Accepted


Amanda Keller creates a place where everyone feels ACCEPTED

Written by Rosalind Fournier

amanda-kellerMost people assumed that Bob Keller, a solid family man, was strictly heterosexual. In reality, he was bisexual—and under different circumstances, if he had been comfortable speaking openly about his sexual orientation—he might have been offered regular HIV testing, no questions asked. Instead, in 2000, by the time he was diagnosed he had full-blown AIDS and a grim prognosis.

“We didn’t have time to really process everything,” explains Keller, who is now 32 and the director of the Magic City Acceptance Center, a Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO)-affiliated program designed to provide a safe, supportive and affirming space for LBGTQ youth. “We were just focused on my father, his health, spending time with him, and making sure the last few months of his life were what he wanted it to be.”

He died a year and a half later. Amanda was left with memories of a man she loved mixed with an awful lot of questions about the price he paid for trying to keep his sexual orientation hidden for so long. (Though she eventually found out her mother, from whom he was divorced, had known about his bisexuality, few others did.) “I think he died unhappy,” Keller says. “I think that if any part of him could have just lived his life authentically and been himself, he would have been a happy, fulfilled person, and who knows what else in his life would be different because of that?”

Bob Keller, Amanda's father.

Bob Keller, Amanda’s father.

She’ll never have the chance to understand that part of her father’s story now. But she feels MCAC has given her a chance to help young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning people be open and true to themselves, feel accepted and avoid a pattern of living in secrecy and shame.

Finding her path

Keller started originally as a volunteer with BAO about eight years ago when she was still a student at UAB. “I wanted something to do in my spare time, and I was really interested in giving back in a way that I could be more involved in HIV work and advocacy,” she says. “It got to the point where I was at BAO like four hours a day, and luckily the development director pulled me aside and asked if I wanted a job.” Keller jumped at the opportunity, and not long after, the organization applied for and received a grant to start an outreach group aimed at LGBTQ youth, with Keller as its director.

Step one was turning a bland, uninspiring building into a welcoming space that would attract young people to its doors. That’s when the Mystic Krewe of Apollo, who identify themselves as a group of friends who have a strong connection to the LGBTQ community, stepped in, volunteering their time to overhaul the space until it was fun, welcoming and comfortable. They say helping get MCAC started was a no brainer, because it’s the kind of place from which many of them could have benefitted earlier in their lives. “Many LGBT youth feel alone and alienated, and to contribute to a place like the MCAC allows us the opportunity to give to today’s youth something we needed when we went through all the same things at that age,” members say, “be it dealing with family issues or bullying or the feeling of isolation that can come from feeling that something may be ‘wrong’ with you. With the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth sharply on the rise, it is vital that support, acceptance, and encouragement be accessible and that those avenues of support are inviting and make individuals feel safe. MCAC…is exactly what we need more of for tomorrow’s generation regardless of who they are—a place of love, support, and acceptance.”

If that sounds at all dramatic, grim or outdated—aren’t we mostly past all that? Isn’t today’s generation more accepting of different sexual orientations?—Keller explains that the picture is far more complicated. “On one hand,” she says, “the fact that we exist, the fact that there’s a building next door that exclusively provides health care and hormone therapy to the LBGTQ population, and that the community supports that and we don’t have picketers at our door every day, says a lot about the community. However, the fact that we need to exist is also part of this conversation.

18922202_2026290697594764_3770334619476648666_n“We are here because our youth experience tremendous amounts of bullying and harassment and physical abuse and…any number of things, even from professionals in our community who are supposed to help. I’ve heard stories of counselors who are providing incredibly concerning information to youth. They are not providing competent care to them. We know teachers who are in the middle of math classes who are taking moments to talk about how homosexuality is a sin. We have youth who have reported that they may not be physically harassed in the hallways, but they experience even worse in the sense that their classmates ignore them intentionally to the point where they’ll maybe bump into them and just keep walking and pretend that they don’t even exist, and the youth have said that they almost wish they would just hit them instead, because at least they would acknowledge their presence. So there are really varying states. They have these pockets of affirmation, but if you don’t have access to that, you’re still one of those youth who feels left out.”

Convincing wary youth

Keller says when MCAC opened in 2014, one of the first obstacles was convincing the kids that MCAC was a legitimately supportive organization for the LBGTQ community. Many had been burned before. “I had one youth tell me once that he would come every single night and sit outside and look in,” she remembers. “He wanted to make sure the people inside were okay, and we weren’t proselytizing or trying to do any conversion therapy. They were concerned we could be a shell organization, saying that we were affirming when really we weren’t.”

Eventually he came in, and others continued to follow. They started with a monthly movie night, and now, almost four years later, the calendar is a full slate of “drop-in” afternoons and evenings, art workshops, support and advocacy groups, pizza nights featuring discussion forums, and even support groups for parents who struggling to understand what their kids are going through. Overall, MCAC has grown an estimated 423 percent since its opening.

“We just continue to be amazed by the need for support, and the fact that these youth feel comfortable coming to us,” Keller says.

There are also the big events, including a summer day camp that youth outreach coordinator Lauren Jacobs calls her favorite time of the year.

“Our focus this past summer was on the fact that there are young people in Birmingham and the surrounding areas who identify as LBGTQ who want to be here—who don’t feel like they have to leave Birmingham—and are actively working to make the area more inclusive,” Jacobs says. “We did workshops around how to build an advocacy campaign in your school. We had a zoo field trip, and that was really fantastic because one of the keepers at the Birmingham Zoo has been out since high school and is passionate about animals and zookeeping…so our young folks could see there are LBGTQ people who are from here, still live here, and get to do the things they’re passionate about here.

“It’s really great for us to be able to offer what is kind of a traditional day camp for a week but to fill it with programs and workshops that are about empowering yourself as an LBGTQ young person.”

Another big event is MCAC’s “Queer Prom.” Keller likes to point to the prom’s growth every year as one of the best indicators that MCAC is filling an important need in the community. “Our first prom was in June of 2014, and we had 24 youth. We thought that was outstanding. And the next year we had about 80. This year we had over 120—we lost count at one point—in this building. And they were flowing into the parking lot.”

Honoring her father’s memory

2013-06-16-11-37-17For Keller, her work with MCAC and supporting the cause of the LBGTQ community in general—and youth in particular—has taken on a life of its own. But her original draw to this work will always be her father, his personal experience and how deeply it affected her.

“I think it would be very easy some days to walk away from all of this,” she says. “It can be triggering. It can be very emotionally straining, especially when I worked at BAO in the beginning and was seeing people who reminded me of my father or looked like my father or had a laugh like his. You’re constantly thinking about it, and you’re constantly thinking about these people and their lives and their livelihood and how they’re doing.

“But I don’t feel like I would be doing my father a service and honoring his memory if I had this opportunity and I walked away from it. And most days, for me it is a very healthy, wonderful, nourishing way to give back. Ninety-nine percent of my days are so happy and wonderful to have this environment we can provide for our youth. And there are a lot of feelings that happen here, and there are a lot of tears and really hard experience our youth go through—not just because they’re LGBTQ, but maybe their first boyfriend or girlfriend or person in their life broke up with them. And we work through all of that. We go through all the feelings here.

“So I’m just so grateful to be able through MCAC to support people when they’re really struggling—it’s the best possible thing we can do for anyone, and I wish more adults had this opportunity.”

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