[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]
Stella Keating, 16, and her mom, Lisa Keating, were in Ikea near their home in Tacoma, Washington, “upgrading” Stella’s bed from a twin to a queen, Stella said, when they received a call from the office of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
His staff asked Stella if she would testify before the Senate in favor of the Equality Act, a piece of legislation that would provide LGBTQ people with federal protection from discrimination in housing, health care, education, employment and other areas of life. Keating said Durbin’s staff found Stella through the work she does with the GenderCool Project, a trans-youth-led advocacy group based in Illinois.
“It was actually a pretty cool day,” Stella said of the day she received the call. “We were on the phone in a really hot car, and we were talking about what the logistics would look like. I was just super excited that I got to do this and nervous because it's a big deal. And the idea of how powerful it would be never came across my mind until afterwards.”
Stella testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 17, becoming the first transgender teen to testify in front of the Senate.
“Right now, I live in a state where I have equal protection under the law,” Stella told the committee. “And as a high school sophomore, I’m starting to look at colleges, and all I can think about is this: Less than half the states in our country provide equal protection for me under the law. What happens if I want to attend a college in a state that doesn’t protect me? Right now, I could be denied medical care or be evicted for simply being transgender in many states. How is that even right? How is that even American?”
She added, “And why am I having to worry about this at the age of 16?”
Her testimony went viral, but during a Zoom interview, Keating said it’s hard for both of them to conceptualize just how far-reaching Stella's impact has been. When asked how going viral has impacted her activism since, Stella said she’s only had “a few speaking engagements.”
“What did you do two weeks ago that was kind of a big deal?” her mom asked, pointing to a calendar to jog her memory.
“Oh! Yeah, I don’t know how I forgot about this,” Stella said, laughing. “I got to, like, you know, meet the first lady.”
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the first lady would invite guests to sit with her in her box at the joint address. But this year, the White House held a virtual box event, and Jill Biden invited Stella and four other people.
When the event started, Stella was “fangirling” over the first lady’s dress, and then her mom said something “beautiful” happened. “The moderator was just introducing each of the guests, and when he got to Stella, Dr. Biden said, ‘Hi, Stella!’ and waved, and we were all like, ‘Oh, my God,’” she said.
“She didn't do that to anyone else,” Stella said.
Stella said her friends will sometimes Google her and tell her she’s “famous,” but she doesn’t feel that way. She first became an advocate at 9 years old, when she testified in front of her school board in favor of more inclusive programs at her elementary school, so advocacy has always been a part of her life.
“It definitely is weird to think that I'm not like my other friends in that kind of way,” Stella said. “But because it's been like this for so long, it's kind of normal at this point.”
In 2021 so far, more than 80 bills targeting transgender people have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Keating said the “power” that Stella and her fellow GenderCool advocates have is “being a positive counternarrative to all of this terrible, awful information and opinions from our statehouses and state leaders.”
“They are living examples of how what they're saying is just simply not true,” she said. “And they're doing it in a way that is positive and allows people to connect on a human level, which is the whole purpose behind the GenderCool movement — is to create positive experiences by them just being themselves.”
After her testimony, Stella received dozens of media requests and appeared on MSNBC, but the pressure of balancing advocacy with school made it feel like work. So her mom said she tried to help Stella understand the impact she was having.
“I remember Stella and I were on a walk and she was just really burnt out,” Keating said. One of Stella’s heroes, whom she’s met, is Sarah McBride of Delaware, the country’s first transgender state senator. Keating told Stella, “I want you to just think about the fact that what Sarah McBride means to you, and when you first were introduced to her, you are that same inspiration for so many other people.”
Stella responded excitedly, “I’m Sarah McBride?!”
A few days after her testimony, McBride texted Keating an interview where McBride said Stella “is the one thing that's given her hope.”
When Keating reminded Stella of that, she exclaimed, “I’m Sarah McBride’s Sarah McBride?!”
Like her hero, Stella plans to run for office one day.
"I've come this far," she said, "I’m basically already there."