One year later, this is the legacy of Kansas transgender activist Stephanie Mott

This week marked a year since the Kansas transgender activist Stephanie Mott died, suddenly of a heart attack, leaving the state’s LGBTQ community and its many allies stunned and heartbroken. 

“She will be missed,” Gov. Laura Kelly said at the time, “but her advocacy to improve Kansas will be remembered.” 

“There’s a hole in our organization now that can never be filled,” said Tom Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, where Mott had held leadership positions over the years. 

Those feelings have not changed. In practical terms, the biggest loss is that of the organization Mott founded – the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project. Through K-STEP, Mott and others gave hundreds of presentations and convened the annual TransKansas conference, which, over its eight-year run, drew around a hundred trans folks and people who wanted to learn about transgender issues to cities around the state each September. 

Luc Bensimon, who was often at Mott’s side for public events, did everything he could to keep K-STEP going, but the group disbanded in October. In the end, K-STEP was just too dependent on Mott’s particular vision and style. 

“I feel good about the work K-STEP has done,” Bensimon told me, adding that Mott’s legacy would be “strong and lasting.”

The year’s most bittersweet moment was in June, when the state of Kansas agreed to resolve a lawsuit allowing transgender Kansans to amend their birth certificates. Mott had originally filed the suit; she dropped out of the case but it continued with Bensimon and three other plaintiffs.

Luc Bensimon (front) and Nyla Foster were among the plaintiffs who sued the state of Kansas to be able to amend their birth certificates to match their gender. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal.)

“I was overjoyed,” Bensimon says of the moment he heard about the decision. “As soon as I found out, I thought of her.”

Now, young people who never knew Mott are doing the practical work of helping people change their birth certificates. 

“We live in her shadow,” says Ellen Bertels, who with her fellow KU Law student Delaney Heigert started a legal clinic to connect members of the community with free legal resources.

When they first sent out a flier announcing their services, Heigert says, “we didn’t really know what public interest or need was,” Heigert says.

“We prepared ourselves to connect three or four clients with attorneys. We had 43 phone calls in the first day,” Heigert says. “We expect that 50 people will have had their names legally changed by the end of May.”

They’re planning “know your rights” events around the state, where they can educate communities and train other legal practitioners. First stop: Garden City on March 11. 

“We’re calling it our Gritty Queer Kansas Tour,” Bertels says. That’s a nod to the road trip Mott took around the state over the Fourth of July weekend in 2011, stopping random people to engage them in conversations about trans issues. 

“We talked about Stephanie’s tour of Kansas,” Bertels says, “and doing a queer rural Kansas tour where we just go talk to people, not asking anything of them, but giving them the information we have and lending support.”

University of Kansas law students Delaney Hiegert and Ellen Bertels are connecting LGBTQ Kansans with free legal resources. (Photo courtesy of Delaney Hiegert and Ellen Bertels.)

One of the people helping Bertels and Heigert make those statewide connections is Liz Hamor, the Wichita Chapter Director of GLSEN, a national organization that works to make sure LGBTQ students are safe and supported in schools. Over the last few years, she and her colleagues have been, as Hamor puts it, “working to make the whole state safer for trans kids.” 

The effort includes workshops to help teachers be more inclusive in classrooms. Last June, Hamor says, they added 27 facilitators.

“Before that we had maybe five or six. We’re expanding exponentially as the need for services is being sought after,” she says. “We’re taking that education about LGBTQ youth around the state, and some training is trans specific now.”

She’s talking about communities like Pratt (pop. 6,748) and Colby (pop. 5,361) in the rural parts of the state.  

Wichita’s GLSEN contingent at the Kansas Capitol in March 2018.

“Her loss is being felt everywhere by the people who knew her for a long time and worked with her,” Hamor says of Mott. “So many times I’ve thought, ‘We should loop Stephanie in on this thing – but oh, we can’t do that.’”

Other people will come forward, though. That’s the case in Wichita’s House District 86, where a trans woman named Stephanie Byers is running for the Kansas Legislature.  

“Stephanie and I knew of each other, and I think we met once or twice, but I wouldn’t say that I knew her,” Byers says of Mott. “What I know of Stephanie is more from the impact she’s had on other people who are part of my life.”

For 28 years, Byers was the band director at Wichita North, one of the largest public high schools in Kansas, until her retirement in 2019.

“When I transitioned in 2014, it made my life easier because people’s expectations had changed – maybe just slightly, but they had.” 

That was largely thanks to Mott’s frequent presentations. 

“Stephanie had met and spoken to a lot of people who were going to be influential in my life – the Wichita school board, people in the LGBTQ community in town. She had laid down a pathway, perhaps unintentionally, so my pathway was not one of challenge. People said, ‘OK, we can deal with this. This is good.’” 

Mott had hoped to be the first transgender member of the Kansas Legislature. When Topeka’s Rep. Harold Lane retired in 2015, Mott was among several candidates who made speeches to a small committee of Topeka Democrats, asking to be appointed as Lane’s replacement. The committee chose someone else, but they were clearly moved by Mott’s case. 

