'Hold your head up:' A conversation with Joanna Keller
Joanna Keller’s home in Staunton is bursting with personality — from the menagerie of Christmas decorations (including a pink tree), to the large fish tanks you can hear bubbling in the background, and the closets and clothes racks full of fur coats, dresses and shoes.
Keller, a 68-year-old 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.
“One of the things that I think allowed me to find who I was — I have a sister, and around 8 years old, from what I can remember, I would put her clothes on,” Keller said. “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.’"
Though retired now, Keller stays busy as ever with various civic engagements, like chairing the Virginia LGBTQ+ Advisory Board established by former Gov. Ralph Northam. Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently agreed to meet with Keller later this month, for the first time since taking office.
Life before coming out
After graduating from a high school in Jacksonville, Florida in 1973, Keller briefly attended college… but decided it wasn't for her. Instead, she joined the Air Force and became an air traffic controller. When her military service ended, she took her air traffic controller experience to the Federal Aviation Administration, too.
“You have a Cessna 172 a mile out from the runway, and you've got an F4 doing 240 knots five miles away,” she said. “Is that F4 going to land on top of the Cessna before it gets that last mile off the runway? … I thrived on that!”
In 1979, Keller married. The couple later had a son, Kyle. According to Keller, marriage was supposed to change her perspective: “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.’”
It did not. By this time, she had started clubbing in women's clothes occasionally, although this was not a side of herself Keller could share with her wife. Keller recalled several instances when her ex-wife caught her in borrowed outfits.
“I'd think she would be another two hours and — poof — she'd walk in, and I'd be in her leather skirt,” she said. “And so one morning she just said, ‘I've had enough… I thought I married a man … I'm filing for divorce, and you can have custody of your son.’”
After that, Keller and Kyle moved to Anchorage, Alaska, until he graduated and left for college in Wisconsin. With an empty nest, Joanna could come further out of the closet: She’d fly to Seattle for weekends with her friends, where she could go out on the town without being found out.
In 1999, she moved to Waynesboro and started her second career as maintenance director of an apartment complex. But living two lives was extremely difficult.
“Being Dr. Jekyll, Mrs. Hyde,” she said. “To hide from one person or one job or one group, and then always worrying about being found out, mentally and physically exhausted [me].”
Living as Joanna
After living like this for decades, Keller reached a tipping point in 2016. She came out in a two-page letter sent to her family at Christmastime.
Her siblings didn't respond and still haven't, although other relatives have since shown their support. In 2019, she came out to her co-workers and tenants at the apartment complex she maintained — many of whom were not surprised. That year, she also underwent gender-confirming surgeries at the University of Virginia.
Joanna Keller is happy with where she’s at now: her accomplishments, transitioning, having two fulfilling careers, raising a son and having grandchildren who are very accepting.
“As I've told people years ago, if I could've lived just one year as Joanna, and died,” Keller said. “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.”
One of the most emotional milestones of Keller's transition? Legally changing her name. Keller chose to honor an older friend in Alaska who had been pivotal in her transition.
“Marie… 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,” Keller said. “And without her, who knows where I would have been?”
But Keller is incredibly aware that transgender kids, teenagers and young adults face different circumstances now than the ones she transitioned in. And she says there’s no shame in being who you are, so long as you’re “happy within yourself.”
“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,” Keller said. “Be proud of that.”