TOPEKA — When Steven Michael Mott was 13, his father told him that if he could swim 100 yards, he could go to the river on their Eudora farm by himself.
The kid never worked so hard to reach a goal, and within a short time, he proved to his father he was a capable swimmer.
Going to the river alone meant Steven could borrow his sisters' clothing and be his "true self" without the fear of being discovered and punished. "I didn't have words for it," Mott recalls, "but by age 7, I needed to express myself as a girl."
It would take more than four decades before Steven was ready to become Stephanie Michele Mott. The journey would be marred by alcoholism, homelessness, estrangement from family and, worst of all, a sense of abandonment by God.
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"When you have a belief in God and your person is seen as being bad in God's eyes, it's a horrible place to live," Stephanie Mott said.
The 52-year-old Mott lives openly as a transgender woman in Topeka. The torment and fear that once smothered her is gone.
Today, she is a recovering alcoholic and works as an office assistant in the Shawnee County Commission office. She is completing a degree in social work at Washburn University and spends her spare time as a volunteer for community-based programs or traveling throughout Kansas making presentations on transgenderism.
She is a devout Christian.
"When I was trying to live as a man, I was in conflict with God, and only by living as the woman I was created to be am I in harmony with God," she said.
Steven was born in Lawrence and moved with his parents and siblings at age 5 to a farm near Eudora. His mother tended to their home, while his father worked at an industrial chemical plant outside DeSoto.
He liked to fish, play ball and drive tractors as much as other boys. But something set him apart.
While the youngster looked like a boy on the outside, he felt like a girl on the inside. Someday, he thought, his parents — who seemed to know how to fix just about anything — would correct that discrepancy, too.
"I was born into a loving household and figured dad and mom had everything under control and it would be as it should be eventually," Mott said.
By puberty, Steven realized that wasn't going to happen. He questioned why God would play such a cruel trick on him.
"I wondered if God had made a mistake, abandoned me or was angry at me," Stephanie said.
Lawrence resident Julie Nice said her brother was a "kind, sensitive and nurturing boy" who could never live up to their father's rough-and-tough definition of masculinity. Steven always seemed to be "caught between two worlds," she said.
"He didn't quite fit in that man's world," Nice, 51, said, adding that as a young child she wondered if Steven would have been happier if he had been born a girl.
Although he was picked on by his high school classmates, Steven was able to get good grades and after graduation enrolled at the University of Kansas.
At 18, he discovered alcohol.
"It took away the feelings of shame, torment and fear," Mott said.
For several years, Steven controlled his drinking and earned a comfortable living, but eventually his life began to spiral downward. His employer went out of business; a relationship ended. The conflict with his sexual identity haunted him.
By November 2005, Steven was in Colorado, homeless and estranged from his sisters, who no longer wanted him in their homes or around their children because of his drinking.
"He went through a self-destructive phrase with alcohol and was an unhappy person, as anyone would be if they were walking down a path that was not in their heart," Nice said. "I don't know how you look forward to the next day if you don't like what you see in the mirror."
One of Steven's sisters sent him enough money to get back to Kansas, and he ended up at the Topeka Rescue Mission, where he was assigned to the men's quarters.
He was too afraid to tell the rescue mission's staff that he was a woman with a man's body. He felt lost and alone.
"I was spiritually bankrupt," Mott said. "I never lost my faith in God, but I had stopped believing God would do anything for me."
Eventually Steven moved from the rescue mission to a men's halfway house and entered an alcoholism treatment program. He hoped a therapist could help him figure out what he needed to do to live his life as a woman.
"I realized any attempt to live as a man wouldn't work and if I had any real hope I had to live like the woman in my soul," Mott said.
Courage to change
In July 2006, Steven heard about a church that welcomed people who were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender into its congregation. The following Sunday when he walked into Metropolitan Community Church, a new world opened to him.
"It was the first time I had ever met another human being that I knew was transgender," she said.
A few weeks later, while another church member guarded the door, Steven went into the women's restroom in the church's basement, took off the men's clothing he was wearing and put on a black dress with yellow and white flowers, sandals and a pair of earrings purchased at the Salvation Army Thrift Store.
He then went upstairs and presented himself to the congregation as Stephanie.
