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"Hold your head up:" a conversation with Joanna Keller

Randi B. Hagi
Joanna Keller, of Staunton, serves with several boards and organizations, including the Virginia LGBTQ+ Advisory Board.

Amidst the current political focus on transgender kids, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi sat down with two adult community leaders and asked them to reflect on their gender journeys. Here's the second of those two conversations.

In this interview, I spoke with Joanna Keller on her 68th birthday at her home in Staunton. Her house is bursting with personality – from the menagerie of Christmas decorations, including a pink tree; to the large fish tanks, which you can hear bubbling in the background; to the closets and clothes racks full of fur coats, dresses, and shoes.

Keller is retired now, but busy as ever – among many other civic engagements, she's the chair of the Virginia LGBTQ+ Advisory Board that was established by Gov. Northam. Gov. Youngkin recently agreed to meet with Keller later this month, for the first time since taking office.

Keller, who identifies as a transgender woman, was born into a Catholic family in Georgia. With a Navy father, she and her three siblings moved all over the U.S. during her childhood.

JOANNA KELLER: One of the things that I think allowed me to find who I was – I have a sister, and around eight years old, from what I can remember, I would put her clothes on. I would wear my Mom's high heels, and at the time it was, "oh, that's just cute, he's playing with his sister."

She graduated high school in Jacksonville, Florida in 1973. She attended college briefly, but decided it wasn't for her, so she joined the Air Force and became an air traffic controller.

KELLER: You have a Cessna 172 a mile out from the runway, and you've got an F4 doing 240 knots five miles away – is that F4 going to land on top of the Cessna before it gets that last mile off the runway? … I thrived on that!

After her military service, Keller became an air traffic controller with the Federal Aviation Administration. In 1979, she got married, and they had a son, named Kyle.

KELLER: Everyone kept saying, "if you get married, all this femininity-type stuff will go away, you know, it's just because you're alone and you're dwelling on it."

By this time, she had started going out clubbing in women's clothes occasionally, although this was not a side of herself she could share with her wife.

KELLER: My ex-wife caught me several times in her outfits. … I'd think she would be another two hours, and 'poof,' she'd walk in and I'd be in her leather skirt. … And so one morning she just said, "I've had enough." She goes, "I thought I married a man … I'm leaving tomorrow, I'm filing for divorce, and you can have custody of your son."

Keller and her son lived in Anchorage, Alaska, until he graduated and went to college in Wisconsin. With an empty nest, Joanna could come further out of the closet. She would fly down to Seattle on weekends with her friends, where she could go out on the town without worrying about being found out.

In 1999, she moved to Waynesboro, and started her second career as a maintenance director of an apartment complex.

KELLER: Being Dr. Jekyll, Mrs. Hyde. … It is extremely hard to live two lives. To hide from one person or one job or one group, and then always worrying about being found out, mentally and physically exhausted.

Eventually, Keller reached a tipping point with that exhaustion. In 2016, she wrote a two-page letter coming out to her entire family at Christmas. Her siblings didn't respond, and still haven't – although other relatives have shown their support. In 2019 she came out to her coworkers and the apartment tenants – most of whom were not surprised. That year, she also got gender-confirming surgeries at the University of Virginia.

KELLER: I'm happy where I'm at. As I've told people years ago, if I could've lived just one year as Joanna, and died … if I could live one full year, 24/7, be Joanna, be myself within my heart, my soul, my body, and if I died, then it was worth it. … I'm very proud of my accomplishments: of transitioning, of my careers, of raising a son who's very accepting. My grandchildren are very accepting. They call me Grandma J. … That's what's important!

One of the emotional milestones of Keller's transition was legally changing her name.

KELLER: I had a friend of mine, up in Alaska – Marie. … 25 years older than me. … She guided me with makeup and things like that. And so, when I took my new name, my middle name is Marie – for her. She was a cis woman and she just enjoyed coming to the club and talking to everybody… And without her, who knows where I would have been. It was part of the journey.

And her advice to trans kids today?

KELLER: There is no shame or feeling low or bad – you are who you are, and only you need to be happy within yourself. Because nobody else, really, could care less. … They say something and they're walking away. You still have your whole life the next day and two weeks later. Hold your head up, own the space you're in, own yourself. It doesn't matter who you are, whether you're a cis male, cis female, LGBTQ – you are who you are. Be proud of that.

A big thank you to Joanna, and our first interviewee, William, for sharing their stories with us.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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  • Amidst the current political focus on transgender kids, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi sat down with two adult community leaders and asked them to reflect on their gender journeys. Here's the first of those two conversations. Please note this story does include mentions of suicidal ideation.