Interview: Amanda Keller

 

I met Amanda a few years ago through mutual friends and she quickly became one my favorite humans. As part of the LGBTQ+ community, I knew of Amanda but I had not officially met her until that time. I knew that Amanda was a director at the Magic City Acceptance Center and was greatly involved in the LGBTQ+ community here in Birmingham. I remember one Sunday afternoon, on the patio of Lou’s Pub, I asked her “Why do you do what you do?”. Her answer to this question gave me chills and nearly brought me to tears right there on that patio. Amanda has taught me so much about my own community, specifically our trans brothers and sisters, and has inspired me to speak up and get more involved. Amanda is one of the most selfless, hilarious, beautiful, kind women I’ve ever met and Birmingham is so lucky to have her. Even through some unimaginable personal struggles, she STILL puts her work with the Acceptance Center first and has never once lost her passion for helping the LGBTQ+ community. I wanted to do this interview because many people outside of the LGBTQ+ community probably don’t know about the Magic City Acceptance Center or Amanda Keller and I’ve long thought that her work deserves more recognition. Amanda is one of the most badass women in Birmingham and I hope you find her story as inspiring as I do –Nicole

Can you tell us about the Magic City Acceptance Center (MCAC)? How did the center get started?

The Magic City Acceptance Center is a safe, supportive, and affirming space for LGBTQ youth, ages 13-24, adults, and children in Birmingham and surrounding areas. As a project of Birmingham AIDS Outreach, one of our main goals is to provide an affirming environment to seek out HIV/STI testing and education, in addition to resources and supportive services.

MCAC initiatives for LGBTQ youth, ages 13-24 include:

Drop-In Hours

Movie Nights

Make-It-Mondays Art Workshops

Unicorn Pizza Club- a monthly discussion forum focusing on various and diverse aspects of LGBTQ sexual health and well-being.

Skills-Building Workshops

Access to Community and National Resources

Free HIV/STI Testing and Education

Free Counseling with Licensed Professional Counselors

Steel City Spectrum- an advocacy group for trans, non-binary and genderqueer individuals

QTPOC Talk-Queer and Trans People of Color Talk

Self-Care Workshops

Yoga

BAGSLY (Birmingham Area Gender and Sexuality League of Youth)

BAGSLY YouTube Advocacy Channel

Tutoring

Racial/Social Justice Workshops

Know Your Rights Workshops

Self-Care Workshops

Special Events: Valentine’s/Halloween/Holiday Parties, Pride Events

Magic City Acceptance Summer Camp

Queer Prom and Queer Homecoming

Coming soon: Home Host program for homeless LGBTQ youth ages 19+

 

LGBTQ Children’s Program:

Space to Be Me- This is a professionally facilitated group for parents of trans youth under the age of 14. Children will also have space to meet, connect and participate in activities with other trans youth.

 

LGBTQ Adult Programs:

Speak OUT: LGBTQ support group ages 25+, professionally facilitated

Birmingham ALIES (Aging LGBTQ Issues, Education and Support)- a social group for LGBTQ individuals ages 50+

Steel City Spectrum- Professionally facilitated support group for trans, non-binary and genderqueer adults ages 25+

Legal Name Change Clinic

LGBTQ Wills Clinic

 

The Magic City Acceptance Center opened in April 2014 as a direct response to the alarming rise in HIV/STI rates in youth ages 13-24 across the southeast. MCAC began offering monthly movie nights, HIV testing and education, resources, and a safe space for youth to express themselves. In just 3 years, we have served over 315 youth and offered over 2,200 services each year.

I know your father has a lot to do with why you chose to dedicate your life to helping the LGBTQ+ community, specifically the youth. Can you talk about him and explain what inspired you to make this your career?

My father was diagnosed as HIV positive in 2000. We were blindsided by this diagnosis and the fact that he had not only been positive for 10+ years without medication, but that it had progressed to AIDS.  My only understanding of HIV at that point was what I learned in health class watching ER episodes. It simply wasn’t discussed because it wasn’t a concern for our mostly Jewish, middle to upper-middle class happy suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I spent the next 3 years learning all I could about HIV, and acquainting myself with a part of my father I never knew.

Although my parents were married for 23 years, we always knew that our dad was different. He was an incredible cook and hosted fabulous dinner parties for our family friends. He was a brilliant local theatre director who choreographed his own numbers, designed his own sets and costumes, and (with the loving help of my mother) hand-sewed hundreds of GORGEOUS costumes for each production that are still being rented by theatre companies to this day. He was professionally trained in ballet and tap and had traveled the world in his younger years, dancing through Paris and spending long nights tapping away in his apartment in Columbus. We spent our vacations with his old friends in their beautiful homes with white leather couches, and my father personally created every Halloween costume, including Scarlet O’Hara’s famous green BBQ dress. That’s right- my father sent me to school as Scarlet O’Hara in a full hoop skirt with pantaloons in 4th grade, in Ohio. This was only the beginning of his Gone With the Wind obsession. He had a dedicated room with a 4 foot tall portrait of Vivien Leigh hung above an antique Civil War-era bed, with a Gone With the Wind afghan, and commemorative plates hung on the wall… to name just a few items. Did I mention that we were also in the circus? Needless to say, he was different from other dads. I learned much later in life that he had previous relationships with men, and it all made so much sense. I had a new love for this man that hid (or attempted to hide) so much of himself. Like most men in his generation, I truly believe that he wanted to have a family and settled down with a loving and wonderful woman that was his best friend and confidant. He loved my mother deeply until the day he died in 2003.

