Note to Reader: I’m a writer at heart and blog as much as possible. There are many things I’d like to write about, but time is limited, so there are some big gaps between blog posts. Also, below are some fairly strident writings, especially when it comes to protecting LGBTQ youth and others who lack voices of their own. However, if you are reading this to determine whether to invite me to speak or train to your organization, please know that I fully subscribe to the rule that there’s a time and place for everything. I do not train from a soapbox. (Although if you want that, I can make it happen!)
Table of Contents (Please Scroll Down for the Actual Posts)
January 20, 2019 Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back (Click here for PDF)
August 13, 2018 What Transgender Humans Might Offer for Healing America (Click here for PDF)
April 4, 2018 Fifty Years (Click here for PDF)
February 16, 2018 Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 7 (Final Report) (Click here for PDF)
February 9, 2018 Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 6 (Click here for PDF)
February 8, 2018 Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 5 (Click here for PDF)
February 7, 2018 Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 4 (Click here for PDF)
February 6, 2018 Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 3 (Click here for PDF)
February 4, 2018 Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 2 (Click here for PDF)
February 2, 2018 Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 1 (Click here for PDF)
January 27, 2018 A Speaking and Listening Road Trip to the South (Click here for PDF)
January 18, 2018 Ellie 2.0: “Practical Idealism” as a Human Value (Click here for PDF)
September 23, 2017 Hearing from the Universe (Click here for PDF)
September 4, 2017 Labor Day Resolve (click here for PDF)
August 24, 2017 Not the America I Know (click here for PDF)
August 13, 2017 Holding Hope Dear (click here for PDF)
July 13, 2017 Helping America to Become Unlost (click here for PDF)
June 18, 2017 Healing After Philando: Apology and Forgiveness are Critical (click for PDF)
May 29, 2017 Shutting Down Hate (click for PDF)
April 13, 2017 Letting Target Corporation Know that I am Grateful (click here for PDF)
March 23, 2017 An Open Letter to the People Who Hate Me (click here for PDF)
February 23, 2017 Thinking of You in Birmingham (click here for PDF)
January 29, 2017 Coffee with Lady Liberty
January 22, 2017 Bending History
January 16, 2017 MLK Day 2017
January 10, 2017 Impact Report for 2016
January 2, 2017 Starting
November 17, 2016 Tips for Going Forward
November 9, 2016 Donald Trip as President: Three Steps Forward, Two Back
November 4, 2016 Visiting My Roots-Iowa
September 11, 2016 Remembering
September 5, 2016-Labor Day Gratitude and Work
July 30-August 3, 2016 A Road Trip West with Purpose
August 1, 2016 Day 1-Sioux Falls
August 2, 2016 Day 2-Rapid City
August 3, 2016 Day 3-Laramie
July 9, 2016 Thinking and Acting Differently Toward Those Who are “Different”
July 7, 2016 Another Horror and the Complete Absence of a Plan
June 21, 2016 A Single Garment of Destiny
June 18, 2016 More Thoughts on Pulse Orlando
June 12, 2016 Horror
June 3, 2016 Three Reasons Why Employers Should Recognize Pride Month
May 23, 2016 Whoops and Cheers for Hope and Compassion
May 1, 2016 An Open Letter to Target Corporation Team Members
March 27, 2016 Gifts-Given and Taken
January 24, 2016 My 2015 Impact Report
January 18, 2016 MLK Day
January 10, 2016 This Precious Life
August 1, 2015 Review: I am Cait
July 16, 2015 Caitlyn Jenner: A New Era Begins
May 25, 2015 Paying it Forward
April 26, 2015 A Transgender Person’s Reflection on Bruce Jenner’s Coming Out
April 4, 2015 Rippling
January 5, 2015 An Open Letter to Every Leelah Alcorn in the World
September 21, 2014 The “Rent” for Living: Mentoring
April 19, 2014 Resiliency
February 15, 2014 Intent and Forgiveness
January 4, 2014 The Price of Living Authentically
November 27, 2013 Thank you, Iowa! (click here for PDF)
January 20, 2019
Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back
This weekend—preceding the federal holiday to honor Dr. King—is always a time for me to reflect on where things stand for our country.
As an idealist, I so very much want America to be a place where all humans are accorded dignity and respect regardless of skin color, religion, gender, LGBTQ status or the hundred myriad other things we use to make people “Other.”
As a country, we have made great progress on many fronts, yet the divisions along race, socioeconomic standing, gender and religion seem so stubborn to erase. It is at times very disheartening. It is very much that process of moving forward by three steps, only to fall backward by two, all fueled by fear of those who are different from “us.”
I woke up this morning to a couple of things: first, there is this CNN piece about upcoming legal challenges to the three most important racial civil rights laws of the modern era—the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, with the government being on the opposite side of right.
Here are photos by Thomas Foner reminding of what it took to get those laws into place. Let these images dwell in your heart for just awhile.
Second, there was this Washington Post story about one of our American Indian Vietnam veterans being confronted by a group of teen boys wearing “Make America Great Again” hats in Washington D.C. The vet, Nathan Phillips, said that the youths frightened him. Despite this, he didn’t give his ground.
Later, Nathan summed up the problem best with this: “That energy (of the teen boys confronting him) could be turned into feeding the people, cleaning up our communities and figuring out what else we can do,” Nathan said. “We need the young people to be doing that instead of saying: ‘These guys are our enemies.’”
Can you imagine a world where negative energy (fueled by fear) is turned into compassionate action?
I certainly can. I will continue to push for positive change, reminding all that we do have good, empathetic hearts. It’s just that fear gets in the way of unleashing those hearts.
August 13, 2018
What Transgender Humans Might Offer for Healing America
“You don’t know what it’s like to walk in my shoes.”
Of all the phrases voiced by individuals and groups who feel marginalized, this stands out the most.
And it’s true: no one can really understand what it’s truly like to be a member of a certain group or tribe unless you are one of “us.” Outsiders—those who aren’t group or tribe members—constitute “them” or “Other.”
However, some people do move from “us” to “them,” sometimes dramatically. For example, persons without disabilities who suffer a traumatic injury resulting in paralysis or another form of disability. Those survivors suddenly understand what it’s like to be propelled into “Other.”
There is another group of humans that also knows what it’s like to walk in the shoes of someone else: persons who have transitioned genders. Transgender people have the rare distinction of having lived in each gender and we uniquely understand the privileges and detriments of being male or female.
Small case in point: when I presented as male, the word, “hysterical,” had no particular meaning to me. In fact, I’m sure I sometimes referred to “emotional” women as “hysterical.”
Once I transitioned genders, the phrase took on a completely different meaning. I painfully recall the moment not so long ago when a publisher (an older man) referred to me as “hysterical” as I passionately argued why a piece I had written should be published. The memory of hearing that word being thrown at me still stings.
Given how our perspective inevitably expands once we transition genders, I submit that transgender persons can add to the pressing conversation about how to make our divided America (and the divided world, too) more compassionate and understanding. Maybe we can even help with healing the wounds from those divisions.
For starters, we are used to division. Many of us lived decades divided internally as we tried to navigate a society which says that gender—based on birth anatomy alone—is immutable. We had to literally wage war with ourselves trying to conform to a society where most people (“them”) don’t understand what it’s like to be “us” where our brains don’t match our bodies.
Because of our internal conflicts, we’ve discovered the importance of empathy and compassion for self. We’ve learned the power of gratitude and have come to appreciate that no one can really understand what it means to be someone else—certainly not by their appearance.
As I worked past my internal divisions, I learned to have greater empathy and compassion not only for me but for others—including people I used to ignore or fear. I came to keenly understand that everyone, regardless of color or financial standing, struggles to survive the Human Condition. This empathy and compassion for others helped to make me a better person; now, I have a far better understanding of what it means to struggle with arbitrary rules and systems that seek to hold you back or down. (Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some.)
Now, I appreciate way more what it means to be female in today’s stereotype-charged world. I get it that some men treat women differently (and often less equally) than they treat other men. I now know what it means to walk into a room of men and be ignored because I’m female.
Moreover, I know the uncomfortable feeling that borders on fear when men catcall you on a public street—something that very few men ever experience.
Given that transgender people have this unique experience and perspective, what is that we can teach others about reconciliation and healing?
I submit, a lot.
America is on the verge of tearing itself apart over our differences at a time when we should be celebrating and cherishing them. Transgender humans have learned the art of healing; it comes with self-honesty, mindfulness about our fears, and a willingness to take risks. We’ve also learned that healing requires work, much work.
My friends—I consider everyone a friend regardless of whether you are red or blue or Bernie, or white or of color, Christian or Muslim, without disability or with disability—ask us, transgender humans, for our perspective as you struggle with the divisions that grip our country.
We have much to offer.
April 4, 2018
I remember exactly where I was—sitting on the floor in front of the television in the living room of our house on Kendall Drive in Parlin, New Jersey. I had been watching “Batman” when a news bulletin announced that Dr. King had been shot and killed in Memphis.
Even then, as an eleven-year-old, I understood. I knew who Dr. King was and what he stood for. I had listened to his “I Have a Dream” speech and read about the Freedom Riders and Selma in Life Magazine. I had been born in Newark and knew what a “ghetto” was. I understood how blacks in America were treated differently than whites.
And now, upon hearing that Dr. King was gone, I had a good sense of the despair that would be felt by a large part of America.
Either that night or the next day, I heard from my other hero, Bobby Kennedy. He had gone to the poorest part of Indianapolis where he broke the news of Dr. King’s death to an audience that was largely black. In what some term the greatest speech ever given, Bobby Kennedy said this:
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
(Click here for Bobby Kennedy’s entire speech on the night of April 4, 1968.)
It very well may have been on that night, so long ago, that my future path in this world was cemented. I would do the best that I could to follow the examples and words of both Dr. King and RFK, people I would come to call “The Special K’s.”
I would try my best, just as they did, to make this world a better place through compassion, action, inspiration and justice.
Dr. King, I am thinking of you today. Thank you for all that you did for America and for me. I am eternally grateful.
February 16, 2018
Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 7 (Final Report)
As I’ve reacclimated to the Minnesota deep freeze, I have spent time thinking about what I learned on my speaking and listening road trip to the South (#elliesroadtrip4hope; #humansconnect). Here are some thoughts.
I met many welcoming and kind people. I was welcomed to the home of a family with a transgender boy, a fifth grader (thank you Chris and Val, Meghan and Westley!), interviewed on the Tallahassee ABC affiliate (thanks Casey and Jade!), made the reason for a special meeting of the Birmingham (Alabama) Bar Association Diversity and Inclusion Committee (thank you Martha, Jennifer and Dana!), interviewed on Mississippi Public Broadcasting (thanks Richard and Liz!) and given platforms to speak at Ole Miss Law School, Vanderbilt University Law School, and McKinney Law School at Indiana University (thank you Bri, Cody, Jenny, Wende’ and Trevor!).
I also met others along the way—some whose hands I shook; others were strangers who didn’t appear fazed by the incongruity between my masculine voice and female appearance (and other femaleness).
I also saw the South with all its beauty—a new part of the country for me. While I observed a fair number of Confederate flags and roadway signs with the word “Jesus”, another item was nearly nonexistent: Trump signs. With nearly 3300 miles on the trip odometer, I saw no more than five such signs or bumper stickers, total. That’s way less than I had anticipated.
I wonder what that says. Maybe nothing. Or maybe something.
On my journey, I found Court Square in Montgomery, Alabama where you can view opposites of America within a hundred yards of each other—one side of the square has a placard about Montgomery’s thriving slave trade as late as 1859. On the square’s opposite side a second placard commemorates the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded a city bus on that fateful day.
All you need to know about Americans—the best and the worst of us—is right there in Court Square.
And what about the original purpose for my trip—to find out what it’s like to be “other” (especially LGBTQ) in the South? What did I discover?
An interview on Mississippi Pubic Radio taught me being “other” in the South is no different than it is in the Upper Midwest or anywhere else in America. There are those who are intolerant, who want to marginalize humans who aren’t part of their “tribe.” At the same time, however, I found that these people are in the minority. Most people, I’m now even more certain, want to do the right thing relative to people who are “different” from “us.”
It’s just that, as I’ve always believed, we are all so afraid. Social media and politics prey on those fears, and in doing so, we become even more afraid.
Most of all, I relearned that people are hungry for hope. Hope that we can get past our divisions; hope that our children will have a chance for a real future; and hope that each of us can matter in a world that seems increasingly isolating and nullifying.
