Everything about Stef Newell is in flux: her style, her body, her perspective on life.
Even her name is soon to undergo a modification, which will involve adding the letters “ie” to the end of her current first name “Stefan” and switching her current middle name from “Chandler” to “Kalliope” as an ode to her fascination with the Greek muse of epic poetry and her own love of writing.
Stef, a first-year student at UCLA, hails from San Antonio, Texas, a place she told me is “like if suburbs were an entire city.” Fascinated by the overlap between the brain and the formation and fluidity of identity, she plans to double major in Psychobiology and Gender Studies in the hopes of approaching endocrine and neurological work with queer trans people from both scientific and sociological lenses.
A good friend of mine since the beginning of this year, Stef has always been candid with me about her transition from male to female. She’s also constantly pushing the fashion envelope, so it made perfect sense to interview her about how personal style yields insight to identity. I always learn something new when I speak with Stef, whether it be about LGBTQ+ issues, science, art, or an alternative way of looking at life. Read on to learn, too:
Sitting in my room, illuminated by soft Christmas lights, Stef’s hair glowed. She looked to me like a pixie dressed in workout clothes, which, funnily enough, is exactly the aesthetic Stef told me she was going for: “androgynous elf.” She elaborated, utilizing words like “whimsical” and “fairy-like,” and expressed her interest in incorporating fantasy and cool tones into her style. Stef also explained to me that androgyny doesn’t necessarily have to correlate with gender, it can just be an aesthetic. I was also surprised to learn that one’s pronouns don’t necessarily have to correlate with one’s gender, either (a person can take multiple pronouns).
“If forced to pick, I would identify as a trans feminine woman,” Stef told me when I asked about her own pronouns. “I’d love to just free myself of gender and its bubble, but unfortunately, society makes you kinda pick one or the other. And because I wanna go into medicine, I feel like I have to pick and function in a memetic role.” Memetic, explained Stef, derives from the phrase “artistic memesis,” which itself derives from the idea of mimicking or copying someone. Similar to how one artist created Cubism and others moved it further and further, so too, I would posit, is Stef doing with gender.
Stef is currently undergoing hormone therapy, along with numerous other treatments such as facial hair electrolysis (“Essentially, it’s getting a bunch of needles stuck in your face every week,”) to feminize her body in order to better match her gender identity. This link between body and gender identity seems to be a point of contention in pop culture. When I asked her if she believed her body was innately attached to who she was as a person, she answered that she thought it was.
“I feel like I carry a legacy of privilege with my body, my white skin, my feminine features. I have a lot of genetic things on my side. But I’m also trans, and that’s very hard to deal with, and I have a hormonal disorder -- my hair fell out for half a year -- that kinda sucked! So, I get and give a lot because of my body, and sometimes it’s not fair in an unfair-to-me way and sometimes in a privileged way. Sometimes I get things I don’t deserve and sometimes I get really shitty things I also don’t deserve. My body is not necessarily intrinsic to my identity, but it is the sum of my recollections and my experiences which is integral to my identity.”
In addition to compliments and support from friends, Stef feels validated when she’s assumed to be a girl. “Although I recognize that the idea that anyone should have to pass as a woman when they already identify as one is is a very messed up idea, at the end of the day, a lot of us just want to be seen as how we feel on the inside. It’s so nice to know that people see you the way you want to be seen and the way that you feel. When I am perceived as a girl, it does make me smile.”
“Does your style change as you transition?” I asked. Stef answered resoundingly, “Yes.” She believes the point of fashion is to change, to ever-elevate and grow, like an artist would. That’s why she buys so much from funky, cool, cheap sites such as Romwe and Sheen, and sometimes the more expensive Urban Outfitters (“I just bought a bunch of bralettes from there which I’m finally big enough to buy!” she exclaimed happily). The low prices of those sites provide an inexpensive way for Stef to try on different looks and experiment with her femininity, a process she feels she’s undergoing at rapid speed. “Everyone goes through that awkward, busted high school phase of wearing the same thing all the time; I need to get through that phase quick! I need to catch up!” she smiled.
Stef’s favorite pieces of clothing include a pair of blue plaid print overalls from Urban Outfitters women’s and a pink and blue jacket.