Five years later, as Byers contemplated her own run for office, she thought about her direct experience with one of the Kansas Legislature’s most pressing issues: funding for public education. And, taking the North High band to festivals around the state gave her insights into health care challenges. “I’ve watched when the hospital that we would have taken a kid to (in case of an emergency) closes, and what happens to that town. How the florist shop next door closes,” she says. “I can add my voice to the chorus about expanding Medicaid.”

Then, Byers got a phone call from GLSEN, which was organizing a rally on the steps of United States Supreme Court as it considered cases involving LGBTQ employment discrimination. They wanted Byers to give a speech. 

“Me, a high school band director in state of Kansas, was suddenly being flown to talk about this in D.C.,” Byers says. 

Stephanie Byers on the steps of the United States Supreme Court. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Byers.)

Despite its supportive governor, Kansas is not among the states that prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people. Byers wanted to add her voice to those of the state’s openly gay representatives, Brandon Woodard and Susan Ruiz

She decided to run for the House seat held by Rep. Jim Ward, who is now running for the Kansas Senate. It’s a solidly Democratic district, and so far, Byers says, “the response has been really positive. The people I talk with in my neighborhood are surprised and supportive. When they find out I’m running they’re like, ‘Yeah, this is great!’” 

Mott’s legacy is clear in Byers’ approach. 

“Her motto of ‘doing love’ is incredibly important, in that you can change people’s attitudes and opinions one at a time, when you meet and talk with them and have that personal contact,” Byers says. “That really is the best way to make those differences happen.”

She’s seen it work in her own life. 

“As band director, I met kids from all over the city and their parents. When I transitioned, word shot through the music community very very quickly. Parents came up and told me what a difference I’d made in their kids’ lives. Humbling doesn’t even cover the words for it. I did this for me, but in the course of doing that, you create a light that other people were looking for.” 

Other people in Kansas are making sure Mott’s light can be a beacon for future historians. 

With a donation of materials from Mott’s two sisters, Teresa Coble of the Kansas State Historical Society has the basis for what she hopes will grow into a much larger Stephanie Mott collection: Their catalog entries are here

“Anyone visiting the Historical Society can view them in our reference room. These books are non-circulating, so they cannot be checked out,” says Coble, who would love additional donations, especially correspondence and photographs, and encourages people to contact her at Teresa.Coble@ks.gov.

And on Friday, Tami Albin of the University of Kansas Libraries added Mott’s oral history to the Under the Rainbow collection. It’s a 70-page transcript of their interview, conducted in 2012, where Mott’s voice comes through loud and clear. It’s the same story Mott told me and countless other people, but Albin’s transcript sparkles with nuggets I’d never heard, such as how she taught herself to speak like a woman:

I sat in front of the television and watched the six o’clock news, and when the lady spoke I would say the same thing she said, using the same inflection that she said, that she used. 

Or how it felt when, after hormone treatments, she began to develop breasts:

I was, you know, looking in the mirror like a little girl waiting to see my breasts grow and a little at a time starting to see some changes and feel, you know, all those changes and then one day I was driving down 21st Street in Topeka and I hit a pothole, and I got a little jiggle in my right breast.  And, Oh my God!  It was the most–the first thing I thought was, Where’s another pothole?  I want to feel this again. 

And about her Christian faith helped her navigate her publicly transgender life:

A long time ago now, I was – you know, I had people telling me, You better be prayed up. … And the prayer I was saying was a scripture, it was from Deuteronomy.  And the same Deuteronomy that also contains some very tough scriptures about LGBT but to be strong and of good courage, fear not nor be afraid of them for the Lord thy God it is, doth go with thee, God will not fail thee nor forsake thee.

Mott died on a Monday. The weekend before, she’d been at Washington Days, the Kansas Democrats’ annual convention. This weekend it’s Washington Days again, the first one in a long time that Mott will not be there as chair of the party’s LGBTQ Caucus. 

In one of her last public appearances, Stephanie Mott listens to the Kansas Democratic Party conduct business at Washington Days 2019.

“Fortunately, the party isn’t as hostile to us now as they were back in 2004,” says Sandra Stenzel, who volunteered to chair the caucus last fall – and whose experience with Kansas Democrats dates back to the days when Kansans passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and the party was, let’s just say, less than helpful. 

The changes between now and then, Stenzel says, are “largely due to the work of people like Stephanie. The gaping hole of her absence will take time to heal. I’m hoping, though, this weekend we will start to move forward again.”

How do things move forward? When you start asking people about their activism in Kansas, patterns emerge.

As Hamor puts it: “All of these other pioneers got tired and faded away, and that was when I was called.”

As Bertels puts it: “I think we live in hundreds of peoples’ shadows that we will never really understand. There’s some imposter syndrome for me – I feared going into this that I was not the person to do it, I guess. But there are people who make themselves very clearly the person to do it.”

As Byers puts it: “I said, ‘Yeah I need to make this run.’ If I don’t, who is going to step in?”  

C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

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