OUTstanding Virginians 2015

Keri Abrams – Mechanic and Spokeswoman, Richmond

Keri(3) for webKeri Abrams likes to kid with people. For instance, when people ask to take her picture, she might tell them they can’t because she is in a witness protection program. Jokes sometimes have a way of revealing truths. The humor in Keri’s quip lies in the ironic disconnect between the sad, furtive notion of ‘witness protection’ and thevibrant presence of Keri herself. Keri has spent the past five years precisely not hiding, play-acting, or seeking protection in the shadows. Since she completed her transition from male to female in 2010, at the age of 55, Keri has been living and bearing witness joyfully in the open.

It was not always so. She had played the role of ”stereotypical American male husband” for years, and the bad fit had taken its toll. Each of four marriages ended after about twelve months, in Keri’s words, “because of who I am.” Fittingly, it was a dog—the most guileless of creatures—that led her to her true self. In despair and close to suicide, Keri looked at Jordi, a rescue dog with one blue eye and one brown eye, and thought, “who would take care of him and give him the same love that I did?”

Not succumbing to despair was one thing; achieving a better alignment of soul and body, however, was another. She found a good therapist (“a must,” she declares, for anyone thinking of transitioning) and began reading the published guidelines on how the process is “supposed to” unfold. In the end, Keri ignored the conventional wisdom to go slow. “In about a month, I went ‘full time’”, she says, “which means totally living as my true gender.”

When Keri came out early spring 2010, she realized there was a community of people like her that she should be part of, but she did not know how to join it.  Looking up support groups; she found the James River Transgender Society. The first meeting was difficult; she was feeling very nervous and shy, especially since most of the transgender people in the room except her were thirty-somethings or younger.  “I had never even spoken to a trans person,” Keri recalls; “I was too afraid to even go online.” Quickly, however, she connected with the JRTS’ Membership Director, another person who had transitioned later in life. “I felt like the only person on planet Earth,” she says, “but I dared to open my mouth, and I haven’t shut up since.”

Keri soon discovered that being able to speak as the person she really was gave her a social confidence she had never felt before. “I was somebody who would go to a party and sit in a corner unless close friends were with me; now I wanted to be the party,” Keri explains. “I’m not a different person—I just accept the person I’ve always been.”  Today, as a leader and spokesperson in the region’s transgender community, she shares her views and her story all the time. The people she talks with would never believe that Keri only recently acquired her comfort in speaking her mind.

Keri’s personal liberation was not achieved without a cost, however. Right after her transition, Keri lost the job she had held for 40 years. With no convincing explanation given, her step out of conventional gender roles was almost certainly the reason. After being briefly unemployed, Keri went into business for herself as motorcycle mechanic.

Bikes are not the only things Keri Abrams fixes. After coming out, she realized she could be a help to other new transgender people. “I have discovered that I can connect really well on a personal level with people who are just starting out on their transition,” she says, “especially male to female.”  As the transgender representative for a social services agency, Keri was often the first trans person a transitioning client ever talked to. In such conversations, Keri’s personal experience is all-important. “Therapists do a wonderful job,” she says, “but if you’re not trans yourself, you’ll never know internally what it means to be trans.” When there is an age gap, and there often is, Keri bridges it by her ability to listen without judging.

While the one-to-one conversations are key to her effectiveness within the trans community, Keri’s public appearances are ways to win recognition of the needs and experiences of transgender people out in the broader community. “It’s not just about individuals,” she says; “it’s about individuals coming together as a community.” Keri is one of the “go-to” voices of that community. She is asked so frequently to participate in interviews and panel discussions that she jokingly calls herself the Token Trans.

Being out requires a certain amount of bravery beyond the physical bravery that got her through the transition and the social bravery that allows her to speak out in any setting. Perhaps the toughest demands came when she prepared to come out to her closest friends and family members. Consciously, she allowed for the possibility that the relationships could end because of people’s inability to accept her change. “I afforded the oportunity to people to walk out of my life without hard feelings,” she says. To her relief, no one took her up on the offer. A watershed moment was when she worried about what would happen when her beloved niece, a religious woman, tried to explain the situation to her preteen daughters. The niece handled it well, telling the girls: “’God creates people differently. Your uncle Keri is going to be your Aunt Keri.” They accepted the change right way, asked Keri silly questions, and now they are even closer than ever before.

Being transgender today comes with certain bureaucratic hardships. Keri was born in Ohio and can’t change the gender on her birth certificate. This could cause interesting complications if she were to, say, get married in Virginia. At least the DMV is trans-friendly—there are no obstacles to changing gender on a driver’s license. A more serious issue is the hostility on the part of some politicians who want to make trans people scapegoats. “We’re still an easy group to pick on,” says Keri, noting wryly that the number of acceptable groups to discriminate against is shrinking.

It is precisely the fact that transgender people are not universally accepted that gives a sense of urgency to Keri’s public role. “I believe I’m working for the betterment of the whole,” she says, envisioning a bigger hearted, more accepting Virginia in the future.  To achieve that end, she is starting to make common cause with natural allies in organizations with statewide reach, including Equality Virginia. Says Keri, “When you put together many voices that all share the same ideals, they blend into a sufficient voice that is heard with greater authority.”

 

Celebrate the freedom to marry and honor the 2015 OUTstanding Virginians by joining us at this year’s Commonwealth Dinner!