“[The overalls] were the first article of women’s clothing I ever bought. I wear them a lot and it’s always been something that was strange, but strange in a beautiful way, and that’s how I kinda want to be perceived: odd but beautiful. Divergent from the mold but in a unique, whimsical way.”
Stef also enjoys her pink and blue jacket, which happens to be the colors that represent trans people. The pink conveys femininity, blue, masculinity, and the white in between signifies transition.
“Often times the [clothes] I like the most are things I see and think, “That’s awful, that’s so wrong, but with the right outfit that’d be so cool.” Like when I first saw the overalls, I was like, “Oh my gosh, who would ever wear those?” Then I was like, “I should wear those.”
Stef’s approach to beauty is low maintenance, yet incredibly cutting edge. Stef enjoys pairing dark tones in lipstick or nail polish with her baby pale, clear skin (thank you, estrogen!), to create a sharp, stunning contrast.
Stef recalled another memory of “painting” her nails: the time when she got yelled at by a kindergarten teacher for decorating her nails with colored markers. She remembers identifying with feminine things at an early age, such as trying on her mother’s clip-on earrings at age six. These episodes of little Stef’s life allow her to explain to me via anecdote her views on beginning her transition last December. The change is physical, and while she has grown as a person in college, too, her inner essence remains staunch -- as it always has been.
Stef doesn’t feel as if she’s changed, she has simply removed a layer of facade. She has only lost things she was pretending to be for the sake of her societal surroundings. “I’m still me, just all of me.”
"Being on hormones is very comforting because you know things are changing, things are going away. It’s beautiful to feel like time passing is a good thing. Time passing is so scary to so many people, and I can say, 'I can’t wait for the future, I can’t wait to wake up one day closer to being more feminine, I can’t wait to wake up another day feeling more beautiful and more right in my skin.'"
I asked Stef what she’d like to change about her personality, and shared that I myself wanted to be less neurotic and concerned with what others thought of me. Stef responded, “Take a note from my book: I’ve had to stop caring. Slowly transitioning has made me stop caring, because some part of me will be like, 'Oh, I can’t wear this today.' And then another part will say, 'Now you have to do it, because you have to prove to yourself that you can wear this.'"
She continued, “There’s been days where I’ve walked around in a skirt with my hairy legs and stubble and I just don’t care and I’ll just walk around and be like, 'This isn’t that bad.' No one’s gonna stop me, no one can say anything to me that is gonna make me stop this, no one can disprove to me who I am. Why should I ever worry so much about what people think when I’m this happy?"
“No one can disprove to me who I am.” This, to me, is the crux of fashion. Clothes are both armor and art.
Stef’s favorite thing about herself is her intelligence, and for good reason. Stef’s high grades and test scores earned her an acceptance letter to the best public school in the nation, which morphed into a plane ticket to Los Angeles, which then translated to UC Health insurance that pays for her hormones, which she probably wouldn’t have been able to start in Texas. We all got into UCLA, with its sub 20 percent acceptance rate. But not many of us got away from a place that constricted us so tightly.
I hope not to mislead readers into thinking that Stef’s San Antonio life at a conservative Christian school was so static as to suppress her entirely, or that it wasn’t in the midst of making significant progress towards greater acceptance when Stef left for UCLA. For four years, Stef pioneered this community-wide movement nearly solo. After coming out as the only gay kid at her high school freshman year, Stef founded a Gay Straight Alliance club at her school, funneled thousands of fundraised dollars towards an underfunded and understaffed sector of a local homeless shelter specifically dedicated to addressing the needs of homeless queer teens, and worked with faculty members to rewrite the sex-ed curriculum at her school. Oh, and she held a laboratory research job and summited Mt. Kilimanjaro the summer after freshman year.
Stef’s list of accomplishments is obviously impressive on paper, but talking to her about her drive behind them reveals great depth of thought. “Even at a young age, I was very aware of how privileged I was and how disenfranchised other people similar to me were. I remember reading this disproportionate statistic about how the majority of homeless teens were queer, and it hit me so hard,” Stef told me.
“I came out to my Mom on the streets of Paris at midnight and she took it perfectly (like, she cried a little but it was fine). I came out to my brother on the way to school and he didn’t care three hours later. I was so privileged. People lost their homes because of that and I didn’t even lose sleep.”