Lastly, I was once again reminded that we all simply want to love and be loved. Everyone wants this.
More than ever, I am convinced that my message of compassion for others and for one’s self is the right message. Tied to that is reminding about our interconnectedness and human commonalities.
I am determined to help lead the way on how to get past the divisions that are eating a big fat hole through our collective soul. That leading will be my remaining life’s mission.
Will you join me on this journey?
I hope so.
February 9, 2018
Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 6
Yesterday had me speaking at McKinney School of Law at Indiana University in Indianapolis. And once again, I met people who are thirsty for words of hope and ideas on how to better live with each other—especially with those who are “other.”
The sense I got was that McKinney took a bit of a chance to have me—a transgender person who doesn’t lecture on the law but rather shares about the need for greater compassion—speak to its students and faculty. This sense was reinforced by flyers and announcements that adorned the law school lobby advertising speakers on topics like copyright law and “the heart of the Constitution.”
My talk combined parts of my Gray Area Thinking® human inclusivity training with Transgender 101 (each a two-hour talk) into a single one-hour presentation. Somehow, I made it work, as evidenced by almost all the 70+ people in the room seeming to pay attention throughout. (Many thanks to Wende’ N. Ferguson, Senior Associate Director for Student Affairs and to Lambda Board President Trevor for helping to make my visit a reality—both answered my cold call in December asking if I could speak at the law school.)
A part of my talk referenced a growing group of transgender humans—trans kids and youth who early in their lives identify in a gender that is opposite the gender they were assigned at birth. I spoke of how the internet was critical to this group since it allows parents to understand that other parents have such children (meaning they aren’t alone). The internet also proves that their kids aren’t “crazy” and offers information about support groups, therapists, doctors, and other resources to help with the challenges their child will face. I also referenced the mothers of trans kids/youth and said, “Those moms are ‘lionesses’ who will never take ‘No’ relative to their child. Just don’t even try to fight them because you will lose.”
Unbeknown to me, in the audience was just such a mother. After I finished, she approached and said, “Ellie, I’m one of those lionesses you spoke about.” The woman, Jami Sayeed (I have Jami’s permission to use her name), explained that she put her career on hold to do what was necessary for her transgender son as he was growing up. Once her son entered college, Jami resumed her education, which now involves being a first-year law student at McKinney. I was so very impressed by Jami’s dedication to her son—it’s not easy living in Indiana with a transgender child and that’s today, compared to even greater marginalization ten years ago.
Other students approached after my talk to express appreciation for my words and mere presence on campus (which took the work of Wende’, Trevor and others). It was clear that my message about compassion for others and for self really hit its mark, as intended.
The drive from Indianapolis to Minneapolis was interrupted by a snowstorm that forced me to spend the night at a hotel in rural Illinois. It was still snowing lightly this morning when I set off again (lending to a few white-knuckle moments) but eventually, I made my way home to sunny Minneapolis. After ten days of traveling, 3,287 miles and countless fast food stops along the way (I know, but McDonalds is one of my few remaining vices), I made it home.
My trip taught me so much—good stuff—about humans and our collective struggle to survive the Human Condition. I’ll do a final blog post with thoughts and reflections once I unpack and have a chance to simply be planted in one place. It feels good to be back!
February 8, 2018
Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 5
I spoke at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville yesterday where I presented a “Transgender 101” talk to approximately 75 students and administrators. I was warmly received and let me tell you, Vanderbilt is the only law school I’ve ever visited that provided a personalized parking spot with my name on it (and just adjacent to the front doors, to boot!). Awesome!
When I asked, “Who knows someone who’s transgender?”, roughly sixty percent of the audience members raised their hands. It was great to see and proof that more trans persons are showing up in the world. (Indeed, a study from the University of Minnesota Center for Human Sexuality released this week reveals that 2.8% of 80,000 surveyed Minnesota high school students identified as gender variant. Here’s the link to that study; for PDF readers, Google, “Minnesota high school student study on gender variant.”)
While my talk focused on the basics of what it means to be transgender, I also spoke about allyship since my contact at the school, third-year law student Jenny Saufley, asked specifically about strategies on how to be supportive of transgender people. I spoke of the value of “shoulder, voice and pen” as ways to assist trans folks: “shoulder” denotes being there to talk with or comfort someone who identifies as transgender or gender nonconforming, since we often encounter challenges that make life very difficult; “voice” means speaking up on our behalf when we’re not in the room or when we’re fatigued (as in the case of when someone misgenders [e.g. uses the wrong pronoun] us); and “pen”—working to put into place policies and laws that protect us.
Unfortunately, I ran out of time with my talk (I tried to give a 120-minute talk in 50 minutes), so I didn’t have a chance to take audience questions. I have since received an email from an attendee re: the role of religion in my transition and going forward in the world as Ellie. (The short answer: I grew up Catholic, which caused me to believe that my sole purpose in life was to sacrifice for others. That resulted in tremendous self-repression, depression and near suicide. Today, I live as a Buddhist trying to exemplify human connectedness and compassion for self and for others.)
As compared to state-focused Ole Miss Law School where I spoke on Tuesday, Vanderbilt, a Top 20 law school, has more of a national focus. You immediately sense this the moment you walk in the door—dozens of framed posters line the hallways advertising past speakers of national prominence and their talks at the school. The students themselves speak of taking jobs at large firms in New York or in other cities.
Unlike the students at Ole Miss (most of whom planned to stay in Mississippi or adjoining states), I didn’t get the sense that students at Vanderbilt were intent on investing in Nashville or Tennessee. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—in fact, we need new lawyers from a Southern law school to venture across the country to share their perspective while investing in other places—it’s just something that I noted.
What I also found was that even though Nashville is a cosmopolitan city, it’s still part of the South with “traditional” values. I don’t believe any faculty members attended my talk (I did meet one professor in the hallway who expressed regret that he couldn’t attend), and I don’t know if that was simply reflective of busy schedules or of something else. I share this because for any organization (whether it’s a business, government entity, nonprofit or educational organization) to be truly inclusive, it’s paramount that culture leaders buy into the value of inclusivity. No inclusivity initiative will ever “stick” without genuine culture leader support and promotion.
Importantly, there were law school and general university administrators in the audience; two female administrators approached me afterward to say that they really appreciated my talk. It was great to hear since I always stress the need to give legal profession administrators and support colleagues inclusivity training since they too, matter.
After my talk, I met with several members and allies of the Vanderbilt OUTLaw (e.g. LGBTQ) chapter for a delightful conversation that covered a range of topics. We discussed various inclusivity strategies, including something as simple as mandating that nametags (used for student orientation or mixers) include both one’s name and preferred pronoun.
I also shared with the OUTLaw group the need to be aware of fatigue as they do their equity work (I relayed what I heard about fatigue from lawyers in Birmingham earlier in the week). I spoke of how every law student and lawyer should regularly engage in therapy (indeed, one student volunteered that she had a therapist—I praised her for sharing this since it normalizes the value of therapy). I also stressed that journaling (e.g. old fashion writing in a book of plain white paper) was critical since it acts as a safety or relief valve from life’s stresses.
I really appreciated the candor of Jenny and her fellow students; it was a great reminder of why it’s important to talk about our common struggle to survive the Human Condition. As one student put it, “We get a lot of speakers who talk about technical or esoteric legal topics; we don’t often hear about humanity or what it means to be human.”
Today, I’m in Indianapolis to speak on human inclusivity at McKinney Law School. This is the last stop of my speaking and listening tour. It will be good to get back to Minneapolis—I need to be planted for a while where I can ponder and write about what I’ve learned these past ten days.
Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 5
February 7, 2018
Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 4
Please excuse the length of this report; there is simply so much to share!
Yesterday—Day 8 of my speaking and listening road trip, #elliesroadtrip4hope—proved to be the most incredible day yet. And it happened at the most improbable place, Ole Miss Law School in Oxford, Mississippi.
Improbable because before yesterday, I stereotyped what people from Mississippi would be like, mainly that they would be intolerant of me, a transgender woman who doesn’t “pass” entirely for female due to my still-masculine voice.
My experience at Ole Miss broke that stereotype. In fact, of the many law schools across America at which I’ve spoken, Ole Miss may be the school that’s been most welcoming. Yes, you read that correctly.
The day started with me doing a radio interview on Mississippi Public Broadcasting with hosts Richard Gershon and Liz Gill, who host a weekly law-related show, “In Legal Terms.” Richard, a former dean of the Law School who now teaches tax law, was exactly as a I pictured a Southern older gentleman—tall, fit, salt and pepper wavy hair, very handsome, and quite charming. (Because the show is broadcast from a room in the Law School library but produced from the MPB studios in another city, I didn’t get to personally meet Liz, but she certainly did a great job of moderating the show.)
I think the intent was that I’d speak about various legal issues involving LGBTQ people but for the most part, the entire hour consisted of taking calls and me explaining basic concepts, such as what does the “Q” in “LGBTQ” mean? (Answer, “queer” or “questioning”—to give recognition to those who are exploring their sexual or gender identities.)
The show attracted a lot of callers (as Liz put it, “Our call-in board has lit up”), many of whom were gay men (a big surprise for me). One caller expressed disdain over my use of “queer” because he felt it demeaning to him; he was followed by another gay man calling in to say he felt “queer” was quite appropriate because it captured his uniqueness.
A caller, “Ron from Tupelo,” did fit a stereotype—he opined that notwithstanding my self-identity as female, I was still a man because, “You’re basically saying that God made a mistake. No, God made you a man and that’s what you are.” He added that I should accept that certain people would object to me on religious grounds and felt that if they owned a business, they had the right to refuse service to LGBTQ people because we’ve “chosen” to be who we are.
I was ready for Ron’s point of view and while it hurt, it didn’t trip me up. What I didn’t expect at all was how other listeners would react to Ron’s intolerant words.
Thus, “Dean” called to say it wasn’t about God making mistakes. Instead, “God presents challenges,” like children born with cleft palates or heart conditions—which we all accept need to be fixed. He then said that one’s sexuality or gender identity was no different and that people should be able to “fix” themselves to live as who they are.
That was followed by “Nick” who shared about growing up with a birth mom and a step-mother and the discrimination his family faced. He shared that “things in Mississippi are changing very slowly” and had hope that eventually people would accept that everyone should be allowed to love who they want to love.
The way Nick explained his story so touched my heart that tears welled in my eyes. That tearing-up continued with the last caller, “Gary,” who related that he was a sixty-four-year-old “compassionate conservative” with seven grandchildren. He complimented me for being open-minded and for not “thrusting” my opinions on others. He admired that I was willing to listen to others and appreciated my “gentler approach” to interacting with humans.
I have to say that Gary’s words really melted my heart—because he “got” exactly who I am and what I am trying to do in the world by connecting all humans through compassion. That someone from Mississippi would “see” me for who I am (and then take the time to call in to say it) really blindsided me. I just didn’t expect the degree of reciprocal compassion and humanity. Wow.
If you want to really get a sense of Mississippi, you can listen to the podcast of my interview/caller reactions here. (For readers of this on the PDF, Google “MPB online legal terms legal protections for lgbtq”.) The show is 49 minutes long; to get to the heart of it when “Ron from Tupelo” calls and then how other listeners react, scroll to minute 28:30.
After the radio show, I met with OUTLaw (an LGBTQ law student group) members and allies and several faculty members for a luncheon meet and greet (about fifteen people, all the room could hold; I was told that they capped attendance and turned away many students who wanted to attend).
I looked around the room and saw many young women of color and the faces of folks who seemed genuinely happy that I was visiting Ole Miss. I spoke of my “roots” which included learning from Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy that we have an obligation to work to make the world a better place. I then shared about how it was in the Mississippi Delta in 1966 that RFK first understood that people in America were starving due to poverty and how he then became a champion of all marginalized humans.
I also shared how the callers to the radio show that I’d just finished had so sparked my heart—how it gave me hope and made me feel as if I was totally wrong about the people of Mississippi.
In response, one of the faculty members shared an incredible story of how several years after 1964 when Robert Kennedy ordered federal troops to Ole Miss to protect the rights of black students (while serving as Attorney General under President Kennedy), RFK surprisingly was invited to Ole Miss for the commemoration of a new building. As the story went, Bobby Kennedy received an incredible welcome from Ole Miss students (the same student body that had rioted against integration not so many years before). In fact, RFK later took his wife Ethel to Mississippi to show her that the people of Mississippi weren’t as Northerners believed. The professor went on to theorize that just like RFK, I was finding that the stereotypes of Mississippians were wrong.
