Stella Keating loves unicorns, and she’s got a sizable collection of stuffed ones in her room to prove it.
“I feel that they’re very expressive,” said the 11-year-old Tacoma kid. “I can relate a lot to them. Once they choose something, they choose something, and there’s no going back. Which is what I do a lot.”
Two years ago, with the support of her family and pediatrician, Stella made a profound choice. She transitioned from the male gender assigned to her at birth, and now lives her life as the girl she’s always known herself to be.
Being a transgender girl means she dresses like a girl, acts like a girl and has adopted a girl’s name.
Her parents, Lisa and Dmitri Keating, say they have a plan for how to help their daughter deal with the physical changes of puberty as they arrive, but prefer to keep the details confidential.
Stella’s parents weren’t surprised when their only child came to them with her need to transition from son to daughter.
“From about age 3, she was fluid with her gender expression,” Lisa said.
She remembers a preschooler who was as at home with Tinker Bell as she was with Thomas the Tank Engine. Stella often referred to herself as a boy who likes girl stuff, or a half-girl, half-boy.
“My body knew I was a girl,” Stella said. “In my body, I felt messed up.”
Stella first told her parents she might be gay but then realized her feelings meant something different.
“I said to my mom, ‘When I wear girl-like clothes, can you call me Stella?’” she remembers. “She said, ‘OK, but it’s going to take some getting used to.’”
Lisa said she let Stella lead the way — advice she got from medical and educational experts who work with transgender kids.
“We wanted her to take ownership of her own identity,” Lisa said.
Added Dmitri: “Her gender identity is different. That’s OK. It doesn’t change who she is as a human being.”
His biggest concern was ensuring Stella would be safe in her new role, he said.
“That was probably the biggest mental math for me,” Dmitri said. “Not calculating how she was going to be, but how others will perceive her and treat her.”
A few photographs of Stella as a young boy still hang in the Keating home. Lisa said she was concerned about her family’s history. She didn’t want to pretend she had she lost one child and gained a different one.
“That’s not true,” she said. “We have the entire child. Our family story is a whole story; it’s not compartmentalized.”
Stella’s transition launched her mom into a new role as well.
First, Lisa scouted for resources — books, conferences, experts — to help her understand gender expression. She had already started a support group, My Purple Umbrella, for gender diverse kids and their families. The goal was to raise awareness of gender identity and gender expression for youths 13 and younger.
The group’s Facebook page, with users from throughout the Puget Sound region and some from outside the United States, is a place where they can find information and resources.
Lisa also took an active role at Geiger Montessori School, where Stella just completed fifth grade. Lisa launched a student group called Allies in Action, which teaches kids to accept differences, embrace diversity and resist bullying. She joined a Tacoma Public Schools committee to help address problems with bullying and harassment in schools, and in April the school district honored her with a Gold Star Community Partner Award.
Stella was given a different first name at birth. She asked The News Tribune not to reveal it.
“That was my life then,” Stella said. “This is my life now. I need to focus on the now.”
With the help of her parents, she chose Stella as her new name, after hearing her parents had put it on their list of possible girl names before her birth.
“I was like, that’s a perfect name,” Stella said. “It just seemed like the correct name.”
Her parents haven’t changed the name on her birth certificate. But to friends, family and teachers, she’s Stella.
Like a lot of transgender kids, Stella transitioned into her new gender identity over a summer break.
When she began fourth grade as Stella, she said, some of her friends were confused at first. Some persisted in calling her by her old name.
Geiger counselor Caroline Kyle helped Stella find the words to explain why that hurt her.
Eventually, Stella said, her friends got it: “They just said, ‘That’s what she wants. We should respect that.’ It’s no big deal now.”
Kyle said the naturally outgoing Stella has helped educate other Geiger students. She also credits Stella’s mother with keeping educators informed about her daughter’s journey from male to female.
Kyle doesn’t remember a pivotal moment with Stella declaring herself a girl. Instead, the process was more organic, like an evolution. Stella continued using the boys restroom at school for a while, then gradually switched to using the girls restroom.
“She was comfortable and she was ready,” Kyle said. “There wasn’t a big to-do about anything.”
Stella is confident she made the right decision.
“After I said, ‘I feel this specific way, and that’s how I like to feel’ — once that happens, pretty much, it stays,” she said.
Lisa tires of questions about whether Stella’s choice is a phase she’ll grow out of.
“As parents of transgender youth, we have to constantly defend the value of the children we love,” she said. “It’s grueling.”
Before Stella’s transition, Lisa said, she knew her child was struggling emotionally. While teachers saw a kid thriving at school as a leader among her peers, Lisa saw a different child at home.
“It would take all her energy to keep herself together during the school day,” Lisa recalled. “When I would bring her home, she would fall apart emotionally. It was the safest place she had to get all the emotion out.”
“She really struggled,” Dmitri said. “When she was able to determine why, and tell us, it was hugely different.”
Now, her parents say, Stella is healthy and happy.
“She shines,” Lisa said. “She is comfortable with who she is.”
Stella is a child who loves to draw and sing. She wants to be a professional musician when she grows up. She’s started learning violin and wants to learn cello.
She’s happy living life as a girl. And, like her mythical unicorn friends, Stella insists there’s no going back.