Stef related to me the story of one of her friends, who called her crying after his Navy Seal father threw him through a door when he came out to his family. “I could never imagine how hard that would be. I don’t know what I would do in that situation. So I immediately said, ‘I need to help people like that. I need to help people who are misunderstood by the people who should love them unconditionally.’”
Stef described the countless bake sales, flyers, and speeches during school assemblies: the near-exorbitant level of visibility she created at her upper class Texan Christian school in order to normalize the idea of being LGBTQ+|.
Her work eventually extended beyond the sphere of her school. As previously stated, Stef created a network of funding for a service that caters towards homeless queer teens, many of whom have to leave their homes after being rejected after coming out. Many homeless queer teens are also victims of abuse and/or rape, or have been forced into sex work. They are a very specific, very vulnerable group that needs specialized, often expensive, multivariable help.
When I asked how Stef managed to pull that off in suburban San Antonio, she smiled and simply said, “I am very convincing.” She started asking anyone and everyone who might be sympathetic to her cause, friends of parents, parents of friends. “Every red state has its blue citizens.”
Stef was so successful that she even created an alternate venture, a trans clothing drive similar to a Good Will where trans non-binary teens could find donated clothing that 1) kept them warm and presentable-looking if they were living on the streets, and 2) affirmed their gender, which was especially important if they had parents who would be against them wearing a skirt because of their belief their child was a boy, for example.
During Stef’s senior year, she worked with two teachers to write an inclusive, intersectional, diverse, comprehensive sex-ed curriculum. Prior to Stef’s intervention, her school merely had an eighth grade “Health” class which “was basically a very scientific explanation of how one becomes pregnant -- I don’t even think we talked about condoms!” Stef expressed how she and many of her closeted queer friends felt frustrated sitting in that class, listening to information that would never be useful to them while simultaneously having many questions about queer sex and concerns about things like STI’s that they didn’t want to answer with porn or the Internet.
Stef overcame many obstacles in writing the curriculum, including being retroactively censored by her school after she announced at an assembly that the GSA was having a lunch meeting in which they were “gonna talk about sex education in schools and the lack thereof, perhaps in our own environment!” Stef laughed: “They told me I couldn’t say “sex” in front of my whole school. I had to start saying “sexual” education, and later, “reproductive” education -- even though it’s not reproductive!”
Though Stef finds humor about her experience battling a predominantly conservative school faculty now, she eventually reiterated how meaningful her work has been. “By the time I graduated, probably 30 people were out as non cis heterosexual. I was really proud of that. I feel like I changed the environment.”
And don’t forget: she climbed the tallest peak in Africa at fifteen. Why? Because people didn’t think she could. She described to me the vehemence with which she wanted to prove everyone in her hometown wrong who thought she was simply a “weird, gay kid with curly blonde hair who … hated capitalism and guns and everything in South Texas and was never going to amount to anything.” She told me how angry it made her that people didn’t think she was smart, or cool, or worth something more than whatever definition lay in the tiny box they chose for her.
“I did a lot out of spite and a need to prove to people that I wasn’t going to be what they told me to be, which I feel like is kind of the theme of my life: refusing to be what people tell me and diverging from this enforced idea.” This potent willpower, this continuous assertion that no one can “disprove to [her] who [she] is” is one of my favorite things about Stef.
I asked her, “What do you want for your future?” And Stef gave this beautiful answer: “ I kind of like not thinking about my future, and going day by day, and saying, “Surprise me!” I like the beautiful unplanned things in life. If you asked me five years ago, “Where do you see yourself?” I wouldn’t have said, “A bisexual trans woman living in Los Angeles, wearing weird clothes, studying gender studies.” I would not have said that! That little boyish fourteen-year-old mess of a Texan child would never have seen this, and it is the thing that makes me most happy these days -- the fact that I have become that. That part of me is what I’m most proud of, and that’s never something I would’ve predicted. So I won’t presuppose to know or even want to know what my future will be. That’s so much of the beauty, the unplanned things that just come into your life.”
Writing this story about Stef took me forever because I know her as this awesome friend, whose favorite book is Cloud Atlas (“It helps me think about the world in a very cosmic, divine way. I have three copies and one is full of highlighting and one is full of tears.”), who constantly drinks kombucha, who saves me a seat when I’m late for class. I am sure that whatever the future holds for Stef, it involves much growth, continued self respect, and fantastic outfits.