The fact that someone would mention my name in the same sentence as my hero, Bobby Kennedy, was a bit overwhelming.
We also heard from another senior faculty member, Professor Mary Ann Connell, who so eloquently spoke of growing up as a liberal woman in a very conservative state. She related a story of meeting Barack Obama when he was a student at Harvard Law School, which years later led her to wear an “Obama for President” button to a meeting of very Republican women. Once more, my heart soared as I thought of the courage Professor Connell was modeling for law students who need to be shown the way.
From the students, I got great questions about how they could be better allies for transgender and gay/lesbian people. In turn, I spoke of my experience in Birmingham the day before where I heard the word, “fatigue,” to describe how advocates for equity and justice were tiring from fighting a system that seeks to ignore (and oppress) people who are “other.” I urged the students to remember their grit and resiliency and to not tire of the long fight ahead. “Take care of yourselves,” I said. “So that you won’t get fatigued, so that you won’t tire of what’s needed in our country.”
Following the meet and greet, I gave a “Trans 101” presentation to a larger group of students and faculty. Again, more great questions and wonderful words of support for me and my work.
I drove away from Ole Miss elated at learning that I had been so wrong about the people of Mississippi. The enlightenment gave me hope—real, tangible, pulsing-through-my-veins hope—that just maybe, we can get past the divisions and legitimized grouping and labeling that’s happening in America today. I would never have expected to learn this lesson in Mississippi. (My thanks to Bri and Cody, two OUTLaw board members, for making my day so successful!)
It was proof that getting in a car and showing up to listen makes all the difference. It’s too bad that most of our elected officials can’t do similar things.
Today I’m in Nashville where I’ll speak at Vanderbilt Law School; afterward, I’ll travel to Indianapolis where I will speak at McKinney Law School tomorrow, the last stop of what’s become a wonderful learning experience for me.
Hope. How incredibly powerful. I am determined to speak of it and share it.
February 6, 2018
Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 3
Yesterday started with me broadcasting a live Ellie.2.0 radio show on AM950 from my hotel room just south of Montgomery, Alabama. It’s always a bit tricky to do live radio, even more so from a hotel room where you don’t have the benefit of watching your producer’s clock as the minutes and then seconds count down to time for commercials. I pulled it off with a minor glitch at the end; a big thanks to my producer, Brett Johnson, for coming into the station early to make the show happen! (And thanks also to the station owner, Chad Larson, for allowing me to push the envelope!)
On the show, I spoke about what I’ve been finding on my road trip through the South. If you would like to listen to a podcast of the show, click here. Because the link won’t be live on PDF, you can Google “Ellie2.0 radio” and you’ll find the February 5 show to click on.
From Montgomery, I drove north to Birmingham where I met with a dozen members of the Birmingham Bar Association Diversity and Inclusion Committee for a luncheon roundtable to discuss challenges facing the legal community relative to diversity and particularly, inclusivity. (A huge thanks to committee chairperson Martha Cook and to BBA Executive Director Jennifer Buettner and Program and Admin. Director Dana Thomas for making the event happen!) The welcome was warm and genuine; I was also so taken by how everyone very willingly spoke up and shared, many from their hearts.
Seated around the table were many people of color and many women (of the dozen people in the room, three were male). I shared about my experiences in working with legal employers and in training law firms, court systems and various government entities. I spoke of how legal employers generally understand the need for diversity (e.g. the need to have lawyers and team members who are “other” [people from marginalized communities] in the workplace) but consistently fail at inclusivity (e.g. making diverse team members feel as if they matter to the legal employer). I offered tips on how to be more inclusive, including the use of employee resource or affinity groups, effective mentorship and sponsorship, book clubs, inclusion-focused newsletters and having in place a written Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Plan.
When I opened the meeting for general discussion, I learned so very much, including how Birmingham is a “blue bubble in a red state.” I heard how attitudes in greater Alabama make it difficult for attorneys of color to be effective when they travel outside of Birmingham. I also heard that as is the case across the country, legal employers have difficulty finding “qualified” attorneys of color. (My quotation is because legal employers often fail to evaluate diverse lawyers on their own merits versus some “apples to apples” formula that weeds out all but white job candidates.)
When the discussion turned to LGBTQ attorneys, an attendee recounted how not all that long ago, someone she had respected told her that gay and lesbian people were sinful because of their same sex attractions. (I also heard how that woman pushed back at the comments—thank you for that great allyship!) I was also told that most LGBTQ lawyers are not “out” (e.g. public) at their workplaces. Indeed, a senior partner from a 200-lawyer firm told me that they had had only one “out” lawyer, who subsequently left the firm. I then responded that statistically, that firm would be expected to have between 8 and 18 LGBTQ lawyers and we talked about why other attorneys might be afraid to be their true selves at work.
For me, from the LGBTQ-haven Twin Cities, the discussion about queer lawyers was an eye-opener. Frankly, hearing about intolerance and fear of being true to one’s self hurt my heart—I can only imagine how people are suffering because they feel the need to hide such an important part of their identity. I also assume that one way or another, such hiding adversely affects one’s ability to be an effective lawyer.
On the positive side, the 200–lawyer firm senior partner was genuinely interested in learning how he could make his firm more welcoming to LGBTQ lawyers. (One of my suggestions: begin to talk about how the firm wants to be welcoming to anyone who is LGBTQ.)
Also, on the positive side, more than half raised their hand when I asked who in the room knew someone who is transgender (other than knowing me). I was very surprised by that response—nice!
As we ended the meeting, I heard one last thing of significance—the word “fatigue.” Several folks spoke about how they are tiring from years of being the only voice in their workplace relative to greater diversity and inclusion. It was clear that these folks are so incredibly passionate about changing the landscape in Birmingham and Alabama but the pushback they encounter is wearing them down. Again, hearing this so saddened me.
My response to the fatigue comments: bring me back to Birmingham. Let me be a (kind and gentle) catalyst for recruiting more local advocates for change within the legal community. Yes, I know that sounds self-serving; however, often you do need someone from outside who can come and share perspective that sparks imagination and energy.
As the meeting ended, one of the men in the room, Steve Rygiel, Legal Director for Birmingham Aids Outreach, asked to speak with me. We then had a delightful half hour conversation about the incredible work that BAO is doing—not only on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, but as well on many different intersectionalities, including founding/maintaining a medical clinic (the only one in Alabama) that serves transgender humans. Steve wanted to brainstorm about bringing me back to Birmingham to work with BAO and the people it serves, something that I am greatly interested in doing. (Let’s make that happen Steve!)
I am learning so very much as I travel this part of America. The folks I’ve met are so friendly, so genuine. But people are struggling and afraid—all because humans are so fearful of “other” or of being labelled as “other.”
The idealist in me believes that with a great deal of hard work, persistence, and hope, things can change. It’s just that we must be willing to do all of that. And when “fatigue” enters the picture, that’s when we run the risk of giving up.
I, for one, promise never to give up. It’s simply not in my DNA.
February 4, 2018
Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 2
While on a two-lane state highway in rural Georgia this morning, I realized that as much as I’m exploring the South, I’m also on a journey of self-discovery.
I’m leaning more about me—about what it means to navigate this world alone and about facing some of my own fears of being “other” and of meeting “other.”
Thus, I drove away from a convenience store where I stopped for a bathroom break and Diet Pepsi asking myself why I didn’t engage any of the customers. I was the only white (and blonde) woman among a mostly black clientele. All that I could think of was, “Don’t talk. You might attract attention and then who knows what.”
Yet, had I engaged a stranger, I might have been able to ask what it’s like to live in a place where “other” is hidden. Maybe I would have been surprised by the answers.
Or maybe not.
Today consisted of driving from Tallahassee to Montgomery, Alabama. I deliberately chose two-lane blacktops to see the countryside. I found a marker outside Abbeville, Alabama which noted that Rosa Parks had once lived in that town. By coincidence, today is actually Rosa Parks Day—to commemorate her birthday.
Once in Montgomery, I found the Rosa Parks Museum only to learn that it is closed on Sundays. (Drat!) I then looked for the Memorial to Peace and Justice dedicated to honoring the 4000+ victims of lynching; I’ve written about this memorial in my newsletter, The Ripple, and then spoken of it on Hidden Edges Radio.
The memorial, perched on a hill overlooking downtown (and in the past, a location of many lynchings) is still under construction with an intended opening in May. Here is picture that gives an idea of what it will look like (workers were busy even today, Sunday).
I then drove through downtown Montgomery and found several historical placards, including one at Court Square that documented the City’s slave market—in 1859 the City had “seven auctioneers and four slave depots.”
However, it was on the other side of Court Square, on December 1, 1955 that Rosa Parks boarded a bus and took a seat, just like any passenger should be entitled. When she refused to give up that seat for a white passenger, the world shook.
Horror on one side of Court Square, and nearly 100 years later, bravery on the other side of the square.
I am learning.
Tomorrow will be meeting with members of the Diversity and Inclusion committee of the Birmingham Bar Association where I will talk about human inclusivity.
February 2, 2018
Road Trip 4 Hope Report No. 1
I’m writing this from a hotel in Tallahassee on what will be a day of rest for me—the first in many days. Indeed, since late Tuesday afternoon, I’ve driven more than 1400 miles across a good swath of the Midwest and South—across our America.
“Our” America. Land of the free, home of the brave; so cliché. And place of inequity and inequality—for a good number of folks, at least.
I undertook this trip to see more of this country I call “mine.” I specifically wanted to travel to the South (a place I’ve never visited in depth) to better understand what it’s like to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer in states where my “tribe” lacks state-wide legal rights. I also wanted to better understand the racial divides that have become so much clearer since the presidential campaign of 2016.
And so, I drove. Past snow-capped corn stubble in Minnesota and Iowa; through coal and railroad country of southern Illinois; into Kentucky past a humungous Confederate flag and roadside signs with the word, “Jesus”; down the spine of Alabama where at 8:30 p.m. outside Birmingham, I found a 200’ white cross bathed in massive light; and into Florida with its palm trees and RVs.
Along the way, I watched, listened, and learned. Multiple road signs told me that Jesus loves everyone; while waiting at an Alabama Whataburger takeout window, I watched one cook, and then a second, walk past the window to get a glimpse of the woman who sounds like a man (I waved and smiled); and outside Dothan, Alabama, the FM station reminded listeners of an upcoming “MJ [Michael Jackson] Revue” at the local high school.
I’m loving all of it. It’s an education that one can receive only by putting miles on tires.
Yesterday afternoon brought an interview on WTXL, the local ABC affiliate, where I spoke about my road trip with its goal of letting people who live the margins know that they matter. (Click here to see the interview.)
Last night, I met with a handful of people at the downtown library, courtesy of PFLAG of Tallahassee and TransParent USA. I shared about how humans are wired to group and label other humans but also how we all have empathetic hearts. I spoke of the Four Commonalities (see other blog posts for explanation) and how human familiarity is a pathway past all the “crap” that we seem to be experiencing as a country.
When I opened to questions and comments, I heard that Tallahassee, like the Twin Cities, is a “bubble” of LGBTQ acceptance owing to two state universities and many transplants from liberal settings. I also heard about the “white wall” that divides the city and state along color lines. Several people spoke of how restaurants here historically have put white servers out front and persons of color in the back (cooks, dishwashers). Another person, a twenty-something African American man, talked about seeing multiple military persons enter a sub shop and the sitting area divide into white service members on one side and black service members on the other side.
I hadn’t expected a meeting full of LGBTQ folks and their allies to turn into a very frank discussion about race. The honesty was refreshing—if we don’t acknowledge racism, how can we ever end it?
The rest of the trip includes another PFLAG event tomorrow afternoon (a meet and greet at a local church); then on Monday morning at 7:30 CST, I’ll do a live radio show on Ellie 2.0 on AM950, followed by a meeting with the Birmingham Bar Association diversity and inclusion committee. Later next week, I’ll be speaking at several law schools—Ole Miss (Tuesday), Vanderbilt (Wed.) and McKinney in Indianapolis (Thurs.).
I will certainly learn more as I go. Look here for future reports. Thank you!
I am so incredibly lucky.
January 27, 2018
A Speaking and Listening Road Trip to the South
On Wednesday, January 31, I will get in my Honda CRV and point it south to begin a “Speaking and Listening Road Trip” to several Southern states—Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee—and one Midwestern state, Indiana.
