“It is the honor of my lifetime to be here.” That's how 16-year-old Stella Keating of Tacoma, Wash., kicked off her testimony in support of the Equality Act before the U.S. Senate last week. The moving speech has since gone viral and put the teen in the media spotlight on networks from PBS to MSNBC.
In her March 17 testimony, Keating — who made history by being the first transgender teen to testify before the U.S. Senate — talked about how, while she lives in a state that protects her rights, heading off to college in a state that doesn't (more than half) could mean that she's denied medical care or evicted simply for being transgender. "How is that even right?" she asked. "How is that even American?" She spoke about how her parents, Lisa, a school board member and youth leader, and Dmitri, a bicycle shop owner, have supported and inspired her and taught her "the value of hard work" and how she spoke out at a school board meeting at age 9, despite having to stand on her tiptoes to reach the microphone. “I didn't care, because I saw that I was making an impact," she said, and that "they cared what a little kid had to say."
Everything she has done since then, Keating said, "has focused on positive change," including that afternoon, speaking out in favor of the Equality Act, which passed in the U.S. House in February and, if made law, would address the patchwork state nondiscrimination laws and provide protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services and federally funded programs. She also discussed an organization she helped to launch, the GenderCool Project, which, through young public-speaking "champions" like herself, drive home the point that trans teens are just like any others. To that end, she said, cleverly reintroducing herself after presenting herself as a thriving young woman: “I'd like to introduce myself again: Hi, I'm Stella, and I’m transgender.’"
She spoke with Yahoo Life about how it felt to testify, her path to activism and her many heroes, from Sarah McBride to Laverne Cox.
Yahoo Life: How did it feel to speak before the U.S. Senate?
Stella Keating: I was super nervous! Then, at 7 a.m. my time I logged on — which is too early for anything, in my opinion — but the moment that it started … everything just calmed. I felt amazing. Everyone was really supportive.
Your involvement in GenderCool is how you wound up speaking, through a request made by U.S. Senate Majority Whip Durbin. What does being a GenderCool Champion entail?
Mainly just public speaking and media content creation, for social media. It’s about … replacing opinions with real experiences through meeting trans and nonbinary people. There's a significant number of people who have not met a transgender person, though they already have opinions … I hear "Wow, you’re so brave," a lot, and, "You’re so normal. …" We're normal people. Being transgender is not what we are — we are normal kids and teenagers.
When did you realize you were transgender?
I've just always known. It’s an innate instinct. When I was 9, I came out to my parents, and then I entered fourth grade and came out to my entire school; we sat in a circle and I said, "My name is Stella…" and it was an immediate, "OK, I have to call this person by Stella." It was really incredible how accepting little kids were and even their parents too. Then, eventually, it just kind of spread, everyone knew — they called me by Stella and that was that. My teachers were incredibly accepting.
Please give us a window into your life. How else do you spend your time, beyond school and GenderCool?
I have two ukuleles, one that I built out of a kit and painted like the Steven Universe ukulele … and I also built an electric guitar over the summer with my dad. … I started to play it, but just wasn’t feeling it, so it's a decoration piece. I try to walk every day, and hike, and my family — luckily for me I'm an only child — likes to go snowshoeing, which is difficult and very fun. … With our mayor [Victoria Woodwards], I started the Mayor’s Youth Commission of Tacoma, just giving a voice to youth and showing we have opinions and our voices matter — and that essentially we’re just angry young people trying to get change done!
Do you spend much time on TikTok?
Yes [laughs]. I had a dream of creating a cooking TikTok — I like baking and making meals, I make a really good crispy tofu and rice and, like, broccoli and other vegetables, and then I also make a bomb Paleo pizza crust. We are a Paleo-esque family … and gluten-free. And I make a really good mug cake! It's a cake in a mug.
How has the pandemic affected you over this past year?
Like most teens, I definitely have suffered — the isolation is really hard. But I am in remote learning currently and surprisingly enjoying it and getting good grades. I'm going back in-person really soon and excited about it, to be able to see my friends again will be really awesome. My social life has definitely suffered.
I'm extremely fortunate and privileged to live in a state that I’m protected in … but for my brothers and sisters and in-betweens, I feel the pain and hardship. I’m really not a competitive athlete, but I wanted to join my school’s bowling team because all my friends were on it. But then a global pandemic happened. I just wanted to hang out with my friends, though, and a lot of kids who participate in sports do so because they want to learn lessons like self-confidence and teamwork, and it makes me really sad and hurts me that people don’t want me to enjoy hanging out with my friends. With the health care [piece], that makes me really upset. I just hope this interview helps people understand there are young people thriving like me because we have the support we need, including great doctors who help us stay healthy. I'm contributing to the world, and I think that's what we want for all youth.
What do you think keeps so many people from understanding that basic premise regarding transgender individuals?
I think it’s just confusion. People don’t understand — and the sad part is, some people don’t want to understand, and that really upsets me because the people who don't want to understand make huge decisions that negatively impact people.
Who are some of the transgender celebrities or influencers that inspire you?
[Delaware state Sen.] Sarah McBride is my hero. I had the honor of meeting her in D.C. before she ran for office and won. It was so awesome. She gave me a tour of the outside of the White House — I’m a history nerd — and she also worked at the White House as an intern, which is super cool. I also got to literally sit on her shoulders in front of the White House for the best picture ever! [See photo at top of this story.] Another one is [transgender-rights lawyer] Chase Strangio; he’s one of my other transgender heroes. Also, I mean, Laverne [Cox], who is oh so incredible. And [Virginia delegate] Danica Roem.
What sort of response have you seen about your testimony?
So many messages, calls — by the end of the testimony, I had 30 text messages from friends of the family and over 20 notifications on Twitter! My teachers have been so incredible … I said, "Hey, I’m doing this tomorrow, I might not be in class, and I got incredibly positive responses from all of them and got the most amazing message from my world history teacher, just a beautiful message, and from my Spanish teacher. It's been so amazing,
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