When former tennis star Renee Richards, who had undergone gender reassignment surgery in 1975, won the right to play as a woman in the U.S. Open in 1977, then 20-year-old Steven Michael Mott, who was raised in Eudora, thought for the first time that he could become his “authentic self": a woman.
Mott, 57, is now Stephanie Michelle — a feat she likens to “being free to breathe” after 48 years of living as a man when she knew in her heart she was a woman.
“Living as another person is effectively suffocating your soul,” Mott, of Topeka, said. “It’s like living in literally what a closet is: a place without sunshine.”
Mott said she hopes former Olympian and "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" star Bruce Jenner’s Monday revelation of his new identity, Caitlyn Jenner, on the cover of Vanity Fair will encourage other closeted transgender people to embrace themselves, just as Richards' fight for identity encouraged her decades ago.
But she says the grim reality is that the average transgender person doesn’t have the luxuries of transgender celebrities. Mott said she struggled with alcoholism throughout her life, eventually becoming homeless, because she was suppressing her “true self.” Now, having lived as a woman for more than nine years, Mott is “gainfully employed,” has completed her bachelor’s degree and is working on her master’s degree in social work.
“The visibility of Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner leaves this impression that it’s easier (to transition) than it really is,” Mott said. “Everyone I know who is transgender has lost a family member.”
While the number of transgender people in the United States is unknown, the most-cited survey, according to the Washington Post, suggests that about 700,000 people, or about 0.3 percent of the population, identify as transgender.
With a percentage that small, the odds of someone personally knowing a transgender person are limited, hindering acceptance and tolerance between groups, said Don Haider-Markel, chairman of Kansas University's political science department, citing "contact theory," which suggests that people with more interaction with others unlike themselves should hold more favorable attitudes toward them.
“A lot of evidence suggests there’s an effect there,” Haider-Markel said.
Haider-Markel said Jenner’s recent photo spread may help people become more open toward transgender people.
“Even though we don’t know (Jenner) personally, it’s similar to having a friendly interaction,” Haider-Markel said. "This makes people feel like they know a transgender person — a feeling typically associated with more positive attitudes toward the group.”
Haider-Markel said he expects the transgender community to see similar effects to what gay people did during what he calls the “Will and Grace phenomenon.” He said that an increased positive presence of gay people in the media, such as in the popular TV series “Will and Grace,” helped people's opinions of homosexuality evolve from the 1990s into the 2000s. He said a similar phenomenon with perceptions of HIV occurred when Magic Johnson announced he’d contracted the disease.
KU student Daniel English, who was born female, said that while he admires Jenner’s reveal, “it is important to remember that her experience does not represent all transgender people.”
“I am extremely proud of Caitlyn Jenner’s bravery of coming out so publicly, as I know from experience that it is not easy,” English said. “But, unfortunately, we are seeing only certain kinds of transgender people, rather than the diversity of the transgender community.”
English said that while gay people with diverse experiences have been featured in media from “Glee” to “Modern Family,” the visibility of transgender people in the media with differing backgrounds has been limited.
“The more widely accepted narrative seen on television has been that of an older, white, wealthy transgender woman,” English said. “As a society, I feel that we have a long way to go before true progress is made to really understand who transgender people are.”
While English and Mott say there's still a long way to go in the fight for acceptance, Lawrence resident and transgender advocate Jay Pryor said Jenner’s coming out sparked an important conversation.
“Little old ladies sitting around the table are talking about it,” Pryor said. “It’s got to start somewhere.”
Pryor, who said his own gender change from female to male “(didn’t) feel like courage, but being authentic,” said that he thinks that those conversations will bring change, ultimately relieving the pressure of suppressing one’s identity.
“When it becomes a common conversation, then kids won’t have to kill themselves over it,” Pryor said.