This trip stems from me thinking about how lucky I have it, how easy it is for me—a white, educated, relatively financially secure woman who happens to be transgender and living in the very LGBTQI-friendly Twin Cities—compared to LGBTQI people in other parts of Minnesota, the Midwest, and our country. I certainly don’t feel as if I’ve done enough to support those who live in more conservative areas and with the expanding platform I enjoy, I haven’t publicly spoken out about inequity or offered words of support as much as I could.
So, I arrived at a novel idea: I would take a take a 1300+ mile road trip to a conservative part of the United States to speak on what it means to be transgender, bisexual, Buddhist and “other.” I also want to listen as I make my way—we group and label Southerners here in the upper Midwest—and I’m sure that much of what we believe about them is wrong.
My itinerary includes speaking at several LGBTQI-events in Florida and meeting with the diversity committee of the Birmingham, Alabama Bar Association. I’ll also present at Ole Miss Law School, Vanderbilt Law School, and McKinney Law School in Indianapolis. I’ll even be interviewed by Mississippi Public Broadcasting–as a radio host myself, I think that will be interesting!
We have painful divisions in our country around one’s LGBTQI status, and about race, religion and one’s country of origin, all with messages that some are unworthy of things (marriage, service in the military, public facility or employment access or simply just living among us) that others take for granted. These divisions extend to everyone who is “other” for whatever reason humans group and label humans.
As I do this work, I will humbly seek to offer something that’s in desperately short supply these days: hope for a way to make things better. I’ll speak from my heart as someone who is no one special; rather, I’m simply a survivor of the Human Condition.
Just like everyone else.
I’ll be blogging as I go along so please check in from time to time (or better yet, click below to Follow this blog). Please also share this with others. Thanks!
January 18, 2018
Ellie 2.0: “Practical Idealism” as a Human Value
It’s been quite some time since I last blogged—which reflects just how busy I’ve been in the last several months. All told, 2017 was quite a year—more than 100 speaking or training events in many new states and even Canada. It was a year of growing as a trainer and building my company, Human Inspiration Works, LLC.
Most of all, 2017 was a year where I experimented with the title of “radio host” by launching “Hidden Edges Radio with Ellen Krug” (H.E.R.) on KTNF, AM950 in the Twin Cities. The first H.E.R. show took place in early January and continued for every Sunday for the rest of the year. The show’s mission—to explore our collective attempt to survive the Human Condition—highlights personal stories of grit and resiliency to remind about our common good and common struggles.
Toward the end of 2017, Chad Larson, the owner of AM950, asked if I would be willing to do a second, weekly half-hour show that focused on my work to make the world a better place. Since first launching H.E.R., Chad has been a constant supporter; he believes that my on-air personality and style connect with listeners. With this second show, he wanted to push that connection as far as possible.
Thus, on January 8, 2018, I aired my first Ellie 2.0 show. This show’s mission is to talk about “practical idealism”—mine and that of others—as a real human value. If nothing else, the goal is to get listeners to again use the words, “idealism” and “idealist” in their daily thoughts and conversations. Unlike when I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s where “idealist” was considered a positive value, today that word and the larger concept of idealism have all but fallen by the wayside.
I believe that for our country to change—for us to get past all the crap that has surfaced to sow division and fear—we need to first be able to dream and talk about what a better society would look like. In other words, we need to sow in our minds the ideals of a world where people are valued regardless of their skin color or country of origin or religion or size of their paycheck and where everyone is given an equal chance to prosper and contribute. Enough with the fear mongering and marginalizing that has opened wounds we had long ago thought been healed!
I intend to have a role in creating that change and fostering hope for a better America and world. Indeed, that is my remaining life’s work.
I hope you will tune-in to Ellie 2.0 every Monday morning from 7:30-8 a.m. on AM950 to hear more of what I have to say about changing America. You can live-stream the show via this link or you can hear past shows by clicking here.
September 23, 2017
Hearing from the Universe
Last week was long—seven two-hour Gray Area Thinking™ human inclusivity trainings to various audiences (county employees, legal professionals and engineers) in three different cities in two states. I’m exceedingly passionate about my work but even my passion couldn’t keep me from being a bit worn out.
What I’m trying to do—change the world for the better—is quite daunting, especially when our national leaders say and do things that further marginalize humans from many communities. This makes many people afraid, and I myself fear, making many less likely to be open to what I have to say since I—Ellie the trainer—am “other” in this society of ours.
Hence, I was a bit down on Thursday morning as I prepared for the last training of the week. I said out loud to the Universe at large, “Send me something to remind me of why this work is important.”
An hour and a half later I was at my dentist’s office. As I stood at the front desk writing out a very large check for some upcoming dental work, the female dental assistant with whom I had been working poked her head through the doorway to speak to the office receptionist. In doing so, she referenced me and used a male pronoun, “he.” The word shot to my heart and sent my spirits tumbling even further. Indeed, being misgendered caused me to desperately want a big fat glass of Chardonnay (I’ve been sober now for almost 27 months).
I resisted the temptation to drink and instead found some hot chocolate, a sweet substitute. I then went on and conducted that last training to a group of engineers who were exceedingly open and welcoming and who appeared to appreciate my perspective on inclusivity.
Still, a part of me wondered, “Is what I’m doing having any impact at all?”
Once home, I opened my email and found the following from a woman who attended a Gray Area Thinking™ training at a state agency two months ago (I have permissions to share this email content):
Hi Ellie, I hope you are well! I wanted to share a story with you because I want you to know how much your session—Gray Area Thinking impacted my thinking.
I was on my way home the other night from a day of work, picking up kids at various activities, etc. It was 9 p.m. and I was driving down a busy road. I saw a woman on the street corner on her hands and knees. It looked like maybe she was digging for something like she lost something. But something didn’t seem quite right. She was elderly and it was late on a busy street in not such a great neighborhood. So, I could have driven on…I could have (proceeded) home because I was tired. Many other people drove by. I decided to go around the block and check on her. She in fact had fallen and couldn’t get up. She didn’t appear hurt and so I talked with her to ask her name, if she was okay…I asked if I could help her up. She was quite confused. She didn’t remember her name or where she lived. She didn’t know what she was doing on the street…Luckily, she had her mail with her and I asked if her name was “Alice.” She smiled and said, “Yes!” Her address showed she lived just a few houses from me. I asked if she wanted me to take her home…I got her home but unfortunately, her door was locked and no one else was there. I called the police and got my husband to talk with neighbors. I sat on the stairs with her and waited for the police while we talked about her family. When she started to calm down some…she remembered a little bit more.
Long story short—the police were able to get into her house and we were able to locate a daughter who came by. “Alice” said she didn’t want any EMTs unless they were cute! She has Alzheimer’s and has wandered a couple of times. She was probably 8 blocks from home that night. I think her family is working to get her moved to a nursing home.
Maybe I would have stopped before I attended your training, but I don’t know… what I can tell you is that it definitely had an impact. I did have my kids in the car and I did take a risk taking her home. Everyone kept asking me why I didn’t call 911 from that corner on the busy street…she just lived so close to me and she seemed so scared. My kids were too. I didn’t want to let my kids sit in the car for who knows how long and frankly, I really just wanted to get off this busy and slightly scary street. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you. I thought of you and your session later that evening when I was processing the whole event and thought, “I have to share this with Ellie!”
Of course, reading Ann’s email made up for everything. No longer was I tired from a week of trainings, nor was I feeling sorry for myself for being misgendered due to this way-too-masculine voice of mine.
Nope. Ann’s email reminded me of why I’ve devoted the rest of my life to this work.
Thank-you Universe for answering my call.
September 4, 2017
Labor Day Resolve
What is it like to be a diversity and inclusion trainer/speaker in America on this Labor Day 2017?
In a word, “embattled.”
Embattled because of near daily socio-political events that highlight, and even exploit, our differences.
Embattled because I work with constituents and clients who are trying desperately to keep hope in their hearts.
Embattled because it’s simply darn difficult to talk about our commonalities as a pathway toward inclusivity when I fear that some in the audience (and/or their families) feel emboldened to discriminate by a relatively intolerant few.
And embattled because sometimes, all the fear and images of violence can be simply overwhelming.
Yet, I push on. It’s not in my DNA to do anything but double down and work even harder to message that it truly is possible to create a lasting, more inclusive America. An America where each person is valued for the goodness in their heart and, as Dr. King said, the “content of their character.”
I got into this business by happenstance; after transitioning genders in 2009, I was asked me to speak on what it’s like to be transgender. From what were informal presentations grew a formal “Transgender 101” talk that I’ve now given hundreds of times.
After that, I developed a general inclusivity training, “Gray Area Thinking™”, a phrase that I’ve trademarked. This is an all-human focused training that provides a toolset for how to better interact with those whom society deems “other” or anyone who is “different” from “us.”
Truth be told, we humans can make anyone—regardless of skin color, socioeconomic class, religion, or anything else—“other.”
Audiences love my Gray Area Thinking™ training because it offers something that’s in desperately short supply these days: hope.
I’m told that my trainings inspire listeners to want to be more inclusive and accepting of those who are “other.” Still, I’m only one person in a country of three hundred million who are regularly hearing messages that are contrary to what I teach. It has the potential to be depressing as heck.
Again, though, I won’t let depression seep into my veins. Rather, I am a hopeless idealist who derives strength and fortitude from the words of the “Special Ks”—Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy. They would tell me (and so many others like me—which includes you, dear reader) to not give up, to persevere, and to push, push, push onward.
That’s exactly what I intend to do. I know you will too.
Everything good takes work.
August 24, 2017
Not the America I Know
Consider the following statement that moments ago was issued by a high-ranking official of the federal government:
“Please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow … Roman Catholics to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.”
Assuming you are Roman Catholic, and further if the above astounding statement was true, how would you now feel?
Shocked? Hurt? Sick to your stomach? Even afraid?
Maybe you now have a sense of what it means to be a transgender person in America today.
Ordinarily, I write and train about something less pressing: implicit bias—that is, how we humans are hard-wired to group and label other humans, which inevitably can result in marginalizing behaviors, policies, and systems. There’s a great challenge around implicit bias, but in my view, it’s not an impossible challenge. What’s more, rarely will encountering implicit bias ever get you murdered.
On the other hand, explicit bias is legions more evil. It involves self-evident dehumanizing action, often undertaken by governmental authorities. Think Nazi Germany. Or, closer to home, it was the horrors of Jim Crow that resulted in the lynching of nearly 4000 African Americans between 1877 and 1950, something that most under the age of fifty only know from history books.
For several years, our country has been wrestling with “we” versus “them” politics. That wrestling has now spilled over to where various leaders and their followers are comfortable promoting the idea that the “them” in America are unworthy, that they don’t belong here, and frankly, that they are lessor compared to the white, Christian majority.
I often equate “them” to being “other.” If you’re of color, foreign-born, LGBTQ, a person with a disability, or in many circumstances, female, you are “other” in today’s America. And, for you, that could be a darn big problem.
Recall the hipster saying, “Bro, it sure sucks to be you.”
For me, a sixty-year-old transgender woman, all of this came to a head with President Trump’s casually-issued July 26 Tweet banning transgender service members from being in the military. (The above quote is the text of the Tweet, with “Roman Catholic” swapped for “transgender individuals.”) In 142 characters, he summarily erased an entire class of humans.
Humans who are willing to die for you and me in the service of their country.
Erasure, my friends, is explicit bias at work.
In doing so, President Trump effectively channeled to those who hate transgender persons (and trust me, there are many out there) that it’s perfectly fine to allow your hatred to show. He, in effect, put a target on the back of every transgender person in America.
For a while, I had thought that nothing would come to pass of the July 26 Tweet. However, today we hear that there’s an actual “plan” to implement the horrendous Tweet.
“Plan” is an ominous word. Remember, Hitler had a “plan” for the Jews. It was a plan that began very incrementally.
For me as a transgender person, I now worry about where things will end. Will the next Tweet announce that transgender people will no longer be employable anywhere in the federal government? Will we become unwelcome by major businesses? With my health insurance already at risk, will this mean that the federal government will endorse a blanket exclusion for all trans folks even if I can afford the astronomical premiums? How many more bathroom—and even workplace—bills will there be?
More to the point: will this mean that I can no longer travel in certain parts of the country because I’m at risk of being murdered by someone who’s been granted full license to exercise their hatred of me?
