The last time I spoke with Stephanie Mott, it was Equality Day at the Kansas State Capitol. During a late-morning rally in the rotunda, Gov. Laura Kelly stepped to the podium to ceremoniously sign three pieces of paper. Kelly was recreating her first act as governor: an executive order reinstating protections for LGBTQ state employees.
After signing the first copy, Kelly posed with a group of high school kids. I’m not sure what happened to the second copy. But the third was for Mott, who had been working the table for her organization, the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project, across the room.
“Is Stephanie here?” the governor said into the microphone. “Stephanie, where are you? Stephanie, c’mon I just signed this for you.”
By then Mott was approaching the podium and applause from a couple hundred people was bouncing around all of the sparkling marble. The governor handed Mott the piece of paper, and there was another round of applause.
“Alright everybody,” the governor said. “It’s official, it’s done, and let’s move on.”
A little while later, back at the KSTEP table, Mott was almost speechless at what had just happened. It was as if she couldn’t believe the governor had signed such a document in her honor.
That was the thing about Mott. She had the kind of ego that drove her to write monthly columns for the (now defunct) Liberty Press and speak in front of crowds and post selfies all over social media and load up a YouTube channel with videos of her playing the piano and singing and publish collections of her writings (“God Loves Everyone (And Me)” and “I Thought I Had Something To Say“) … and still be blown away to realize she had made a difference in the world.
Just five weeks later, the governor was referring to Mott again.
“Stephanie Mott was a champion for equality and a role model for the LGBTQ+ community,” Kelly said in a statement after Mott’s sudden death on March 4. “She will be missed, but her advocacy to improve Kansas will be remembered.”
Other tributes proliferated over this past week as countless people who knew Mott, either personally or through her wide social media presence, or who had simply seen her give a speech — Mott called everyone she met, however briefly, a friend — struggled to absorb the impossible reality that she was no longer alive.
Even the hard stop of death is a tricky concept in Mott’s case, given the central role of Christianity in her life’s story. It’s a story in which she was, to the extent that it’s physically humanly possible, born again when she began to live authentically in 2006.
She and I never talked about whether she believed in a Christian-style afterlife, but here’s what she wrote on Facebook (which I later included in No Place Like Home) about going back to teach an adult Sunday school class at the church in Alma where her brother Dan had once been a pastor:
“Dan and I both struggled with alcohol and demons unknown to ourselves and each other. He lost his battle, indirectly related to alcohol in 2000, and never got to meet his sister Stephanie. I believe that Dan will be in attendance that day, in whatever way that might be possible. I believe that he will be very proud of his sister Stephanie.”
Stephanie’s vast extended family in Kansas is very proud of her too.
I’m a non-believer when it comes to the Christian-style afterlife, but I like the way Mott phrased it: “in whatever way that might be possible.”
And when it comes to Mott’s own spirit now living on in “whatever way that might be possible,” that concept translates in real ways.
It includes people whose lives she saved by signaling through her public presence that isolated trans people in small Kansas towns were not alone.
It includes the specific community she nurtured by bringing together more than a hundred trans people and their friends and allies each year at the TransKansas conference. It includes the safety she created by helping parents, educators, social service providers and everyone else understand the value of living authentically through hundreds of presentations made by KSTEP.
It also includes the young LGBTQ+ people she was training to be future leaders, which she did individually as well as in settings like last summer’s OKamp, a weekend summer camp-out where teenagers from Kansas and Oklahoma learned advocacy and leadership skills.
It will be a while before those young people are ready to lead. Some will emerge slowly, others more quickly. They’ll have to learn hard lessons along the way — Mott spent years observing and learning about political tactics and strategies as she entered public life.
And Mott took a big risk by living so publicly. Having bottomed out with drugs and alcohol and found herself homeless before she began living her true life, Mott had already been through the worst and had nothing left to lose – after she began her recovery, everything she did was a bonus and a gift. That, along with her strong faith, gave her an extra dose of courage not everyone can afford.
As Equality Kansas’ Tom Witt told the media, Mott’s death leaves a hole that can never be filled. Even if some people take over parts of her myriad projects, no one will have the particular combination of story and skill that Mott had. Anyone who does try to pick up where she left off faces the daunting reality that they can never do what she did.
But then there’s the other daunting reality: The foundation for LGBTQ equality in Kansas has been built by a relatively small number of people (in public, anyway; they’ve had reinforcements from countless people who made more quiet contributions) and the lesson from this week is that we could lose anyone at any time. So if people are even half inclined to help fill that Mott-sized hole, now’s the time to step up.
But truly carrying on Mott’s work requires showing everyone the grace Mott demonstrated. It was a grace that welcomed and saw the potential in everyone, that kept that singular ego in check with the understanding she had much to learn from everyone she encountered.
When I asked her what it meant to be, as the bumper sticker on her maroon Hyundai declared, transgender and Christian, Mott put it this way:
“For me that means showing everyone the same love Jesus Christ showed everyone. Treating people with love is the most important thing anyone can do on the planet.”
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.