But as Keating, a 16-year-old girl from Washington state, appeared on the screen for the hearing Wednesday, testifying as a witness in support of the Equality Act, she smiled and confidently introduced herself.
“Good morning. My name is Stella Keating, and my pronouns are she/her,” she said, wearing a black blazer. “It is the honor of my lifetime to be here.”
The high school sophomore started her remarks not by focusing on the legislation or the attacks on her identity but on other big recent news in her life: She had just earned her driver’s license, she said, “which was a great day!” She talked about her love of hiking, playing the ukulele and studying history. She said her goal was to someday become a civil rights attorney.
After introducing her parents, she told viewers about a movement she launched three years ago, the GenderCool Project, working to “replace opinions with real experiences meeting transgender and nonbinary youth who are thriving.”
Then, she said, she wanted to introduce herself again.
“Hi. I’m Stella. And I’m transgender,” she said. “I am here before you today, representing the hundreds of thousands of kids just like me who are supported and loved by their family, friends and communities across the country.”
Keating was testifying in support of sweeping legislation, decades in the making, that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Equality Act would amend federal civil rights laws to ensure protections for LGBTQ Americans in employment, education, housing, credit, jury service and other areas. It is a top legislative priority for President Biden, who called the bill “a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all.”
The bill passed through the House last month but will need 60 votes to break a legislative filibuster in the Senate. The bill in its current form faces opposition from conservatives in the Senate, many of whom have argued the bill would infringe on religious rights. As they have repeatedly done in recent weeks, Republicans speaking in Wednesday’s hearing homed in on fears that the Equality Act would threaten girls’ sports, by giving transgender girls the right to compete in athletics according to their gender identity. Advocates say these fears are unfounded, and legislators across the country have been unable to cite examples of problems caused by transgender inclusion in sports.
The night before Keating’s testimony, members of the transgender community across social media rallied around the teenager, sharing their admiration of her desire to speak publicly before lawmakers even as they attacked her identity.
Gillian Branstetter, a spokeswoman for the National Women’s Law Center and a transgender advocate, noted that, in a conversation largely focused on transgender people, “she will be the only transgender person in the room.”
“When I was 16 years old, I was closeted and terrified, lacking even the language to describe myself as transgender,” Branstetter tweeted. “Today, a trans 16-year-old will stand up against prejudice and ignorance in the U.S. Senate. No matter what happens today, that progress can’t be taken from us.”
Some expressed worry and nerves on Keating’s behalf, knowing what she was up against. But none of that fear was evident in Keating’s face as she spoke to the senators Wednesday. She talked about how she was beginning to look at colleges, and how all she could think about was the fact that fewer than half of the states provide equal protection for transgender people like her 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 said. “What if I’m offered a dream job in a state where I can be discriminated against? Even if my employer is supportive, I still have to live somewhere. I have to eat in restaurants, and I have to have a doctor. And why am I having to worry about all of this at the age of 16?”
She closed her remarks by saying she hoped to someday run for public office.
“And for my generation to achieve all that we will,” she said, “we just need to be able to live our lives.”