"It was like being born again," she said. "Everything up to that time was an existence. Nothing up to that point was real."
Mott moved out of the men's halfway house and by October 2006 had started hormone treatments to promote breast growth, decrease body hair and cause other bodily changes. By the following July, Mott was living fully as a woman.
She filed the necessary paperwork to change her name from Steven to Stephanie on her driver's license, Social Security card, car registration and other documents to accurately reflect her sexual identity.
Mott said she wants to have gender reassignment surgery and hopes to have enough money saved by summer 2012. The surgery, which isn't covered by insurance, costs about $20,000. Once she has the surgery, she can have the name and gender on her birth certificate amended.
Ty Sweeting, who came to Metropolitan Community Church as pastor two years ago, said he has watched Mott blossom from a shy and quiet person to "a person of incredible strength, impeccable character and deep passion."
Sweeting said a core value of the church is inclusiveness, which allows lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people "to find an area where their passion and God's realm intersects." Mott is a member of the church's board of directors and in the past has served as coordinator of an outreach ministry team and been active in its stewardship program.
Sweeting said some Christians misunderstand or misinterpret the Bible when they use its passages to condemn people who aren't heterosexual and promote the idea that homosexuality and transgenderism are sinful choices that can be corrected by prayer.
"God is a god of diversity," he said. "God didn't make one kind of tree, or rock or metal or planet. To think God created just one kind of human being is absurd."
Mott remembers speaking at the Washburn Rural High School's Gay-Straight Alliance and spotting a transgender student in the audience. The feelings and memories of her childhood came back.
"I realized I had the opportunity to share my story and make a difference in someone else's life," she said.
The floodgates opened.
Mott began writing a monthly column for Liberty Press, a statewide newspaper for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. She spoke before the city commissions in Lawrence and Manhattan when they were considering adding gender identity or sexual orientation to city ordinances. She made presentations to university classes and community organizations.
In August, Mott founded the Kansas State Transgender Education Project, also known as K-STEP. The organization's mission: To create a society free of discrimination for transgender people and their families through education and to provide resources for transgender people and their families.
Filling up her calendar are presentations across Kansas and speaking engagements in February at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change Conference in Minneapolis, Minn., and the Colorado Gold Rush Transgender Conference in Denver. Last April, she spoke at the International Foundation for Gender Education in Alexandria, Va.
Mott also has reconciled with her sisters.
"They had to grieve the loss of their brother before they could accept me as a sister," she said.
Back to the mission
As her sibling made the transition from male to female and stopped drinking, Nice said she also had to change.
"When you're raised with someone for that length of time and their entire role changes, it means my role had to change, too, and that's a little scary," she said. "It's scary not knowing if (our relationship) would be the same."
The turnaround of Mott's life — something she thought impossible — is the work of God, she said.
"God wasn't angry with me and he certainly didn't abandon me," she said. "He was just preparing me in some way for what I'm doing now."
Barry Feaker, executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission, said he received a phone call last summer from Mott to set up a meeting to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
He knew Mott as the drug and alcohol resources quarterback on the Breaking the Cycle team for the Safe Streets Coalition, of which he is president. They had never met and he didn't know she had stayed at the rescue mission when she was presenting herself as a man.
Feaker said one of Mott's concerns was the rescue mission's lack of safe and comfortable living quarters for transgender people. He was impressed by her transparency and ability to communicate her concerns while being open to learning about others' perspectives on an issue.
Feaker said housing transgender people at the rescue mission is "complicated" because the facility's quarters are designed for men, women or families and a transgender person would have trouble assimilating into any of those environments.
To better understand those limitations, he said, Mott began visiting the Hope Center, the rescue mission's shelter for single women and families. In turn, he took a hard look at ways to address her concerns.
"We understand our hopes, dreams and limitations and now it's where do we go from here and how do we come to an action plan," he said. "LGBT issues can divide groups.... Stephanie is a bridge of understanding between the community she represents and the rest of the community."
Mott said she sees God as "an undefinable spiritual presence in everyone." She doesn't believe a place in heaven is attained by being heterosexual but by one's actions as stated in Matthew 25:40: "Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done unto me."
"Jesus doesn't talk about homosexuality and transgender," she said, "but he talks about love, inclusion and tolerance."