For Amanda Keller, her service as the director of the Magic City Acceptance Center for LGBTQ youth in Birmingham, Alabama, embodies the sincerest tribute to her late father.
The 32-year-old first began working with the Birmingham Aids Outreach (BAO) organization, which founded the Center, on World AIDS Day in December 2009.
She had wanted to become involved with local HIV/AIDS advocacy following her father Robert’s death from AIDS-related illness in November 2003, in her native Cleveland, Ohio.
“I wanted to educate myself and others, and this was the best way that I knew [so that] I could remain connected to him and give back to the community,” she says.
The presence of Keller and activists like her is vital in Alabama, a state better known for homophobic bogeymen like former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who fought tooth and nail against a judicial decision striking down Alabama’s ban against same-sex marriage in February 2015, and then later fought local compliance with the Supreme Court decision in June of that year that brought marriage equality across the country.
Alabama is also the home state of Senator Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, whose record on standing against LGBTQ equality is long.
Establishing a supportive LGBT organization within Alabama is equal parts rewarding and challenging, Keller allows.
“Alabama receives a lot of negative stereotypical attention. I will admit that some of it is deserved, but that’s not the Alabama I see on a daily basis,” Keller says. “Our state does not offer any protections to LGBTQ individuals and many of our schools and businesses do not include sexual orientation and gender identity in non-discrimination policies.
“In school health classes, we teach students that ‘homosexuality is a sin,’ while some teachers openly discriminate against LGBTQ youth preaching that they will ‘go to hell’ in front of the classroom, and turn a blind eye to problematic comments and behavior in the hallways.
“Our youth regularly report excessive bullying at school, lack of support at home, and fear of finding employment in an affirming place other than Target or Starbucks. Our youth have been physically attacked, verbally abused, and treated differently just because they cannot be accepted for who they are.”
However, Alabama also offers figures such as Representative Patricia Todd, who is openly lesbian and has served since her 2006 election on behalf of Birmingham’s District 16 in Alabama’s House of Representatives.
Keller, who has had regular occasion to interact with Rep. Todd at LGBTQ-themed events and counts herself among one of the legislator’s fans, described her to me as “the woman Alabama never saw coming,” as a fierce advocate not just for LGBTQ issues but also as an important female voice within the state’s male-dominated political tableau.
Through the work of the Center and organizations like it, along with like-minded businesses and officials, Keller believes that positive change is possible.
“The community is starving for more information and tolerance. More often than not, I encounter individuals who are supportive, but just need more education.”
Keller and her colleagues work closely with local schools and youth-serving organizations, as well as private counselors and community members for referrals. “We regularly visit Gay-Straight Alliance clubs at schools, speak at community events, and have a strong social media presence which helps us reach the youth who do not yet know about our services.
“My political activism is tied entirely to community advocacy and education,” says Keller. “For every individual that I can educate, my hope is that they will educate at least one more. We live in the Bible Belt and it is often difficult to navigate this conservative, religious landscape but we can all agree on one thing: We should all love one another. I would never try to change one’s beliefs, but I do hope I can help them treat the LGBTQ community with love and respect, which all people deserve.”
Keller grew up in a Cleveland suburb and had a childhood that was straightforward in many ways, albeit colored with unique aspects of her father’s outgoing personality and love of the stage.
“We seemed to be a typical family of four that volunteered at the local soup kitchen, were involved in after-school activities, and attended church each Sunday. However, my father always took the opportunity to design costumes and sets on the back of the hymnal during sermons.
“My dad loved his short shorts and was extremely animated, but he was a theater director and trained dancer so I never thought much about his tap dancing outbreaks or singing his way into my bedroom each morning.
“He would steal my bedroom furniture for shows, and found a way to incorporate his children in every show so that we could all be together as a family. He went as far as putting us all in a local circus where he starred as the ringmaster and my brother and I dressed up as Tom Thumb and his wife.”
Although she later learned that her father identified himself as bisexual when meeting her mother, he never explicitly came out to Keller. Only when the thunderbolt of the AIDS diagnosis came in 2000, after her parents had divorced and her mother was newly remarried, did she come to realize her father had another side he had kept hidden.
“I will never know if this came as a surprise to him, or if he had a sense of when he might have been exposed to HIV. I wrestle with these questions every day and wish I’d had the courage to have these conversations as a teenager. I do know that he was probably HIV-positive for much of my childhood because it had progressed to AIDS by the time he was diagnosed.”
Keller credits her mother Patricia and older brother Matt for shouldering much of the burden of her father’s failing health during what was a painful experience for all of them.
The watershed of the diagnosis also rippled throughout the social fabric surrounding her father. “I watched most of our community turn away from a man they once celebrated and respected.” This was a lesson for Keller about the stigma still surrounding the disease, for which she says the primary remedy is awareness education.
