Dozens of transgender Kansans met at a church in Manhattan on Friday and Saturday, intent on ending discrimination in the state through education.
"Gender neutral" signs taped to bathroom doors made a strong statement at the First Congregational United Church of Christ a few blocks from Kansas State University and the Aggieville entertainment district. This was the third such annual conference put on by the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project, or KSTEP, and organizers said it was the biggest such conference to date.
Stephanie Mott, KSTEP's executive director, said at least 40 transgender people attended. Counting family members, friends and supporters, as well as health care providers and K-State college students who received credit for attending the educational sessions, Mott estimates more than 120 people participated.
Over two days, in small, intimate sessions, they talked about family relationships, politics, what it's like to be transgender people of color, the changing legal landscape for trans people, and several other topics. For example: what to expect when you start taking male hormones.
"You realize guys sweat a whole lot more than women do, in general," said one man at the Trans Masculine forum. "You smell different," one of the men said.
If that’s one downside of being a man, Jay Pryor of Lawrence learned something else when he transitioned 15 years ago. "I get treated very differently," Pryor said. "I get treated with a lot more respect, a lot more eye contact. My credentials are never questioned as a man, which was shocking to me.
With this knowledge, Pryor now puts on empowerment seminars for women. But the most common topic at the conference, which panelists and audience members returned to in session after session, was how acceptance can mean life or death for transgender people.
"I dated a trans guy for a while and his parents are the worst. Like the worst," one woman said during Pryor's session on relationships with parents. "At one point his dad threatened to kill him if he medically transitions."
Several panelists also noted the rate at which transgender people attempt suicide: 41 percent attempt.
"I’ve attempted suicide upwards of a dozen times in my life. I obviously suck at it, and that’s good. I’ve never been so happy to have failed at something so miserably," said Elle Boatman, founder of the Face of Trans photography project and the Wichita Transgender Community Network, a combination support group, social network and advocacy organization.
"When I started doing activism I was like, I want to make Kansas a bastion for trans people," Boatman said. "And I’ve found a lot more support for trans people in Kansas than I initially expected.
TransKansas was started by Stephanie Mott three years ago. The inaugural meeting was in Lawrence; last year's meeting was in Wichita. Mott, of Topeka, has been an activist since she began living authentically as a woman nearly a decade ago. She also identifies as a Christian and is active in a network of progressive churches.
"'Love one another' is the unconditional love that Jesus was an example of," Mott said. "It's the most important thing we can do on the planet."
She has put herself at some risk. In 2011, dismayed by what she was hearing about gay and trans issues in the Kansas Legislature, Mott spent the long Fourth of July weekend driving around the state talking to people.
"Drove 1600 miles, made a big circle around in the state of Kansas, and stopped in 30 different cities. I walked up to people at random in parking lots and public places, and asked them if they would mind answering a few questions about transgender — what they knew, what they thought, and if they knew anyone who was transgender."
Their answers surprised her.
"For the most part, people responded to my questions with some variation of 'to each their own.'”
Mott said many of the people she met knew someone who was transgender and was struggling. Others didn’t understand, thinking transgender was synonymous with gay. So Mott started the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project.
The organization's goal of ending discrimination felt particularly relevant this year. In February, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded an executive order, signed by his predecessor Kathleen Sebelius in 2007, protecting LGBT state employees from discrimination. That put openly transgender state employees in a precarious position.
"Our legislature is not welcoming of people who don’t fit in some very narrowly defined boxes of sexuality and gender identity," Mott said. "And of course that’s not realistic, because human nature is very diverse, creation is very diverse. Trying to force people into these boxes that they don’t fit into is very damaging to their souls."
Perhaps KSTEP can convince state legislators to attend next year’s TransKansas conference. Mott hopes to schedule it in Topeka.
C.J. Janovy reports on arts and culture for KCUR. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.