Yes, I feel that the federal government has now placed a target squarely on my back. It doesn’t feel very good, let me assure you.
I so wish I was making this up. This isn’t the America that I know and so believe in.
August 13, 2017
Holding Hope Dear
This weekend’s terrible events in Charlottesville—culminating with a domestic terrorist automobile attack that killed one person and injured 19 others—have so hurt my heart. As I had feared might eventually occur, those who had stood in the margins of society with their hateful views of “other” are now emboldened to goose-step forward onto center stage.
In doing so, those who hate potentially chip away at the one thing that most of us hold dear—hope. Every time we hear a white supremacist’s chant, or see them march on a city street, or hear the deafening silence of our national leaders in failing to condemn their actions, we are at risk of losing hope. Bit by bit, sliver by sliver, those who hate seek to rob us of hope—stealing it from you, from me, and from America.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, I refuse to allow the robbers of hope any room to steal.
How will I do this?
By remembering that the underlying root of hate is fear. Most often, it’s a fear of the unknown—what does “X” mean for me and those whom I love? (Fill in the blank for “X”—it could be people other than your race or religion; it could be a philosophy that’s foreign; it could even be an idea.) If we can get past the fear, we can break down the need to hate.
The path past fear is human familiarity; getting to know those who are “other” and realizing that we are all alike, with the same dreams and wants, and that we have far more in common than we have differences.
As I have written at other places here, I truly believe that 99 percent of all people want to do the right thing. What we saw in Charlottesville this weekend was how that 1 percent can congeal to hate in unison. But remember, it’s all about numbers; we in the majority, many of whom are “other,” outnumber the haters by a massive proportion.
What can you do?
First, hold hope dear to you; keep it safe in your heart in an impregnable vault. Allow only sunshine to enter.
Second, talk about hope and about how most people are good of heart and intentions. Your words will comfort others and yourself.
Finally, speak out against hate. Have none of it. Encourage those whom you love to also reject hate.
We will get past this hatred. I am positive of it.
July 13, 2017
Helping America to Become UnLost
I want to write about making our country “unlost.”
While in New York City last week for a vacation, I visited the new One World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Being at Ground Zero reminded me of how our country came together after that horrific day. There was no arbitrary line-drawing by political affiliation or socioeconomic standing. No, for a few months we were just “Americans,” having each other’s backs and vowing to rebuild.
Fast forward nearly sixteen years and the political/societal landscape in America is completely different. As Thomas Friedman reports, we’ve entered an era of “sectarian politics” (as in Sunni vs. Shiite, Israeli vs. Palestinian) where we’ve become so incredibly polarized—you’re either extremely left or extremely right with no real middle ground for compromise. This “I’m right, you’re wrong; I win, you lose; us vs. them” mentality is sapping the lifeblood from our democracy.
The polarization also exists by socioeconomic status and majority race vs. minority race.
We are, I fear, close to a point-of-no-return where something big will happen to permanently alter fundamental beliefs on which America—our special land unlike any other—is premised. I fear we’ve already become partially lost as a nation and as a people. The question: can we find our way back?
Can we get “unlost”?
There’s so much to do to become unlost. Here are some ideas:
- We Must Get Back to the Basics, Like Adhering to Pledges and Oaths. Recall the Pledge of Allegiance:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
When is the last time you thought about these words, particularly, “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”?
There’s no wiggle room in this pledge for divisions along political ideology or class. “Indivisible” is just that—Americans shouldn’t be arbitrarily grouped and labelled. Similarly, “all” means “all” relative to ensuring for liberty and justice. The Pledge isn’t conditional on how much money you make or the color of your skin or the religion you practice.
Each American must be reminded about the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance. Surely, that meaning is something that we can all agree on, yes?
Likewise, we need to dramatically elevate the public understanding that every elected official begins their service with an oath pledging to uphold the values inherent in the constitution of their state or the U.S. Constitution. The bedrock of those values is putting the interests of their constituents/state/country ahead of one’s own personal interests. Politicians who violate this rule must be held accountable and voted out of office.
- The Legal Community Must Educate on the Role of Compromise. As a trial lawyer of nearly thirty years, I learned the importance of compromise. Rarely, if ever, did my clients (or those who opposed me) get everything they wanted in a dispute. Practicing law, by its nature, is the art of finding common ground to reach compromise. The legal community needs to step up and take the lead on educating the public about the value of compromising to resolve differences.
- We Should Empower and Elevate Mediators. Most people don’t understand what mediators do. (Mediators are trained neutrals who help people resolve their differences through negotiation.) Mediators establish ground rules for fair, honest conversation and negotiation. The State of Minnesota has a mediation-based agency, the Bureau of Mediation Services (and within that, the Office of Collaboration and Dispute Resolution). Collectively, we need to empower mediators to do more; we must also elevate their public profile as a resource that’s available to everyone to bridge differences.
- There Must be More Purposeful Cooperative Engagement. The best way to get to know someone who differs from you (whether that’s due to race, politics, class or religion) is to perform a common undertaking—building a playground, painting the offices of a nonprofit, rehabbing housing for the elderly or low-income persons. Local political parties (Democrats, Republicans, the Green Party, etc.) should come together to identify joint projects for cooperative, mixed engagement; then members of those parties should jointly undertake the projects. Afterward, there should be cross-party discussions and a meal (food is a great equalizer!) once the project is completed.
- Political and Community Leaders Should Undergo Poverty Training. Our leaders often make decisions about low-income persons and their communities without understanding what it means to be poor in America. As someone who’s undergone such training, I can attest to there being much that I (a privileged white person) didn’t understand about living in poverty. (For example, do you know what the maximum income is for food stamps? Answer: for a family of four, it’s $31,536.) Every political and community leader whose decisions affect low-income Americans should receive training like that offered by Communication Across Barriers, Inc. founder Donna Beegle (https://www.combarriers.com/ ). Only then can one get an idea of what it means to “walk in the shoes” of someone less privileged.
- Everyone Should Receive Inclusivity Training. I have a goal that every Minnesotan (all six million of us) will receive two hours of training on how to be more inclusive and welcoming to anyone who is “different” from “us.” This is in line with my belief that regardless of political or religious standing, most humans want to do the right thing—only, most don’t know what that right thing is or they’re afraid to undertake it. Let’s give people the tools to get past their fears or ignorance so they can be more open to others and their ideas/perspectives.
- We Must De-Legitimize Money as a Political and Social Cornerstone. I know, of all the items here, this is the craziest. Yet, if we’re really going to get back to the values underlying the Pledge of Allegiance and public service oaths, we’re got to at least start calling out the truth: money corrupts those values. It also creates barriers—even on the simplest levels, as in “lunch shaming” where elementary schools stigmatize students who can’t afford to pay for a hot lunch. We’ve got to talk about how money oppresses people and fosters greater divisions between “us” and “them.”
- We Need to Open Our Minds by Reading. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that the rise of identity-aligned media (Fox News vs. MSNBC; Rush Limbaugh vs. NPR) occurred while newspaper readership significantly declined. By selective viewing or listening, we’ve lost exposure to other ideas and perspectives. There must be a push (hello librarians and educators, are you listening?) to teach about the perils of one-sided information intake and encouragement to do the hard work of reading up on/attempting to understand others’ perspectives and ideas.
- Empower the Idealists. I’m certain there are many idealists who, if encouraged, would show up to do the hard work of imagining and working to close the divisions between Americans. However, being idealistic has gone out of vogue; in today’s America, it’s often all about how much money you make or have (see point 7) or the number of people who follow you on social media. We need to again make it “cool” to be idealistic. Doing so will give us a new set of leaders; for the most part, the current crop of leaders has done nothing but lead us to where we are today—lost as a country.
- Look Around and Open Your Eyes; Admit that We’ve Become Lost. Getting “unlost” requires extreme honesty—we must at least admit that as a country, we have drifted far from the democratic values (pluralism, a respective exchange of ideas, compromising for the greater good) that made America the world’s beacon. That honesty requires self-examination about how we’ve become lazy—it’s so much easier to simply accept a sound bite than to take the time to investigate for one’s self. Similarly, it’s way easier to simply dismiss someone else for their point of view than it is to engage them and listen (and maybe find common ground or a compromise). If we don’t start to be honest (and engage in honest dialogue), we really will be lost for good.
Sure, there’s a lot here. And yep, I know that much of the above sounds naïve and simplistic. Still, something (actually, so very much) needs to be done. I fear for our country. If you have a similar fear, will you join me in working to get America unlost? (A good starting point would be to share this blog post with your networks…)
Thank you! I welcome your thoughts.
June 18, 2017
Healing After Philando: Apology and Forgiveness are Critical
On Friday, a St. Paul jury handed down its not-guilty verdict in the criminal manslaughter trial of St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez; the case stemmed from last July’s traffic stop shooting of Philando Castile.
As many know, Philando’s romantic partner, Diamond Reynolds (who was in the passenger seat and whose four-year-old daughter was in the vehicle’s back seat), broadcast on Facebook live the moments after the shooting—and indeed, the world watched as Philando took his last breaths.
That video and the circumstances of the shooting (it occurred within seconds of Philando voluntarily advising Officer Yanez that he had a gun [Philando was licensed to carry the weapon]), again brought focus upon how law enforcement treats people of color and how humans in general are so afraid of others who are “different” from “us.”
At the trial, Officer Yanez took the stand in his defense. Sarah Horner of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, provided this account of Officer Yanez’s testimony:
“’I was scared to death. I thought I was going to die,’ Yanez testified in Ramsey County District Court on Friday. ‘My family was popping up in my head. My wife. My baby girl.’
Dressed in a dark gray suit, Yanez’s voice sometimes shook as he recounted what prompted him to fatally shoot the 32-year-old black man less than a minute after pulling him over for a broken taillight in Falcon Heights on the evening of July 6.
At times, the 29-year-old Latino man wiped his eyes with a tissue as defense attorney Tom Kelly asked him questions.
He told the jury that Castile stared straight ahead and had “total disregard” for the officer’s commands to stop reaching for the firearm that Castile had just seconds before disclosed he was carrying in the car. When he finally saw the top of Castile’s pistol appear near his “right thigh area,” Yanez said he had to act.
‘I was able to see the firearm in Mr. Castile’s hand, and that’s when I engaged him,’ Yanez told the jury. ‘I had no other choice. … I didn’t want to shoot Mr. Castile. Those were not my intentions.’”
Clearly, the entire incident was governed by fear—I don’t doubt that Officer Yanez experienced fear as he stood outside Philando’s vehicle. Similarly, I’m sure that Philando, too, was afraid as he sat in the driver’s seat.
Fear is responsible for so very much of the violence we humans inflict upon each other. Our only way past such fear is to better know the people who make us afraid—the “other” of our society. As I’ve often said and written, the pathway to a better, more inclusive society is through familiarity and understanding our core commonalities as humans.
In the wake of the jury’s verdict, we again face the question of how to heal our community. Once more, I call for a focused approach on community-wide inclusivity training for ALL Minnesotans—the entire six million of us. This concept is included within my previously-distributed ”Ten Point Plan for Changing the Diversity and Inclusion Landscape 10.16.”
As we wait for our leaders to really focus on the need for greater inclusivity, our community needs an apology. Thus, I call upon Officer Yanez to publicly apologize for Philando’s death. The apology must be made in person and it must happen yet this week. He must take moral responsibility for making the mistake (Philando clearly had no intent to harm Officer Yanez) that resulted in Philando’s unnecessary death.
On the other side of the equation, as difficult as it will be, the community must find it in its collective heart to forgive Officer Yanez. There is no assertion that Officer Yanez intentionally intended to harm Philando. Instead, he acted negligently. Yes, it was a horrific mistake, yet it is within the power of humans to forgive another human’s mistake.
Forgiveness is critically necessary because as long as we harbor ill-will toward Officer Yanez, we will not be able to begin the hard work of healing ourselves and our community. Anger and resentment only harm those who harbor those emotions; they are corrosive to the heart and debilitating to the spirit. As difficult as it will be to forgive Officer Yanez, we must.
It will take much, much work to heal from the hurt that our community is now experiencing. I am here to engage in that work. Will you please join me?
May 29, 2017 (Memorial Day)
Shutting Down Hate
I speak and train a great deal on allyship—the action part of being an ally to someone who’s from a marginalized community. Allyship is critical—it tells those who marginalize that their hateful words or behavior are unacceptable and helps to empower the marginalized survivor, who often lacks a voice of their own.
