Stephanie Mott spent her childhood playing dress-up. Every single day, she’d put on her “Steven Suit,” not for fun, she remembers, but out of necessity.
“It was a costume,” Mott told the crowd of about 50 parents, students, staff and community members gathered Wednesday evening in the Lawrence High School auditorium.
A costume, she said, that meant survival in 1960s Eudora, where Mott grew up as “Steven,” the name that appeared on her birth certificate.
For more than a decade now, Mott has lived openly as Stephanie, a proud transgender woman who for years struggled with substance abuse, homelessness and suicidal thoughts stemming from her complicated relationship with her own gender identity.
On Wednesday, Mott celebrated her 12-year sobriety anniversary by speaking with fellow transgender activist Jay Pryor in an effort to raise awareness of the challenges faced by those in their community, including transgender students in Lawrence’s school system.
It wasn’t easy for Mott growing up, she said, even in a spot as idyllic as her family’s farm in Eudora. She was also raised Christian, and has spent much of her adult life struggling to reconcile her love of God with the notion that her very existence as a transgender person was blasphemous.
“If you believe in God the way I do — the way I did — as the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present creator of the universe, and simultaneously believe in God as not liking you, as seeing you as an abomination, it’s a very difficult place to be,” Mott said.
But church, she said, also ended up being her salvation — in more ways than one. About 10 years ago, while living in a halfway house for recovering addicts, Mott discovered a small church in her adopted hometown that seemed to accept her just as she was.
She remembers one of the other congregants, another transgender person, guarding the bathroom while she changed into her first dress, a thrift-store find she’d selected with help from a friend. Later, in the church’s sanctuary, she was embraced and congratulated by the pastor and fellow church members for deciding to make that step.
Mott now describes the experience as life changing.
“It didn’t have to be church,” said Mott, who now works as a therapist at the Topeka facility where she once sought treatment years ago. “It could’ve been a college classroom. It could’ve been a high school auditorium.”
Like Mott, Pryor struggled with his identity growing up in small-town Kansas. He was suicidal and alcohol-dependent throughout much of his adolescence, at which point he simply thought he was gay.
It wasn’t until years later, after a stint in the psych ward at age 18 and later discovering the classic novel “Stone Butch Blues,” that he began to consider the possibility of gender fluidity.
“When I was a young person, I didn’t have a ‘me’ on TV. There wasn’t a young butch on TV,” Pryor said. “There was nobody that looked like me. And I felt like I had no future.”
The only future Pryor saw for himself, he said, was prison. It was either that or suicide.
But things eventually got better. Pryor took his first shot of testosterone in 2001, and in 2003, married “the love of (his) life.” He has young kids of his own now, and works as a speaker, author and life coach — both locally, where he remains the “go-to guy” on transgender issues, and nationally.
“As a trans person, there’s always been that desire for me to be out. And not just because it’s a powerful expression of who I already am, but also because I want young people to get that it’s possible,” Pryor said. “I want you all to get that and know that it’s possible to be a transgender person and thrive. And not just thrive, but absolutely love your life and be powerful.”
Pryor and Mott both reminded the crowd to be kind when dealing with transgender people, particularly young people still figuring out who they are and who they want to be.
In a 2015 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 40 percent of transgender adults reported having attempted suicide. Ninety-two percent of those individuals reported having attempted suicide before age 25.
“It is our job to come at these kids with compassion, kindness and maybe curiosity — but certainly kindness,” Pryor said.