I came to BAO as a volunteer in 2009, looking for a way to give back and to connect to my father’s memory. I was hired (ironically) on World AIDS Day, and worked in different areas before having the opportunity to open the Magic City Acceptance Center in 2014. It was then that I finally felt at home. I spent my entire childhood carefully watching a man who couldn’t truly be his authentic self, and seeing the anger and pain that caused. Now, I get to spend each day ensuring that our youth have a safe and supportive environment where they can be whoever they want to be, while getting valuable resources for HIV/STD testing and education. My only regret is that I can’t go back and have a conversation with him, now that I have significantly more experience and knowledge. His health declined fairly rapidly and we lost him a few days after Thanksgiving my freshman year of college. There is a room at the Magic City Wellness Center that is named after him (thanks to Ben), decorated with a few of his costume sketches. Seeing this each day grounds me and reminds me why my work is so important. Educating myself and the community about HIV, stigma, the importance of getting tested and knowing your status, and simply affirming people for who they are is paramount. HIV has changed my life and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to hopefully change the lives of others.

 

(photo from Amanda – her dad/ her dad & his best friend)

If I’m being honest, one of my favorite things about you is your boyfriend, Ben! *insert laughing emoji here* Seriously though, he’s awesome and you two make a great team. Did he have any experience with LGBTQ+ issues before he met you? How does he feel about your line of work?

Thank you! Ben is the most phenomenal human you will ever meet. I have put him through a lot in the last 3 years so I feel confident in that statement. It all started with our first date which was more of an interview than a date. We hunkered down in a tiny local restaurant where I spent the next hour reviewing my thoughts on LGBTQ rights, gun control, traditional gender roles, and the list goes on. He patiently listened to me gush about the center and why I love the work that I do, and answered my skeptical questions about his LGBTQ competencies. Although originally from New Jersey, Ben was mostly raised in the south. At the time, Ben only knew a handful of acquaintances that identified as LGBTQ. However, he was raised by an accepting and loving family that thankfully passed these values down to their son. He is such a fierce supporter of the work that I do and the youth that we serve, even stopping me mid-conversation to ensure he is using the correct pronouns for an individual. I owe so much of my success to Ben, and his support. He has personally spent hours in the center setting up our sound system and lights. He even moved 45 chairs and 8 banquet tables for our most recent Pancake Dinner just to make sure we had ample seating. His commitment to the community and to the center continues to astound me and I’m so grateful to have him by my side. It helps that the youth adore him too!

 

(photo from Amanda – her and her boyfriend, Ben)

Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about your recent health issues. You were recently diagnosed with Stage 5 Renal Failure and needed a kidney transplant. Did you have any warning of this? Did you know anything about renal failure before you were diagnosed? Walk us through those first few days after the the diagnosis.

In October of 2016, I was experiencing blurred vision and extreme headaches. After seeing the optometrist, I learned that I had a severe detached retina due to hypertension. Having never had problems with high blood pressure in the past, I went to the doctor for tests. Naturally, I sought out the amazing services of the Magic City Wellness Center where I was able to see my friend and co-worker which helped make the entire process a little easier. After several rounds of labs, my healthcare providers wondered if I might need a referral to a nephrologist (kidney specialist), because my creatinine levels were absurdly high. So high in fact, that no one believed the results could be possible. The fact that I was still walking and looked normal seemed to indicate that I couldn’t possibly have such an extreme diagnosis. However, on my 32nd birthday in November I was diagnosed with Stage 5 Renal Failure. I had done enough reading over the last month to prepare myself for what I knew was coming, so my initial reaction surprised the doctors. No time for tears, just “what do I need to do to move forward?” We scheduled a peritoneal catheter placement procedure so that I could start dialysis as soon as possible while waiting for a kidney transplant. I was prepared to sit on the deceased donor waiting list for the next 6-8 years but that’s when Ben stepped in. Refusing to let me wait that long, he created KidneyforAmanda.com and the Kidney for Amanda Facebook page which quickly grew to over 350 likes. I struggled with the idea of making my personal health issues so public, but I’m so thankful that I got over that. If it weren’t for my outstanding support system and these pages, I wouldn’t have met my incredible donor, Kerry, and I wouldn’t have a very happy, fully functioning kidney!

You were diagnosed in November 2016. Amazingly, in February 2017 you received a new kidney from an incredible donor! Can you tell us about those three months and the donation process?