In the news of the past week, there have been two incidents where others have engaged in true allyship. One incident ended without violence while the second situation, quite horrific, resulted in the loss of two lives and severe injury to a third person.
The first incident occurred in a Walmart in Arkansas where a white woman-shopper yelled at another shopper, a Latina woman named Eva Hicks. Hicks recorded the verbal attack, in which the white woman tells Hicks, “Go back to wherever you’re from.” The white woman continued, saying, “You’re in America….This is not your country.”
When a Black woman attempted to intervene (e.g. engage in allyship) by telling the white woman not to be “ignorant,” the white woman turned on her yelling, “A n****r is calling me ignorant?”
Eventually, a Walmart store manager (another ally) intervened and told the white woman to leave the store. The manager added that Hicks—who came to the U.S. from Mexico thirty years ago—“Has every right to be here as you.”
The second incident happened on Friday, May 26 aboard a Portland, Oregon light rail train after a hateful white man (ironically, who had the surname, “Christian”) began yelling racist slurs at two teenage women of color (one of whom was wearing a hijab). Several people attempted to intervene (e.g. engage in allyship) and confronted Christian over his words. In response, Christian pulled a knife and stabbed at least three of the intervenor-allies. Two of the intervenor-allies, John Best (53 years old) and twenty-three-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, died. A third intervenor-ally, Micah Fletcher, 21, was hospitalized with serious but not life-threatening injuries.
Of note: file news footage from a white nationalist rally in Portland several weeks ago included a photo of Christian with his arm raised in a Nazi-style salute and a report that he yelled racial slurs.
This morning I read that one of the teenage women who was the target of the hatred, sixteen-year-old Destinee Magnum, publicly thanked the intervenor-allies who came to her and her friend’s aid. As she recounted, the hateful white man (Christian), “Told us to go back to Saudi Arabia and he told us we shouldn’t be here, to get out of his country. He was just telling us that we basically weren’t anything and that we should just kill ourselves.”
As Destinee and her friend moved to the back of the train, one of the intervenor-allies came forward and told Christian that he “can’t disrespect these young ladies like that.” From there, an argument ensued with the resulting stabbing attack.
On this Memorial Day, my heart goes out the families of the intervenor-allies John, Taliesin and Micah. How horrible! As news of their deaths spread, we learned that each man had lived lives of integrity and service to others. John had been in the military for 23 years and worked for the City of Portland; Taliesin was a recent college graduate whom professors described as a “wonderful human being;” and Micah had won a 2013 poetry competition with a poem again anti-Muslim prejudice.
Apart from the horror here, there are huge gaping questions:
Why is it that hateful people now feel empowered to marginalize people who are “other”?
Is there really so much hate out there that this kind of intolerable behavior is simply the tip of the iceberg?
Most of all, how can we collectively end (or at least contain) the hatred? Why are so many so afraid of people who are “other”?
I don’t have complete answers to these questions, at least not right at this moment. All that I know is that we must try harder. I continue to believe the vast majority of people have good, compassionate hearts (indeed, the number of allies stepping forward in the above incidents reflects this). We must continue to show up, speak out, and be there for others who lack voices of their own.
We must shut down hate.
We must do so even if it means putting ourselves at risk. That, in my book, is the epitome of compassion for others. And right now, if nothing else, we need a whole lot more compassion in the world.
April 13, 2017
Letting Target Corporation Know that I am Grateful
One of the things that I believe in deeply is letting people know that you are grateful for their acts of kindness; that way, we reinforce the value of acting with compassion toward others. Below is a letter to Target Corporation and its team members that my colleague Lula and I will hand out today as Target folks make their way to work (Target’s corporate HQ is located in downtown Minneapolis). I urge all readers to support/shop at Target because is has supported me and millions of other transgender humans in our efforts to live authentically. Thank you!
April 13, 2017
Dear Target Team Members:
I’m a sixty-year-old transgender woman who lives in Minneapolis.
A year ago, I handed out flyers thanking you for Target’s very public stand in favor of allowing transgender customers access to store restrooms that conform to one’s gender identity. I feared that your policy would draw public criticism and my flyer then was my way of letting you know that I so appreciated you/Target for having my back.
More recently, I saw a story about how Target’s profits have suffered with analysts attributing the drop in revenue to a boycott by people who object to Target’s transgender human-friendly bathroom policy
I’m sorry to hear this. The boycott is not right and is borne out of bigotry and ignorance. Unfortunately, both are powerful motivators that can persist unless one comes to understand that all humans share far more commonalities than differences.
Please know that there are many who value Target/you and your team members for protecting humans who don’t easily have voices of their own. This is something much bigger than just about who gets to use what restroom; indeed, Target’s stand is about recognizing that everyone deserves dignity and compassion.
Because of this, there are millions of Target customers who side with your company regardless of where they are on the sexuality or gender spectrums.
I’m sorry if some of you fear for your jobs. I know it is small consolation, but please understand that so many are very grateful for the sacrifices that you’ve made on our collective behalf. We are simply struggling to be ourselves and to live authentically; your bravery in the face of public criticism gives us much needed dignity and breathing room. Thank you for that!
I will forever be a loyal Target customer and I will do my best to ensure that you hear from other people who similarly believe in your company.
Thank you. Be well. I am incredibly grateful!
Ellen (Ellie) Krug
(This flyer can also be downloaded by clicking Target Flyer 4.17)
March 23, 2017
An Open Letter to the People Who Hate Me
I woke up this morning to a blog posting about a “Free Speech Bus” that targets transgender humans and which is starting its trek across America, with New York City as its first stop.
As reported by Dominic Holden of BuzzFeed (link), the bus is a project of the National Organization of Marriage, the International Organization for the Family, and CitizenGo, a conservative online advocacy platform based in Spain.
The purpose of the “Free Speech Bus,” as Holden writes, is to evangelize that transgender people “don’t exist” and that non-transgender persons (known as “cisgender”) “must rise up to complain about their growing acceptance.”
On its website, NOM describes the reason for the bus being that “gender is based on biology, not bigotry. Men and women were created equally, each given a gender that is fixed, immutable and complementary. Rather than perpetuate a lie that gender can be changed based on emotions and feelings, we should encourage people to embrace and love who they were made to be.”
According to Joseph Grabowski, a spokesperson for NOM, the hope is that taking the bus across America will unleash a “silent majority” of people who are frustrated by the discussion about transgender people. As Holden reports, while Grabowski said that “We need a discussion about how to respect everyone,” he also claimed that being transgender is a “disorder” and that a respectful discussion about trans people “does not extend to recognizing a transgender person’s identity in public settings.” “They can live that out in private settings,” Grabowski is reported as saying.
I’m sorry, but this “Free Speech Bus” is simply too much. In essence you are about to go across America saying (a) that along with a few million other humans, I’m mentally ill; (b) that I don’t have a right to be me, let alone to show up in public; and (c) that I really should have tried harder to continue living as a man.
My response: Why do you hate me so much? What did I ever do to you?
For the record, I did try my absolute best to live my life according to my birth gender. I built quite a successful life living as a man—the kind of life that everyone aspires to have. It was filled with love, material possessions, money and social stature. When my gender issues wouldn’t abate, as manifested by non-stop gut tugs and pulls, I tried like hell to do everything I could—multiple therapists, drug therapy, and resorting to alcohol as a way to cope—to remain living as a man. None of that worked.
I’m here to report that gender isn’t something that one can choose. One’s gender simply is. Mine happens to be female even though I was born with a penis. I even wrote a memoir about it, Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change (2013).
I respect your right to your religions and religious views. I don’t seek to deny your existence as humans. Why in the world do you seek to deny mine?
I can assure you that I’m a good person. In fact, since transitioning genders eight years ago at age fifty-two, I’m a much better person than when I lived as a man—I’m far more compassionate, less judgmental, and more willing to work to make the world a better place.
So why do you hate me so much? More importantly, do you have any idea what your “Free Speech Bus” will do to younger people struggling with their true gender identity? Don’t you realize that your “free speech” is a message of hate—and yes, that’s what it is: hatred and intolerance—and that it goes to the hearts and souls of young people? How many young humans are you willing to let take their lives because you foster a society of intolerance?
How many? I want to know.
I train and speak on the power of inclusivity and compassion. Your “Free Speech Bus” is the opposite of this work. You have no idea of the degree to which you are harming humans.
Or maybe you do. Perhaps that is the point.
February 23, 2017
Thinking of You in Birmingham
On this morning after the evening on which we heard that the Department of Education will revoke its special Guidance relative to protecting transgender students in our country’s public schools, I’m thinking of you, a fourteen-year-old transgender girl.
You could live anywhere. Birmingham. Little Rock. Rapid City. Tucson. Charleston. It doesn’t matter.
I have a good idea of what you are thinking right now: that when you woke up yesterday, you had the backing of the federal government to protect you at school. That you mattered to the people in Washington, D.C. and that if anything went wrong at your school, you could at least call upon someone in the federal government to help you.
This morning, all of that thinking is gone. Today, February 23, 2017, you’re thinking something far different, far more negative.
I don’t matter. I’m not good enough to be protected. They don’t care about me at all. Do I now have to go back to using the boy’s restroom? Even though I wear a dress?
Even worse, you’re just beginning to struggle with another thought: What will it be like at school today? Or tomorrow? Or next week? What will “those” kids say or do? Or the teachers who continue to intentionally misgender me?
In the days and weeks ahead, all of this will weigh on you. The odds are that you’ll become even more depressed than what you already are. Given the astronomical rate of attempted suicides for transgender persons (one study found that 40 percent of trans humans have engaged in suicide attempts), it’s likely that suicide will be even more on your mind.
For other readers, I don’t think I’m overstating this at all. Just earlier this week, the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics reported on a study that found a 14 percent decrease in suicide attempts by lesbian and gay teenagers who lived in states that legalized same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court’s 2015 blanket ruling in favor of same-sex marriage nationally. Researchers analyzing pre-2015 marriage legalization data theorized that the decrease in suicide attempts was linked to lesbian and gay teens feeling that society was accepting and inclusive.
In other words, people are less likely to take their lives if they feel connected to other humans and the society in which they reside. One would think this is a no-brainer.
Likewise, it’s not difficult to see the negative psychological effect of taking away one’s civil rights, like what happened last night. We can also imagine how that empowers others who hate.
I continue to be amazed by the audacity of people who make decisions that affect the well-being of other humans when those decision-makers have no idea of what it means to be “other.” It wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that none of the decision-makers on the DOE Guidance revocation—Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions or Betsy DeVoss—has ever sat with a trans person and asked, “What’s it like to be you?”
To you, our fourteen-year-old trans girl who lives in Birmingham or anywhere else in America, and to any other young transgender human, I say this: I stand with you. I value you. I have your back. Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to hear about how good life can be if you persevere and believe in yourself. If things are really bad and you’re thinking of hurting yourself, immediately call 911 or either the Trevor Project (866-488-7386) or the Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860)—they will talk you off the ledge.
Most of all, know that you ARE worthy. You DO matter. Just as with everything else, you WILL get through this, I am absolutely positive.
Stay alive my dear. The world is a beautiful place when you live authentically, as the TRUE you.
I care about you as do millions of other people you don’t yet know. Please love yourself!
January 29, 2017
Coffee with Lady Liberty
This morning, I called up my life-long mentor and friend, Lady Liberty. “We need to talk,” I said.
An hour later, I watched Lady Liberty sans make-up and with crown askew stumble into a downtown Minneapolis Caribou Coffee. As she held a hot Americano with an extra shot of expresso in one hand and her torch in the other, I pulled a chair out for her.
“Sit down. You’re a mess,” I said.
“Tell me about it. I haven’t slept in more than a week. It’s my new boyfriend, Don.”
“Yea, he’s the reason I reached out,” I replied. “There’s all kinds of rumors. But first, what’s up with the new dress and diamond choker—they’re so fifties. They look simply horrible on you.”
LL rolled her eyes. “Oh god, that’s a Don thing. He’s obsessed with retro and keeps talking about making me ‘great again.’ He bought the dress and diamonds—and can you believe it, a diamond choker? Me?—and he’s adamant that I wear them all the time.”
“Huh? You’ve always had your own fabulous original look,” I said. “Even more, you always thought for yourself. That’s one of the reasons I looked up to you.”
