Joanna Keller grew up all over the world because her father was in the U.S. Navy.
She graduated Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Florida and attended Florida Junior College.
She worked as a civil engineer and then an air traffic controller for 21 years.
She hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1999 and 2001 after moving to Staunton.
But, at the time her name was John Keller, what a transgendered person calls their “dead name,” because their previous gender is dead.
Keller said that she knew in 1978.
“I knew something was totally wrong.”
Keller was more interested in female-related items than male as a youth.
“Every transition is different depending on where you’re at.”
While living in Alaska, Keller said others assumed she was homosexual because the term transgender was not used yet. She was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and with a mental health illness in 1980. In the late 1980s, the diagnosis became gender disorder.
From 1978 until the late 1990s with the use of HRT, Keller said it was “just a rollercoaster of not knowing what was going on.”
A difficult part of transitioning, according to Keller, is how it will affect your family, friends and career.
“There’s just a lot of things that you have to think about or are you willing to give that all up to be who you really are? And, in the long run, yes, I was.”
Her parents, sister and brothers found it difficult to accept her transition. Her father died in 2014 not having really accepted she was now Joanna. Her siblings remain distant and her mother did not start calling her Joanna until a few years ago.
“My brothers haven’t talked to me in 20 years. My sister will talk to me on the phone but she doesn’t want to meet me in person.”
If she had begun her transition sooner, she would have had to give up her career as an air traffic controller, a job she loved. She would not have passed the required mental health test.
In 2006, she changed her name and began her transgender journey from John to Joanna.
In 2017, Keller was the first male to undergo female gender transition surgery performed at UVA Health.
“Once I knew I was on the way with HRT, I wanted to be complete [as a woman],” Keller said.
After more than six hours on the operating table, she no longer had male genitalia and was female.
Keller, who turned 69 years old on November 9, continues to take the necessary drugs and hormones.
After retiring her career, Keller took up the fight for LGBTQ rights. She began a transgender closet at Staunton’s Shenandoah Valley LGBTQ Center.
Keller was unable to attend her high school’s 50th reunion because of Florida laws regarding transgender individuals using the bathroom corresponding to the sex with which they were born.
Keller was concerned before Election Day that if the Virginia Senate became majority Republican, then 12 anti-LGBTQ bills in the Commonwealth would get passed into law.
“Then I’m in the same boat as Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, Montana of transgender individuals being able to go and live their lives fully,” Keller said.
However, the Senate remained majority Democrat, and the Virginia House also flipped to majority Democrat.
She was appointed to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s LGBTQ Advisory Board in spring 2022. She was voted chair of the board, which has 21 members. The board’s purpose is to advise the governor on all matters related to the LGBTQ community.
Under Gov. Ralph Northam, the board’s recommendations were taken seriously.
According to Keller, research shows that 94 percent of children ages 6 to 17 who transition genders complete the transition.
Keller lives a much happier life now than when she was young.
“I would rather have spent one year as Joanna than a hundred years as someone who I wasn’t. And, you’ll find that for most transgender individuals that is correct.”