“Friends were no longer allowed to come over and I was treated differently in school because word had spread. My work [has since] expanded to LGBTQ advocacy because I often wonder if he may have been diagnosed sooner if he [had been] able to live authentically. This includes the ability to pursue affirming health care.”
Keller said that openly discussing her father’s health issues and resulting death did not always come so freely to her. “I used to not want to talk about it, or only would say he died of pancreatic failure.”
Keller now regrets her former reticence, and feels she atones for, or acknowledges, this prior silence by helping others to live open and proud lives. This Pride Month, her father’s legacy and the Magic City Acceptance Center continue to serve this mission.
It was a long-distance relationship with her now ex-husband, whom she met during a trip to Atlanta, that led Keller to Alabama in 2006.
She transferred from Ohio State University to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she completed her degree in philosophy. Although she confesses that she came to her adoptive city only “kicking and screaming,” she enthusiastically remained in her new home even after the end of her marriage. “Although that didn’t work out, I’m so grateful for this journey, and wouldn’t change a single thing,” she says.
After her schooling concluded, Keller sought to pick up the reins of community service again.
In tandem with her work with BAO, she signed onto the Magic City Acceptance Project, billing itself as “a volunteer network of individuals, agencies, and organizations focused on professional practice and community support that results in positive outcomes and a positive future for LGBTQ youth, adults, and families in Birmingham.” Initially under the direction of Genie Taylor, five years into its mission, Keller now serves as chair.
“It took a village to raise this child,” Keller explained to me. “In our case, the village included the Mystic Krewe of Apollo, a local Mardi Gras krewe,” or parade committee in the Gulf of Mexico region such those as in New Orleans, “that supports the efforts of BAO, several dedicated volunteers, and BAO staff. With their help, four layers of carpet, dropped ceilings, and several walls were removed from our first location. Powered by coffee and a dream, we buffed the floors and coated them in five pounds of iridescent glitter.”
Matching the efforts on the ground to build the Center were varied sources of municipal and charitable funding, including a joint initiative between the Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundations. This philanthropic venture sought to respond to the disproportionately rising numbers of HIV infection in the South, and dovetailed with BAO’s own expanded focus from HIV/AIDS services to LGBTQ outreach.
The Center provides access to those sorts of services, as well as HRT [hormone replacement therapy] and PrEP.
The Center has served nearly 500 individuals since opening its doors three years ago in June 2014. Many of the younger people who sought their services now act as mentors themselves.
They are open four-plus days a week offering art workshops, support groups, self-care workshops, and counseling with a licensed professional counselor. A majority of their youth clients are between the ages of 13-18, but they do have several who are as young as 11 and up to the age of 24. Roughly 60 percent of these individuals identify as trans or non-binary.
“When we opened, we offered one support group and one movie night a month,” Keller recalls. “I will never forget sitting and waiting alone in the building, just hoping someone would show up. We had an ‘if we build it, they will come’ mentality, but knew it would take time and a very intentional effort to spread the word.”
“For our first prom, just two months after opening, we welcomed 24 youth. To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement. The next year, we hosted 52, and last year, we welcomed over 80 individuals. This year, we plan to have over 100 youth join us at our 4th Annual Queer Prom,” a glitzy party for the center’s attendees.
Ultimately, the memory of Keller’s father guides her in her day-to-day life.
“My entire childhood was a series of comical and unusual events with my father. He was so spirited and the most embarrassing memories are now my favorite. He was a showman in every sense—he had a booming voice, an unmistakable laugh, and a presence that could take over a room.
“For such a lively and animated person, he could be a man of few words. The words I do remember were those that pushed me to reach my full potential. His favorite line and [now] mine too will always be ‘Sing out Louise!’ This is why I am so passionately called to the work I do. I’m surrounded by an incredible community that reminds me of him each day.”
The promise of change in Alabama keeps her engaged in LGBTQ advocacy, in which she terms herself a “lifer,” committed to the cause. She points to momentum for a nondiscrimination ordinance on the cusp of passage in Birmingham, which is progressive in other ways already.
It was extremely moving for Keller that when she suffered her own health crisis recently, this community responded in turn to support her.
“I was diagnosed with stage 5 renal failure on my birthday in November of last year. I immediately started dialysis while beginning the search for a living donor. My diagnosis came as a shock to us all. Within a short period of time, we created a social media marketing campaign with the hope that we would find a living donor. That’s how we found Kerry, the woman who was a complete stranger... who also saved my life.”
Keller underwent a kidney transplant in February and has now recovered completely.
“This was a very public journey and I could not have done this without this wonderful, loving community,” she says.