“I know,” LL replied. “But I’m getting older and well, it’s not that easy anymore. I’ve got money issues and all kinds of fears now, like is it even safe to walk to the grocery store anymore? Don says that he’ll take care of me, that he’s got all the answers.”
Me: “Wait a minute. Aren’t you forgetting that when I was a kid, we had real fear—like that Russian nukes would blow up the world at any minute? Still, that didn’t stop YOU from having all of the answers. YOU taught me to ignore my fears and be brave. YOU said that if I worked hard and believed in what you stood for, everything would work out.”
LL: “Oh, that was so long ago, way before Don.”
Me: “Baloney. When I was a kid and then a teen, all I ever heard from you was, ‘Treat everyone as you’d treat yourself. Give of your time to others and our country; judge everyone on their character and not because of their skin color or whom they love; and welcome everyone regardless of where they were born.’ You nagged me about that stuff until I totally got it. Don’t you remember?”
LL: “You’re right, I did teach you that. I taught a lot of people—heck, millions of people—the same things.”
Me: “On top of that, because of you I felt safe to come out as a transgender woman. I did that in Iowa of all places! Remember how you helped set things up so that I wouldn’t get killed for me simply being me?”
LL: “Yes, I do. But things are way different now. Don says so.”
Me: “Just since I was born, there’ve been a hell of a lot of people who died with your words ringing in their ears. People with names such as King and Kennedy and Evers, not to mention thousands who took their last breaths in places like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. People jump out of planes every day for you, putting their lives at risk. Are you going to tell all of these people, dead and alive, and even me, ‘Forget what I said about that ‘Land of the Free,’ stuff. I lied?’”
LL: “No, of course not. I meant everything that I taught you and everyone else. America is still the land of the free. It’s just that Don’s adamant that things are bad, real bad, so much so that we’ve got to be less free.”
Me: “I don’t think this Don guy knows what he’s talking about. Because of you, we got to have our first Black president. He pulled us out of a horrible recession, made it possible for twenty million people to get health insurance, and then helped bring the unemployment rate down to a near historical low.”
LL: “But Don keeps telling me things are really bad. So bad that he’s ordered that I can’t invite my Muslim friends over anymore.”
Me: “That’s why I wanted to see you. You’ve been hosting your Muslim friends for what, two hundred plus years? What happened to that ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,’ line? Are you walking that back too?”
LL: “No, I don’t want to walk back anything. But I also don’t want to make Don upset. He’s a control freak and besides, he’s got an obsession with Twitter. I worry that he’ll Tweet something that will make me look bad.”
Me: “It’s a little late for that, sister. Don’s already done a number to your reputation and that’s in just a week.”
LL: “What can I do? Don tells me that I need him.”
Me: “Woman, you have to tell Don that he’s got it all wrong. You’re the Alpha in the relationship, not him. Didn’t he understand what you’re all about before the two of you started your thing?
LL: “I guess not. What am I going to do, Ellie?”
Just then, Lady Liberty’s iPhone 7 rang—it was Don, the man of the hour. I overheard, “Really? It’s just coffee,” followed by, “Yes, I promise. Fifteen minutes. Love you!”
“I’ve got to go,” Lady Liberty reported. “Don’s not happy that I’m sitting here being reminded of what things were like before he entered my life. He doesn’t want me to hang out with my old mentees or friends.”
“You’ve got a big problem, Lady Liberty,” I said. “Only you can fix it.”
Lady Liberty shrugged. “I know,” she said. “But I’m tired of fighting him. He’s always got to have his way.”
We both stood and hugged; I made mine extra tight and whispered, “Remember, you’re one tough chick. Still, you’ve always had a balance problem; one wrong step, and you’re tumbling down. I’d hate to see what that might look like.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Lady Liberty said. “I’m sure that Don will come around. After all, he says he loves me.”
I smirked, wondering if Lady Liberty actually understood the depth of her man problem.
“That’s what they all say,” I answered. “Until you no longer matter.”
With that, Lady Liberty turned and walked out of the coffee shop.
# # #
If you’re like me and gravely worried about the direction of our country, here are five things you can do immediately:
- Whether it’s $5 or $500, contribute to the American Civil Liberties Union. Click here for the ACLU donations page.
- First thing tomorrow, pick up the phone and call your Congressional representative and tell them that America must remain a welcoming, open and shining beacon of hope for every human regardless of their religion, especially for those who are fleeing violence and persecution in their country of origin.
- Reach out to another human who might have a different opinion. Tell them first that you care about them and then ask if you can talk. If they’re open to talking, remind them that the people fleeing persecution in the Mideast want the same things as we all do—for their children to succeed; for them and their families to be free of physical or emotional violence; to have 20 minutes of peace; and to love and be loved. (I call these the “Four Commonalities.”) Be compassionate and kind; we simply can’t unify our country if we continue with “we” against “them,” and we can’t get there unless we talk to each other.
- Be kind to yourself. It’s okay to cry, but when you’re done, do what makes you happy. Reach out to a friend; write in your journal; go get ice cream. A lot of ice cream.
- Finally, remember the words of Dr. King:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
I care about you, about our country, and about the foreign-born people of every religion who desperately seek to have what we have, in the present tense. We all must work to avoid the past tense from becoming reality.
January 22, 2017
Yesterday was the day of women’s marches across America and the world. I had posted something on Facebook; it think it’s also worth putting here:
Today, a favorite quote from a favorite hero: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation…”
(Robert F. Kennedy in June 1966 addressing an audience in South Africa at the height of aparteid.)
Women of America: Walk. Walk like hell. Walk for me, walk for you, walk for our children. Most of all, walk for our country, which so needs you to bend history.
January 16, 2017
MLK Day 2017
Of all the anniversaries thus far to commemorate the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is this one—on the eve of inaugurating a President who has said and done so much contrary to Dr. King’s teachings—that may have the most meaning.
I simply have to ask: What would Dr. King posit if he were alive today?
I imagine that he would first remind us that our President-elect is human and prone to some very human tendencies, such as vanity, xenophobia, and ego-centrism. Moreover, I suspect that Dr. King would offer that regardless of what the incoming President says or does, he basically wants what all other humans desire—to have his children succeed, to be free of fear, to have some degree of personal peace, and to love and be loved.
After all, Dr. King might say, “Each of us is a child of God, even those who allow their fears and faults to show up so publicly.”
And too, I can see Dr. King standing at a pulpit, steadied by cane and grit (he would be 88 years old), with voice softened by age yet still very reminiscent of trademark boom, advocating that we not build up our new President to more than what he is— a flawed human. Indeed, I think Dr. King would even call for us to forgive this man for his flaws.
Yet, I am equally sure that Dr. King would also charge us—all Americans—to resist every diminishment of the human spirt that this soon-to-be President and his colleagues would seek to impose. I’m certain that he would call upon us to remember a key word—“justice”—and charge that each of us is obligated to preserve it for all humans regardless of the cost or time or toil involved.
I’m also positive that Dr. King would have something to say about how it was wrong for the President-elect to publicly demean John Lewis, who in 1965 stood with Dr. King on the Edmund Pettus Bridge facing police batons and dogs. “John Lewis,” Dr. King might likely start, “is the type of person whom we all should aspire to be. He has never allowed fear to displace the righteousness in his heart.”
Lastly, as he ended his sermon, it could be that Dr. King would remind all of us that freedom isn’t a good or artifact that one can have delivered from Amazon Prime to hang on a shelf. Rather, he might offer, “Freedom is an intangible that rests within one’s soul.” As such, it is a sacred value that nourishes us in times of plenty and in times of want. “Freedom,” Dr. King might very well say, “requires one to always be vigilant and true, to always hold dear for its loss means the loss of the human spirit and soul. The loss of freedom means the loss of hope.”
I’m certain that if Dr. King were alive, we would hear all of the above and more. But of course, Dr. King isn’t alive; a different flawed human was responsible for that.
On this day, let us remember why Dr. King died. Furthermore, let us not forget that humans of every ilk, regardless of political stance or bank account balance, or of color or geographic location, or because of the myriad of other differentiations we so needlessly impose on each other, are of the same value: precious.
Please do your part to protect them.
January 10, 2017
Impact Report for 2016
Those who know me know that I am extremely passionate about making this world of ours a better place through my speaking, training and simply showing up. While I need to make a living and pay the bills, a good part of my work is pro bono.
My most recent career stint involved the nonprofit world. As a consequence, I came to understand the importance of reporting on one’s work so as to inform about impact and goals. Through that lens, I’ve prepared my most recent yearly Impact Report (scroll down to January 2016 and you’ll find my 2015 Impact Report). You can access the latest Impact Report here. If you are so inclined, I would appreciate your feedback on this report. (email@example.com) I am always striving to do more and above all, to do my best. Thank you!
January 2, 2017
2017 starts just as I end some things.
For one, last Friday marked the end of my tenure as executive director of Call for Justice, LLC, a small Minneapolis legal resources nonprofit that I was hired to create in late 2011. With the help of many, we were able to make C4J into something worthwhile, which included garnering an American Bar Association award for innovatively increasing legal access.
Leaving C4J was bittersweet; it was my “baby” and a true labor of love. Yet, the time constraints—and in particular, the need to fundraise (I hate asking people for money)—had become a drag on my larger life goal (that is, to make the world a better place for all humans, and in particular for those who lack voices of their own).
Another ending was my fifth decade of living—last week I turned 60. A part of me wants to shout “Yikes” when I write that!
There’s the saying that “age is relative” and for transgender persons this has added meaning. While I may have an actual birthday dating to 1956, what matters most is that I transitioned genders in May 2009. Thus, what really counts (in terms of time) is that I’ve been able to live as me—the true me, a woman—just for seven and a half years. Hence, I’m always telling people that really, “I’m only twenty-seven-years-old in my head.” (With my birthday, I’ll need to up that to “twenty-eight.”)
Joking aside, the reality is that I’ve got only a limited amount of time as the true me to accomplish so very much. For sure, being able to live authentically has given me greater passion and resiliency to accomplish that work; still, I can’t fight human biology and the aging process. At some point, I’ll run out of time.
We’ll see how much I get done before that day arrives.
2017 marks some starts for me, too.
On next Sunday, January 8, at 1:00 CST, the inaugural segment of my radio and podcast show, “Hidden Edges”, will air on AM950 here in the Twin Cities. The show’s focus is to remind that we’re all survivors of the human condition and to foster better understanding of others who are “different” from “us.” In this sense, “Hidden Edges” is a direct extension of my diversity and inclusion training/speaking work. I have a six month contract to figure out if the program will go anywhere. Stay tuned! (What a great pun…)
What’s more, 2017 will be the year for truly making my mark. Now that I’m done with the restrictions of my nonprofit, I’ll have the ability to push, push, push for real change. Given how the political and compassion landscapes will alter considerably come January 20th, I’d say that my timing is excellent.
To you, my friends and readers, I say Happy New Year! I wish you the best for 2017!
I’ll also add: hold on. It’s going to be one hell of a ride…
November 17, 2016
Tips for Going Forward
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be offering tips on how you and those around you (including your place of work or business) can be more welcoming and affirming to those who are “different” from “us.” Given the election results, this is particularly important as we go forward.
Here are some immediate steps:
- Urge Public Affirmations re: Inclusivity Values
One of the most immediate steps one can do is to go to their employer, church, social service organizations (Rotary, Lions, etc.) and other places that serve as “hubs” for humans and urge that the organization publicly affirm that it is welcoming and affirming toward everyone, regardless of race, country of origin, gender, disability status, religion, and sexual or gender identities. All of us need reassurance right now and it is comforting to see/hear that those institutions dear to us have our backs.
2. Engage in Training
More than ever, we need to engage with trainers and consultants who can challenge our thinking and who can provide toolsets on how to deal with negativity and bigotry—both of which likely will ratchet up in future months. While this may sound self-serving (yes, I train and consult on diversity/inclusion), I firmly believe that gaining the perspectives of others is critical—and professional trainers/consultants know how to put those perspectives forth in non-threatening ways.
3. Empower ERGs
I highly recommend that all businesses of 15 or more employees create and sustain Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) based on various identities: racial, ethnic, gender, disability status, and LGBTQ status. (Religious identities/affiliations could also be a basis for an ERG, but that can become a tricky area; see me for suggestions on this.) It’s critical that the ERGs be empowered with money, recognition and time (remember, time is money in corporate America), so that the ERG can act as a voice for employees who feel at risk for marginalization.
