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“It’s hard to refer to her in the past tense.”
The last time that Luc Malik Bensimon saw Stephanie Mott alive, she told him something that will stick with him forever. After the two attended a local Democratic conference in Kansas, she gave the Topeka-based trans activist a ride to his home. As he got out of the car, she said: “You have to make people respect you. Because if you don’t, they’ll wipe their feet all over you. So you have to demand that respect.”
“Stephanie fought for what she believed in,” Bensimon told the Daily Dot. “She was soft-spoken, but when she opened her mouth, there was power.”
Less than 24 hours after that conversation, Mott had a heart attack. She was 61.
Tributes to Mott quickly poured in on social media from across the country. Lambda Legal, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, called her a “giant among Kansans,” claiming that Mott’s “tireless efforts to make Kansas feel like a welcoming home for transgender and queer people are without parallel.”
Stephanie Mott founded the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project (K-STEP) to promote awareness & education about transgender and gender nonconforming people. She also served as chair and vice chair of @KansasEquality.— Lambda Legal (@LambdaLegal) March 5, 2019
The National Center for Transgender Equality referred to Mott’s death as an “immeasurable loss for those she fought for equality with in Kansas, and for the greater transgender rights movement.”
Stephanie Mott's passing is an immeasurable loss for those she fought for equality with in Kansas, and for the greater transgender rights movement. https://t.co/BotW0gsFkI— National Center for Transgender Equality (@TransEquality) March 5, 2019
But no tributes to Mott have been quite as meaningful as those from her own community.
On March 8, activist Aaron Jackson announced in a Facebook post that the Capital City Equality Center would be named in her honor. After the Equality Center opened its doors in January 2017, locals began calling it the “Trans House.” The structure is painted pink, white, and blue, the colors of the transgender flag.
However, Jackson claimed it was time to give the center an official name. From now on, it will be called “Mott House.”
“I can only hope this plays a small part in keeping her legacy alive,” said Jackson, who also serves as executive director of the environmental sustainability organization Planting Peace, in a post on his personal page. “I love you, Stephanie. You will forever be missed. You made Kansas better. And for that, we all thank you.”
I have always struggled with what to call this house. By default, people started calling my house the Transgender House....Posted by Aaron Jackson on Thursday, March 7, 2019
Jackson was unable to offer further comment prior to publication time, but the hundreds of comments and 1,500 likes that post has amassed in the past five days show how much the tribute meant to the local community.
Equality Center executive director Daniel Brennan told the Daily Dot that Mott was “more than the rest of us put together” when it came to LGBTQ advocacy.
“There’s no describing Stephanie,” he said. “A hundred people couldn’t take her place.”
Mott certainly stayed busy during her many years fighting for LGBTQ equality in Kansas. She founded the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project (K-STEP), led the LGBTQ caucus for the Kansas Democratic Party, and managed the local chapter of the statewide advocacy organization Equality Kansas.
A practicing mental health clinician, Mott also fought to change policies in Kansas forbidding trans people from correcting the gender and name listed on their birth certificates. That case is currently pending in the courts.
The Lawrence-born activist also fought against the introduction of bathroom bills targeting transgender people in Kansas. In previous years, the Sunflower State has flirted with the passage of some of the nation’s harshest anti-trans legislation. A 2016 bill would have allowed people to sue the state for $2,500 if they see a transgender person in the restroom.
Bensimon credits Mott’s testimony in the Kansas State Legislature with helping to halt anti-trans bills from becoming law. She said she was too “strong-willed” to let her government discriminate against her.
“If she wanted something done, it got done,” he claimed.
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Many in the LGBTQ community say that Mott’s courage in fighting for her right to exist inspired them to do the same. Trans advocate Elle Boatman told the Daily Dot that she demonstrated “that a trans woman could be out and visible and advocate for people like her in Kansas.”
“That really gave me the confidence to begin getting involved in trans and queer activism,” she said. “Representation in all avenues of life is important and Stephanie was a beacon for many who were trying to find their voice.”
Debi Jackson also said that Mott’s example touched many. Her daughter, Avery, attracted national attention in 2016 when she helped raise funds for the building now known as the Mott House. The Equality Center sits directly across from the Westboro Baptist Church, the Fred Phelps-led hate group that protests at funerals in order to oppose LGBTQ rights.
Her daughter is now 11 and one of the most visible young trans activists in the country. When Jackson reflected on Mott’s impact on her daughter and other trans youth in Kansas, there was only one word that came to mind: “irreplaceable.”
“When I think of LGBTQ equality in Kansas, I think of Stephanie,” Jackson told the Daily Dot. “The two were so intertwined, so inseparable.”
But few people feel her loss more profoundly than Bensimon. Mott began mentoring him back in 2010, during what he called “the beginning of [his] journey.” She opened doors for Bensimon as he began transitioning and worked to find a place for himself in Topeka’s LGBTQ community. She even sponsored his trip to the Black Trans Advocacy Conference every year.
Bensimon claimed he would honor Mott by continuing her fight—until the day that LGBTQ Kansas have the same rights and protections as everyone else.
“I’ve got some big shoes to fill,” he said.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.