Exploring the People Among Us

Meet Family Therapist Marie Keller: Board Chairperson of LA Gender Center

By TRILBY BERESFORD | Reporter

In the late 1980s, family therapist and Palisadian Marie Keller referenced the term “gender identity” in a document visible to the public eye. A trans person identified themself to her and suggested that “gender expression” might be more appropriate.

Keller, who went on to specialize in issues relating to gender and sexuality, became aware that the trans community was in desperate need of services. In 1992, she founded the Los Angeles Gender Center. “We were ahead of the curve,” Keller told the Palisadian-Post during an interview at her Highlands residence, adding that those years were the “dark ages.”

“There was little information and education, and the idea of funding for trans people was not available,” Keller continued. As a result, she and her colleagues would see clients pro-bono or for low fees. “Many of them were highly distressed individuals who had tried to conform [to their assigned gender] or been through conversion therapies causing PTSD,” Keller explained. “They all suffered from a lack of legal protections.”

Elaborating, she spoke about the period after World War II when psychotherapy moved toward being a more pathological and isolated field. “Trans people were extremely affected by that and many were hospitalized against their will,” Keller said matter-of-factly.

In addition to providing counseling and essential services, the Gender Center hosted monthly social gatherings to unite the community in a positive way. “We had a yearly holiday party for 20 years,” Keller said cheerfully.

In collaboration with The Center for Transyouth Health and Development and The Children’s Hospital, Keller and her team began offering services to children and adolescents in 2007. Noting that Williams Institute statistics indicate 25,000 gender non-conforming youth in Los Angeles, she said, “It makes such a huge difference when kids can start out with support.”

In Keller’s current position as board chairperson, she is ensuring that the Gender Center continues to focus on people who are under resourced, because in her words, “mental health shouldn’t be contingent on resources.”

She emphasized how critical it is to have medical providers who are sensitive to a trans person’s situation and who are not going to impose a notion of who they should be. This brought up a painful memory of a client who didn’t have adequate medical insurance and passed away prematurely.

Under guidance from Executive Director Aydin Olson-Kennedy, whom Keller described as “totally committed,” the Gender Center is expanding its clinical services and creating an intern-training program to serve more people in need.

The Center also trains professionals in businesses, hospitals, universities and homeless shelters on the most ethical practices surrounding trans and gender non-conforming employees.

At this point in the interview, we paused briefly while Keller’s sweet dog Walter vomited—in the most polite way a dog can—some drops of murky liquid. “Where were we?” Keller asked with a laugh, before promptly picking up where we left of. “Right, solving this problem is through acceptance.”

There was a slight dip in enthusiasm as she mentioned the current presidential administration and their desire to roll back protections, though in the same breath, Keller highlighted the fact that the worldwide increase in education is leading to understanding and progress. Families are coming forward, concerned about their children and asking for ways to help them. People are being encouraged to consider feeling over reason. “The internet has also been enormously beneficial in uniting these minority communities,” Keller pointed out.

Although Keller didn’t say this directly, it was clear she has been witness to a wide gamut of troubling human emotions and feelings during her career in therapy. Something that keeps her going is her interest in relevant history and storytelling.

“Walter Lee Williams’ [book] ‘Spirit and the Flesh’ shifted my perception of things I had assumed about binary culture and gender,” she explained. After devouring it, Keller started exploring other cultures and their systems of gender, and realized how complex they were. “It blew my mind,” she admitted.

In fact, what started out as a purely literary pursuit soon evolved into an academic study. Keller received her Ph.D. in mythological studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute and wrote her dissertation on the way in which Latin writer Ovid used myths to speak about gender.

“I learned the power of origin stories,” Keller said, adding that she now talks to her clients about these stories. “Oh, and I’m a docent at the Getty Villa.”

This exploratory journey into gender has certainly taken her to some good places, but the critical mission wasn’t always met with positivity. “Back in the ’90s, some physicians made fun of me at a party for the work I did,” Keller recalled. When my response was, “That’s appalling,” she replied, “Yes, but it’s more appalling what trans folk went through.” That really underlined her sense of empathy and sensitivity toward those she feels passionate about.

While no career that is still in flight can be summed up in a single sentence, Keller’s observation of, “I’ve met some fantastic people,” seems like the ideal takeaway.