This interview was originally written for PourOverMag in April 2015. Unfortunately, the website is no longer available and the interview has been uploaded here.
I first met Stephanie Mott in May, 2011. We were fighting for the Manhattan, Kansas commissioners to not repeal the anti-discrimination ordinance passed back in February that added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes. You read that right, only three months after passing the ordinance the new Manhattan commission was working on revoking the rights of queer Manhattan residents. The anti-discrimination ordinance had made Manhattan Kansas the second place in Kansas to add not only sexual orientation but gender identity to protected classes of citizens with Lawrence, Kansas being the first. In three short months, we saw these rights being ripped from under us.
We heard arguments from both sides, watching as ministers and fellow residents saying the protection was unnecessary because they had never seen someone discriminated on these bases. These responses came after person after person recounted tales of discrimination based on their gender and their sexual orientation, one of those people being me and another being Stephanie Mott. I remember coming down from speaking, shaking like a leaf. I was red, scared, and nervous. Stephanie hugged me and told me I had done an amazing job and handed me the card for her organization, KSTEP (Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project).
This experience of being given rights and then watching them ripped out from under you and meeting Stephanie are experiences that have changed my life and have shaped many things in the years after. They are stories I recount often as the fight for basic protections continues across the United States and across the world. Stephanie, her kindness, and her story, and her dedication are something I look to frequently as something to strive towards.
What strikes me most about Stephanie is her unwavering faith. Stephanie is a Christian transsexual woman who frequently posts about her religion and its influence on her life. She even has a book titled God Doesn’t Have a Penis, and Other Writings by a Transsexual Christian Woman. She does not let those who question her identity and its intersection with her religion get in her way. This is most evident in her Trans Faith Tour she is currently doing across the country, talking about her experiences as a Christian trans woman.
I recently interviewed Stephanie about her Trans Faith Tour, KSTEP, and several other things.
Lucian: Tell me about yourself, what you do, general information for those who may have never heard of you.
Stephanie: I am the founder/director of the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project – an all-volunteer non-profit organization that works to end discrimination against transgender people in Kansas, and their families. We will be celebrating out 5th anniversary in August.
I am a student at Washburn University in Topeka. I received my Bachelor of Social Work degree a year ago, and I am on track to receive my Master’s degree in Social Work a year from now.
I am the current chair of the Topeka Human Relations Commission. I am a founding member and current president of the Topeka chapter of the National Organization for Women (Capital City NOW); my term ends next month.
I am the community liaison for transgender inmates with the Shawnee County (Kansas) Department of Corrections, and I am the founder/director of the Transgender Faith Tour.
I live in Topeka with my 12-year-old cat (Mr. Kitty). I love to play the piano and sing and write music – I have a YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYnMohRxuVDwbkH06AMwJDQ.
I like to go for walks, get outside, go fishing, and spend time with friends.
I am also a writer with my blogs posted at Huffington Post, lgbtSr.org, and Liberty Press (Kansas’ LGBT newspaper). And I love to write and talk about being transgender.
L: You are currently doing your Transgender Faith Tour. What is that?
S: The Transgender Faith Tour (www.transfaithtour.org) is something that comes out of my own personal faith journey, feeling very isolated from God and faith until I found a church where I was embraced as my authentic self (at the age of 48), and then discovering that I could be transgender and have a relationship with God.
I was invited to share that journey in a few faith institutions where I had friends, and the response was amazing. One thing kind of lead to another, and last summer (2014) I began what I called the Transgender Summer of Faith Tour. I put the word out about the tour, which led to some invitations. I was asked to give the message at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowships in West Plains, Missouri, and at the UUs in Manhattan, Lawrence, and Topeka (all in Kansas). I spoke for a Catholic women’s group in Manhattan, Kansas and for a Sunday School class in Lawrence. I also gave the sermon at Central Congregational United Church of Christ in Topeka.
As the summer ended, there was still a lot of interest in having me speak, so I changed the name to the Transgender Faith Tour. In October 2014, I visited the Joplin (Missouri) Diversity Fellowship, First United Church of Norman (Oklahoma) and Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City.
At the beginning of this year, I decided to try to expand on the reach of the tour. I was invited to give the sermon at First Congregational UCC in Manhattan, Kansas in February. Then, I started reaching out to some faith institutions within a day’s drive from Kansas. The trip I start on Saturday (May 16th) has me going to the UU in Fayetteville, Arkansas where I will be on a panel, Transgender in Faith Communities, on the 16h and I will give the message at UUFF on the 17th. Then, it’s on to Tulsa, Oklahoma to speak at the monthly potluck dinner/meeting at Fellowship Congregational UCC on the 20th and finally back to Norman to give the sermon on May 24th.
June 7th, I will be going back to Norman to give the message at the UU there.
One of the biggest events is being asked to give two workshops at the national gathering of Open and Affirming churches for the United Church of Christ in Cleveland on June 25th. This will be the first time I have been part of a denomination-wide faith event.
Once I realized I was going to be in Cleveland, I reached out to the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Hendricks County in Danville, Indiana (which is on the way to Cleveland from Topeka – near Indianapolis). I will be providing the message there on June 21st.
Then, I reached out to the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland and let them know that I was going to be in town, and they have set up a kind of meet and greet for me with center staff and they have invited some Cleveland area LGBT leaders to come, as well.
I discovered that Cleveland Pride was June 27th, and I decided to stay in Cleveland to experience their celebration. Then I will head back to Kansas. I am working on setting up some presentations on the way back.
