In Honor of Stephanie Mott; An Excerpt by CJ Janovy

After Kansas transgender activist Stephanie Mott’s sudden death on Monday, Gov. Laura Kelly called Mott “a champion for equality and a role model for the LGBTQ+ community,” adding that Mott would be missed, “but her advocacy to improve Kansas will be remembered.”

Mott is a key figure in C.J. Janovy’s No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. In the condensed excerpt below, Mott tells her life story – it’s a story she told thousands of times, at rallies and groups large and small, wherever she was invited to speak. In this case, it’s during a brown-bag lunch at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Center for Grain and Animal Health Research in Manhattan in June 2015. From No Place Like Home…

Short and round through the middle, Mott comes across as a warm prairie grandmother. She thanked the dozen or so government workers who were quietly unwrapping their lunches. “It’s always an honor to have an opportunity to talk about what it’s like to be transgender,” she said. “You have permission to ask me anything.” It might be rude to ask a transgender person some things, such as whether he or she has had surgery. “You can ask me that,” Mott said. “You can ask me about relationships. If I’m not comfortable answering something I’ll tell you, but so far that’s never happened. There are no inappropriate questions in this space.”

Born in Lawrence in 1957 and growing up on an eighty-acre farm along the Wakarusa River, raised by a mother who embodied unconditional love and a stereotypically strict 1960s father, the child then known as Steven knew by the age of six that he was less like his brothers and more like his sisters. Mott greeted each day with a mental adjustment she describes as “putting on my Steven suit” — going out into the world felt like walking onto a stage and pretending to be a boy. Mott was a teenager in 1976 when Renee Richards was denied entry into the US Open tennis tournament as a woman. “The news of this made it all the way out to the farm where I was growing up,” said Mott, who at that point realized an authentic life might be possible — for some people, anyway. “I thought you had to have money, fame, and connections, and as a Kansas farm kid I didn’t think it was possible for me.”

Mott graduated from Eudora High School and headed to business school at the University of Kansas. College life gave her more freedom, but also made her more aware of how others would react if she revealed her true self. “People I knew, people who loved me and I loved, all thought someone like me was displeasing. So I was dealing with fear and shame.”

Her life was traditional in at least one way, a fact she delivered with expert comedic timing: “I’m sure I’m the only nineteen-year-old student who discovered alcohol on a campus.” This earned the laugh. Mott thought about suicide but instead, she said, “alcohol may have saved me — although it was killing me at the same time.” For the next thirty years, drinking and drugs helped Mott hide from reality. And in an ongoing effort to learn how to be a man, Mott got married twice and had a son. Predictably, the marriages failed, and Mott figured she could never have a relationship because she would always hurt the person she loved.

By 2005 Mott was homeless in Pueblo, Colorado. As she had done before, she called her sisters in Lawrence and asked for money to come back to Kansas and get on her feet. “This time they said no. They knew I had something going on in the gender spectrum but didn’t know what it was — they knew someone was stealing their clothes — and they were tired of watching me kill myself with alcohol and didn’t want me around their teenage kids.”

She ended up at the Topeka Rescue Mission. It sounds sad, Mott said, but this was the best thing to happen to her. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t have anything left to lose.” If she knew anything at that point, it was that pretending to be a man wasn’t working. “I realized that ‘if I’m going to be okay, I’m going to have to figure this out, how to live authentically as the woman I’ve always been.’” Mott uses the phrase “if I’m going to be okay” frequently in her talk, and it is an effective way to connect with her audiences: people might not be able to understand being transgender, but an effort to simply be okay? That quest is universal.

“The rescue mission was probably not the place to start that little journey, but it was a great place for me to be,” Mott continued. The facility felt almost like a jail, and Mott was surrounded by potentially dangerous men. So she escaped to the chapel every day. On the third day, someone asked if anyone wanted to accept Jesus as their savior. “I thought, sure, I’ll do that. I wanted to do something different because what I’d been doing wasn’t working.” Mott started going to a tiny Southern Baptist outreach church near the mission where the pastor seemed respectful of everyone. The congregation was only a handful of people, and when they found out she could play the piano, she became the pianist. By then she had gone several months without a drink. Mott moved into a residential drug and alcohol treatment program at Valeo Behavioral Health Care, a nonprofit mental health agency, where she met a counselor with “long braided hair, a careworn face, tired eyes, and a heart like gold.” Mott’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. “I sat down at the table across from him and he created a space where I could talk about what I needed to talk about without feeling judged. And I’d never had that.”

Next came Mott’s salvation. She met a woman who invited her to Topeka’s Metropolitan Community Church (the LGBTQ church) and took her to a thrift store. “She bought me a dress, and some shoes, and a purse, and just the right pair of earrings. I stuck them behind the seat of my pickup truck because I was living in a men’s halfway house — it did not seem like a good idea to get dressed at the halfway house,” she said, earning more laughter. On Sunday she drove to the church and spent fifteen minutes arguing with herself: she knew this was right for her; she worried about hurting others; this felt like her only chance. “I went in and got dressed in the basement of the church. Another transgender woman guarded the door because we didn’t want a cisgender woman” —  Mott had already explained that cisgender means having a gender identity that matches one’s biological sex, or, not transgender — “walking in and seeing a man in the bathroom. Turns out it wouldn’t have mattered because in that church everybody goes in there for the same reason” —  Mott waited another comedic beat — “to fix our hair.”

Newly dressed, Mott went upstairs where the pastor hugged her and people shook her hand. “I sat in a pew and looked up at the cross and I felt truly myself in the eyes of the Lord for the very first time.” When the attendance book came around, Mott signed her name as Stephanie.

“I can’t tell you what the pastor said because I was being Stephanie in front of God and everybody, and it was so amazing and so beautiful that I don’t even know if there was a sermon that day but there was communion. The pastor who served my communion put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘God, bless your daughter for the faith she has shown in you.’ And Stephanie was born. I was forty-seven years old.”

It was like walking through a door and “the nightmare was not allowed to follow.” Mott was a little nervous about telling her religious story to a room full of scientists. “My story is a Christian story,” she acknowledged.

“It’s a faith story. I needed a place and it didn’t need to be a church — it could have been a school classroom, could have been a conference room in the Agricultural Resource Services section at the USDA. I just needed someplace to be me and not feel judged. I’m not one of those people who believes it matters what you believe. I think it’s cool to have conversations with people who don’t believe and people who believe differently from me because I learn, I get to be a bigger person.”

The point is, Mott said, is, “when I took off all the facade, pretense, got down to the core of who I am and exposed her to the sunlight, I started growing and being alive and being happy. Amazing things have happened since then.”

Mott ticked off the tangible signs of a successful life: gainful employment as an office assistant, a return to school to earn a bachelor’s in social work, a master’s degree now nearly complete. Later that summer, she told the group, she would go back to Valeo Behavioral Health Care — where she first talked with that long-haired counselor with the careworn face who didn’t judge her — to do her master’s in social work internship. The scientists broke into applause. “I’ve been sober for nine and a half years, done hundreds of presentations like this, started a couple nonprofit organizations,” she continued. “I’m part of the world today, which is something I wasn’t before.”

CJ Janovy is Digital Content Editor at KCUR in Kansas City, MO