the St. Petersburg Times in the midst of his gender reassignment, Mishra was deeply affected as he recalled his own pain. He identified with Stanton's suffering. What's most unfair was the timing. Stanton had planned to come out to his 13-yr-old son in June, just a few months away, when school would be out for the summer, and his son would be spared the taunting of his classmates. The timing of the news release gave Stanton less than 24 hours to come out to his own family before the press could do so.
Once the news broke, Largo City Hall was flooded with phone calls of protest, emails and faxes condemning the man as horrible, sinful and deviant, calling for his immediate dismissal. At first Mishra thought this was an initial over-reaction of the public from shock and that it would recede in a day or two. But it proved not to be so. Hysteria broke out. Within less than a week, the city council convened a meeting for the purpose of "reviewing" Stanton 's contract.
At the time, Mishra was in his first year of ministry with the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of St. Petersburg. He didn't know his congregation well enough to gauge where they stood on transgender issues. He was cautioned against "rocking the boat" in his first year of ministry, but it was something he couldn't stand by and watch. He got on the phone and called his colleague the Reverend Abhi Janamanchi, who ministers to the UUs of Clearwater, the nearest UU congregation 15 miles away, and asked for guidance and support.
Janamanchi identifies as a third generation liberal Hindu UU born and raised in India. He came to the United States to study to become a UU minister, and circumstances had led him to stay here. In 1999, he was called to serve the UUs of Clearwater. As a liberal Hindu, he has never left his tradition but has added on to it when he became a UU minister.
When the call came from Mishra, it wasn't just a coincidence, said Janamanchi, who attributed it to the eternal mystery. He too had read and agonized over the same story and was on the verge of calling Mishra himself for collaboration. They wrote a joint letter to the St. Petersburg Times calling for reason and rationality in handling the situation. The two UU ministers of color attended the hearing at the city hall and found themselves amongst only half a dozen liberal clergy while there were dozens of conservative clergy along with busloads of their parishioners with boxes of condemning documents they had amassed in a very short time. It was the most sickening spectacle Mishra and Janmanchi had ever experienced. The senior minister of the Largo Baptist Church asserted that "if Jesus were there, Jesus would have fired Stanton." While Stanton sat without saying a word in his own defense, people slung accusations and condemnations at him while others jumped up and down, cheering and clapping. It hit the two UU ministers at the visceral level, so shocked and so "sick to the stomach" were they that they couldn't speak. To call it a "modern day lynching" is not an over statement.
The outcome was predictable—Steve Stanton was fired because "the public has lost confidence in him."
Shell-shocked, the two ministers reconvened to plan the next step. This meeting was synergetic—out of this came a plan to reach out to other liberal religious leaders on both the local and the national levels. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Director of Communications, John Hurley, provided support, resources and contacts. A rally was organized within a very short time, on a Tuesday morning. They expected a small turn out of perhaps 50-60 people. Instead, an interfaith group of more than 3 dozens liberal clergy showed up in support and additionally, more than 300 lay people participated. Together they signed a petition to the city commissioner to reinstate Stanton.
Sadly, Stanton was not reinstated, but the rally was a public witness for justice. It didn't change the outcome, but it changed the framework of the debate. Largo City Hall could no longer claim that the majority of people had lost confidence in Stanton.
A ministerial colleague from the United Church of Christ said to Mishra, "We all wait for you all." She meant that UUs are the ones they have all been waiting for to take the lead in social justice and civil rights initiatives and that once we do that, they would join us in solidarity. We ARE the cutting edge.
"Never expect that somebody else is going to do it," said Mishra. "They may be waiting for us to do it."
The workshop program note indicated that Steve Stanton, now legally named Susan Stanton, would be one the panelists. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend our General Assembly. Instead, Janice Carney, a transgender member of the UUs of Clearwater congregation, was invited to give her testimonial. Janice has always known she is female trapped in a male body. She was raised Catholic, served in the Vietnam War, has been married for 25 years and has 3 children. Her journey has been long, lonely and painful, with three failed suicide attempts. After her gender reassignment surgery, she was unable to find a job. At the school where she applied for substitute teaching, the superintendent shouted at her to keep away from the school and the children. Finding a UU church is like finding a safe haven.
Allyson Diane Hamm is a member of the UU Church of the Lehigh Valley, Bethlehem, PA, and a board member of Interweave. She has worked on legislation for the protection of gay, lesbian, and transgender rights. When she began working on an ordinance for the protection of GLBT about eight years ago, Hamm wasn't associated with any UU group. It was through her work in justice-making that she found out about Unitarian Universalism. When asked about coalition-building, she recommended checking with national groups and Interfaith Alliances.
The first ever Interfaith Service in remembrance of Transgender Day (November 19th) was held at the UU Church of St. Petersburg. Mishra hopes that this will become an annual event.
A two-part series of a portion of the sermon entitled "Pride and Prejudice in Paradise," given by Rev. Manish Mishra about this saga, is posted on UUplanet.
Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.