In October 2016, I needed someone to hold my hand and had to actively attempt to not kick someone while having labs drawn. Now, I point out the better arm and best vein for nurses drawing daily labs. As someone I really admire pointed out, there’s a lot more to be afraid of than a needle. It was a trying 3 months with more doctor appointments than I’ve had in a decade, but my outstanding healthcare team turned a difficult experience into one of the most memorable and positive experiences in my lifetime. The nurses at the DaVita dialysis clinic were like family (you spend A LOT of time together) and they gave me a reason to look forward to dialysis and weekly appointments. The UAB Kidney Transplant Clinic team is a dream to work with. They made me feel like an individual, rather than one of the nearly 3,000 individuals that need a kidney transplant. I cannot say enough wonderful things about UAB and how proud I am to have such a world-class healthcare system right here in Birmingham. We were astounded to learn that over 50 individuals filled out the donation form listed on the Kidney for Amanda page. To date, this is the highest number of forms ever submitted to the transplant clinic for a single individual. Doctors gave me hope by explaining that it was no longer a matter of “if,” but rather, “when” I will get a kidney. Little did I know that in December 2016, Kerry had already initiated the process to become my donor. She was the first individual to go through the matching process, and also a perfect match. I found out in late January that not only had we found a donor (a perfect stranger!), but that the procedure was just a few weeks away. I never imagined that I would be so lucky and that this whole ordeal would be over so quickly. That night, I went home and was grateful to know that my nights with my dialysis machine were numbered. I will never forget that feeling and the incredible appreciation I had for the unbelievable stranger that was going to change my life.

How has this experience with renal failure changed you? Both physically and mentally?

I’ve learned that healthcare is important. Most millennials don’t take time for important things like doctors and checking in with ourselves and our health. We ignore what our bodies tell us and chalk it up to stress, over-work, or not having time/money/resources. Having a sense of humor throughout this process was really important to me and I hope I can maintain that same outlook moving forward. Laughter and a positive attitude not only made me happy, but it made dreary appointments a lot more enjoyable for me and those around me. I’ve also learned to be a lot more appreciative of the little things. Trying to find a ball gown that showcases your 60-pound weight loss while also hiding a 9-inch catheter tube sticking out of your stomach is difficult, but just made me even more determined. I wasn’t going to let dialysis, a limited diet and physical restrictions stop me from doing the things I love.

Let’s get back to your work with MCAC. The next four years are going to be tough for our community. What are you hearing from the youth at the center about the current administration? What are their concerns? What are your goals for MCAC over the next four years?

The day after the election, we had 27 youth attend our program. They were mad as hell and vocal, but also scared to death. Most of the youth we serve were born after 2000, so the Obama administration formed their understanding of leadership in this country. They have never experienced such open and unfiltered hatred on a federal level. Because so many individuals are now emboldened by this administration, LGBTQ youth worry about their safety in public spaces, at school, and at home. Youth report hearing more anti-LGBTQ remarks, spikes in transphobia, and drastic shifts in school culture since November. For many, they have made the decision to either remain or even go back into the closet in order to protect themselves. It’s so frustrating that in 2017, we are having conversations with our youth around coming out that include “There is no one right way, or right time to come out. Pay attention to signals at home, weigh the pros and cons and most importantly, do what is best for you.” Our plan is to continue to do what we do best: act as a sanctuary and a safe space for all. We don’t ask how you get to us. All that matters is that you are safe and supported once you arrive. No matter what happens over the next 4 years, we will be here to provide resources, information, protection, and validation of all.

 

(photo from Amanda – group photo at MCAC/parade)

Why do you think our straight allies are so important? How can our straight allies help our community over the next four years and beyond?

Straight allies have the privilege of navigating through a society that mostly caters to our values. It’s easy to overhear an anti-LGBTQ joke or comment and go along with it because it doesn’t directly have an impact on our lives… but what if it did? Why does it take a personal connection to do the right thing? To me, standing up against ALL hate and micro-aggressions is part of the basic duty of being a good human. It takes no time to speak up for marginalized populations and support people of color, indigenous populations, the poor, LGBQ and trans people, bodies of all sizes, people with other abilities, individuals without homes, the undocumented, invisible, extinguished, and mis-represented populations. However, it may be the ONE occasion where you can offer enlightenment to someone who simply lacks the education to be better. Take that opportunity to speak up and speak out. It may just change hearts and minds. This is especially important now, more than ever. Reach out to marginalized communities to ask how you can help, donate to organizations providing services to people of color, the queer community and undocumented populations. Send cards and letters to these organizations to offer support and solidarity. But above all, do not be silent.

Lastly, how can people donate to MCAC? What does the center need the most?

I love this question! We have a very simple link on our website (www.MagicCityAcceptanceCenter.org) which allows you to make a donation at your convenience! We also always need individually packaged snacks for our youth programs so donations of lunch-sized chips, crackers, cookies, etc. are always welcome, along with sodas and waters!

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