I will be providing the message at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield, Missouri on July 26th and I am still working on adding stops to the tour. I have heard from faith institutions in Colorado, South Dakota, and Illinois and hope to be able to schedule presentations there, as well as a possible presentation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in November.
L: What do you plan to accomplish with the Transgender Faith Tour?
S: I really hope to accomplish two things. One is to let people who are transgender know that they can have live authentically and still embrace their faith. Two is to help all people see how pushing people who are transgender away from their faith institutions pushes these people away from God, and how embracing gender diversity in their churches, the bring these people closer to God.
L: You are also the founder of K-STEP. Can you tell me more about K-STEP?
S: K-STEP is the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project. As I began to get involved in education and activism in 2009, I noticed the a lot of people didn’t take me very seriously. The idea for the formation of a statewide transgender education organization really came from having my opinions dismissed by the Human Relations Commission in Lawrence when they were considering adding gender identity protections to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.
I put the word out through the Kansas LGBT newspaper (Liberty Press) that I wanted to hold a meeting to organize such an organization, and on August 14, 2010, we met at the library in Salina, Kansas – 14 of us – an K-STEP was born as an all-volunteer non-profit organization in Kansas. http://www.k-step.org
Our mission is to end discrimination against transgender Kansans and their families through education. We have done about 350 educational presentations since we formed at college classes, police departments, jails, health agencies, mental health centers, faith institutions, businesses, and more. We held the first TransKansas conference (a two-day transgender focused conference) in Lawrence in September 2013 and the second conference in Wichita in July 2014. We are planning TransKansas 3 for September 11-12 in Manhattan.
We are also planning our 4th annual K-STEP Awards, where we recognize organizations and individuals in Kansas for efforts to increase awareness and equality for transgender people. The K-STEP Awards will be on August 15th in Salina, Kansas, together with our 5th anniversary.
L: Not only are you the founder of K-STEP, doing your Transgender Faith Tour, but you also are president of Topeka Capital City NOW and have also served as the Human Rights Commissioner for Shawnee County and worked with Equality Now. How have all these things involved themselves in your life?
S: As well as those things, I worked as the office assistant/grant specialist for Shawnee County for 5 ½ years (until I resigned in March) and I have been at least a half-time student during this time.
I actually went to a meeting of the Kansas NOW to ask them to add gender identity to their mission statement and discovered that there wasn’t an active chapter of NOW in Topeka. I felt like there should be a chapter of NOW in the state capital and I organized a meeting to form one in June 2012. I was as involved as I could be for the first two years, and then last June, I decided to step up a be president for a year. My term is nearly over. My interest is women’s right was spurred by the realization as I began to live authentically, that I was being treated differently because I was being seen as a woman. This realization has changed the way I see privilege of all kinds. I now believe that if you have privilege and you are not actively working to eliminate privilege, you are participating in privilege.
I began trying to get on the Topeka Human Relations Commission back in 2011 when there were some openings. The Mayor of Topeka appoints commissioner to the HRC, and the Mayor at that time would not appoint me. I tried again every time there was an opening. Finally, in 2013, when there was another opening on the HRC and I was the only candidate, the Mayor set out to seek more nominations. My city councilwoman told the mayor he needed to appoint me, which he did.
I began working on two issues, right away. LGBT equality was one of the issues, and racism was the other. We have made progress in both areas.
L: Who is the most inspirational person you’ve ever met?
S: I have met many amazing people, but I would have to say that Pedro Irigonegaray is the most inspirational. He is an internationally renowned criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He has been a determined and effective supporter of transgender equality longer than I have known him. He has been openly engaged in LGBT rights issues in a city where that may have not been the best for his career, but it is what he feels he needs to do. He’s not transgender. He just believe that everyone should be treated equally.
L: I first met you when we were struggling to not have Manhattan, KS remove the sexual orientation and gender identity clauses from the Anti-Discrimination Bill. How has Kansas changed and grown since then, from your perspective of a religious transgender woman?
S: More and more faith institutions have become LGBT supportive – transgender supportive. College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita hosted the second TransKansas conference, and First Congregational UCC is hosting TransKansas 3. I have presented for at least a dozen Kansas faith institutions, and been welcomed with open arms. There are still a lot of people with conservative interpretations of the Bible who get behind anti-LGBT efforts, but there are more and more people who believe that being faithful means that you treat everyone with kindness and respect everyone’s dignity. I think that’s been somewhat true for a long time, but what’s different is that these folks are coming out of the closet and standing up publicly in favor of equal rights for LGBT Kansans.
L: When it comes to being trans and religious, what do you want to tell those who may not understand or see it as a conflict?
S: I would begin by saying that they don’t need to understand about being transgender, or even agree with the idea that people can be transgender. They just need to understand that a person who is transgender is still a person, and as a person, they are born with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone.
When I tell my story, I do not set out to convince anyone that it is okay to be who I am. I set out to expose my humanness, hopefully to a point that they can’t help but realize the importance of treating transgender people with respect and dignity. I also emphasize how I believe I was in conflict with God when I didn’t accept my true self, and I could only begin to come into harmony with God when I did. This is evidenced by the darkness of my life before and the light that shines in my world today.
L: What do you want to say to other religious trans folk?
S: God did not make a mistake. God loves you exactly the way you are. For a long time, I thought that faith was a barrier to being able to live authentically. Now I know that faith was the vehicle that helped me being to accept myself. It turns out that for a long time, I didn’t have enough faith to believe that God knew what God was doing.
Interview was conducted via e-mail. All answers are as sent to me from Stephanie Mott and maintain original wording.