4. Be Aware of the Power of Normalization
We’ve heard quite a bit in the past several months about how certain here-to-fore forbidden words/language and behaviors are becoming more visible and frequent. Because humans are great at adaptation, we are at risk of becoming normalized to those words/behavior. This phenomenon of normalization is something against which we as a society must guard. In fact, I view the risk of normalization as the greatest risk facing us at the present time. Thus, be aware of how normalization works, read up on ways to combat it/push back against it, and speak, speak, speak to your loved ones, friends and team members about the need to avoid it. We don’t have to allow un-normal (an Ellie-invented phrase?) words and behavior to become normal!
I will write more on these and other topics as we go forward. In the meantime, I am here for you. We have a great country where 99 percent of all people want to do the right thing. Together we will find the right thing to do. Remember the value of compassion (for self and for others) and the power of finding unifying ground in the Four Commonalities (scroll down for my Nov. 9 posting where I identify those commonalities).
I care about you.
November 9, 2016
Donald Trump as President: Three Steps Forward, Two Back
(Note to reader: what follows is a bit long but I believe worth the effort.)
I awoke at 4:21 this morning after having gone to bed at 9 last night. The election returns were starting to turn south then, but because of all the recent polling, and even more because my best friend in the world, Thap, had assured me there was no way Hillary would lose, I went to bed fairly confident that this morning would be a good one.
Of course, we now know how all of that turned out.
This day, in particular, is personal to me: in a couple of hours, I will begin a full day of speaking to students and faculty at Drake University in Des Moines . The plan had been for me to message and train about the need for greater inclusion and compassion for people who are “different” from “us.”
I suspect that as a result of last night, much of the day will be focused on contemplating “now what?” I’m sure that I’ll be asked for answers.
And really, what do you say to young college and law students about the collective statement that America made last night relative to people who are “different” from “us”?
How in the world will I be able to assure a young black queer student that they’ll still be able to live anywhere in the country as their true self?
Even more, what will I say to the young Muslim American woman wearing a hijab—yes, they exist even here at Drake—who’ll want to know if she’ll be safe walking on a downtown Des Moines street in broad daylight?
I suspect I’ll hear that people are awaking to an America that’s shown its true colors—that what had been hidden is now out in the open; that those who are white, straight, Christian, and hateful of “other,” want to keep everything for themselves.
Others will claim that women will never get a fair shake in this country; that for whatever reason, they will continue to smash into a glass ceiling and never be allowed true equality with men.
And yet more will speak of not Trump, but of the people he will put in place and empower. The white, straight male bullies like Giuliani and Gingrich and god knows who else. There will the fear of what is yet to come.
These students and others will be looking to me—Ellie Krug, a near 60 year old transgender human who looks female but sounds distinctly male—for answers.
What will I say? How can I even begin to reassure those students when I myself am reeling from the collective statement this country made just hours ago? How will I keep my own tears back as I speak to what will be a half dozen classes or teaching sessions today?
I know this: I will be speaking totally from the hip. All I have is my gut at the moment, a gut that’s really hurting.
All that I’ll be able to share is what I know, most of which is grounded in my struggle for authenticity as a transgender woman—a struggle for authenticity, much like what America is struggling for at this very instant.
So, as I type these words, my plan is to tell the students that in my struggle to find myself, I found much greater meaning in the things that all of us have in common—what I’ve written before as the “Four Commonalities.”
I’ll share that everyone—even those who voted for Trump—wants at least four of the same things: we all want our children to succeed; we each want to be free of physical and emotional violence; everyone wants some measure—20 minutes—of peace; and finally, everyone wants to love and be loved.
I’ll remind that with just the Four Commonalities, we have the ability to talk to anyone. Through that talking, we become familiar with those who are “different.” And it’s familiarity which breaks down the walls of fear and bigotry.
I probably will tell Drake students that we humans are very resilient; we have nearly infinite capacity to endure whatever depravity is thrown at us. Think Aleppo or Auschwitz. I suspect the reason for our resiliency is the life spirit that we all share—that we’re unwilling to simply give up, to submit to those things that challenge our authenticity.
Or that challenge our being.
What else will I say today at Drake?
I’ll share of having spoken across the country this year and last about the need for greater compassion and understanding. I’ll let the students know that the thousands of people with whom I’ve spoken have seemed genuinely touched by my words; that they are thirsty to learn how to better welcome people who are “different” from “us.”
I’ll tell the students that notwithstanding what last night might be construed to have shown, most people—my favorite phrase is “99 percent”—want to do the right thing toward others who are “different.” It’s just that most of us don’t know what the “right thing” is, and instead, it becomes easy to default to fear and labeling, which result in marginalizing people who don’t look or sound like us.
Finally, I suspect that I’ll also analogize America’s struggles right now with the struggles that transgender people experience. Indeed, America right now isn’t too far off from the kind of journeys that transgender people take. Our journeys are always incremental and often quite disjointed and tortured.
Trans* people often start out boldly forward; in my case, I began to present in public as female even though I was born with male body parts. Almost always, society strikes back in one way or another, and we run backwards, often to a closet (which I did several times believing that that the price of living authentically was too much to pay). Still, because authenticity isn’t a “choice,” we again come out of the closet and take several more steps.
The process for trans* people is repeated over and over, with greater distance covered each time, until we eventually get to the point where finally, long after we started, we arrive as our true selves.
For me, that was arriving as Ellie Krug, a deep-voiced woman who speaks from the heart about the need to treat everyone with compassion and respect. Sharing that message has actually become my remaining life’s mission.
Thus, what’s happening in America right now is that as a country, we took three steps forward by electing Barack Obama, our first black president. Society has reacted, and Donald Trump represents the two steps backward.
Today, a large part of our country—millions upon millions of people—fear that they will have to return to a closet.
Yet, because we Americans value authenticity so highly—we have a Constitution to prove it—I’m absolutely certain that we have it within us to again take steps forward. It’s just that now, those steps will be somewhat shorter, with more hesitation.
But I know we will again take those steps. Eventually, like transgender people. America will find its true self and thrive as a unified, authentic and welcoming country. Donald Trump is just one step in that long, still-to-come journey.
As I said, authenticity isn’t something that can be denied; it’s not a “choice.” It will again show up, and with greater vigor than before.
I hope that I can hold it together today and that the above message sounds better than it reads. All I can do is to try my best.
That’s all that any of us can do, especially today.
November 4, 2016
Visiting My Roots–Iowa
I’m an Iowan at heart; I’ve spent at least half my life in Iowa. It was a great place to grow up, be educated, fall in love, raise a family, and build a law firm. It was also the place where I felt safe coming out as a transgender woman in 2009.
My Iowa. My heart. I miss you so!
I look forward to spending a good amount of time at Drake University on the evening of November 8 (election day!) and all day on November 9. Before it’s all said and done, I will have given at least four talks and met with several classes and many people. How quite wonderful!
For Drake community folks, the bibliography that I may refer to from time to time can be found here. Everyone else is welcome to take a look at the bibliography as well–it’s a collection of writings, videos and studies that relate to how we humans learn and act toward one another–sometimes in positive ways and other times not. All of it is informative on how to make our collective way to a kinder, more compassionate community.
September 11, 2016
What horror for our country!
My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones on this day and to everyone else who has lost others in war or to terrorism in the months and years since.
Those who have read my memoir, Getting to Ellen, will recall that this day fifteen years ago was my own personal moment of truth.
As I sat in St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with my family on the evening of 9/11, my mind drifted off, hijacked by imagining that I was on one of the two planes that originated out of Boston. I imagined looking out the window next to my seat, seeing the Twin Towers just ahead, and knowing that in a minute or two, I would die.
I imagined what would be my last thoughts.
I huddled in Seat 13A, crazy with fear, thinking last thoughts and flashing heartache-wrapped memories. I thought of Lydia, for sure. There was Emily and Lily too. Mark and Jacki popped into my head. And Thap. Yes, of course, dear Thap.
Then—completely out of left field—there it was, my final, just-before-you-die thought: You coward. You fucking coward. You’re going to die without getting to be yourself—your true self.
A hundred thousand times before 9/11, I had told myself, “You need your own life.” I hadn’t ever linked the mantra to the idea that I might die without ever getting to be “me.” The sacrifice of 3,000 innocents instantly taught me one crucial thing: unless I did something to change my life, I’d never be “me.” It didn’t matter that I barely knew who or what “me” was. Whoever it was need to crawl into the light.
She had been in the shadows long enough.
It’s such a bittersweet day for me, as I’m sure it is for those reading this post. Fifteen years ago, I had absolutely everything that anyone—any man, that is—could ever want: a beautiful, loving soul mate wife, two adorable daughters, a house in the best neighborhood, social stature, my own law firm, and money in the bank.
But I didn’t have me.
Somehow, I found the guts and the strength to get to me, to Ellen “Ellie” Krug. I really don’t know how I was able to navigate all the fear and uncertainty that came with upending what had been a perfect life as a man. The love and support of so many people no doubt allowed my transition to happen. As did great luck and serendipity.
I no longer have Lydia, whom I think about and miss every day. The big house is long gone, as is the law firm and much of the money.
All of that is livable because I’ve learned the difference between loss and regret, something that I didn’t understand fifteen years ago.
Loss fades over time whereas regret burns far hotter.
Thank god that I have absolutely no regrets about allowing me to finally show up as Ellie. On the other hand, I can’t imagine the degree of regret I’d feel on my deathbed had I not allowed her to breathe.
Of all days, may you find this a day for reflecting on your remaining life course.
September 5, 2016–Labor Day
Gratitude and Work
The heck with waiting until Thanksgiving! On this Labor Day, I’m feeling very grateful for the work of others and for the luck that comes my way. The following list could go on and on, but for now, I’ll simply share a few items.
Thank you to the anonymous human who found my wallet at the St. Anthony Main Theater on Saturday afternoon and who, rather than rifling through it for money and credit cards, turned it into the theater manager. You saved me countless hours of heartache and phone calls; I am so grateful!
Thank you to “C” who quite unexpectedly went to the trouble of selecting and then mailing to me a beautiful brooch and card, which I received on Friday. Your generosity matches your outgoing and welcoming spirit; it’s time to get that cup of coffee I suggested several weeks ago!
Thank you to Angela in Sioux Falls who, after hearing me speak last month, decided that she and her girlfriend would name their adorable new puppy “Ellie.” That’s a first for me!
Thank you to the Winona State University journalism student who did the work of listening to and reporting on my October 2015 talk, “Gleaning Authenticity from a Moment of Truth.” I came across your article just recently and immediately appreciated it.
Thank you to the Call for Justice, LLC board of directors (I wear a part-time executive director’s hat) for hanging in and supporting me and my ideas for nearly five years. Thank you also for the grace and kind words after I tendered my resignation last week to pursue fulltime my passion for encouraging open hearts and thriving human spirits through my diversity and inclusion work (with a departure date not to occur for several months).
Thank you to the many potential (and some now actual) diversity clients who’ve contacted me since mid-August. As a result, it appears I’ll be speaking to the Minnesota National Guard, county supervisors in Boulder, and lawyers in Manhattan.
A big, humongous thank you to my daughters Emily and Lily who’ve both worked incredibly hard since last Labor Day, facing demons and learning how life works (or doesn’t). I’m so proud of you both! Most of all, it’s an incredible honor and wonderment to see you thrive in your own respective ways! Bravo! Bravo!
Finally, thank you to those who take the time to read this blog and care about me and my work. I promise to always try my best, hoping that somehow, I will make a positive difference in this world.
Encouraging open hearts and thriving human spirits
July 30-August 3, 2016
A Road Trip West with Purpose
On Monday morning (August 1), I’ll set off on a 1000 mile road trip from Minneapolis to Saratoga, Wyoming. The ultimate destination is a recurring reunion with my adoptive family, the Tharp clan, originally from Iowa and now spread out throughout Colorado, Wyoming, and California. (Those who’ve read my memoir will remember that I’ve been best friends with Dennis Tharp—whom I affectionately call “Thap”—for the last 46 years; I’m “Aunt Ellen” to Thap’s kids and an “of course” invite to every reunion.)
I like road trips. There’s nothing better than watching the countryside unfold before me, especially on the prairie where I can see an unencumbered horizon. If I’m lucky, I’ll encounter sunny days with big, fat, misshapen puffy clouds. How I love puffy clouds! They so remind me of the beautiful cloud paintings that a little known artist named Marvin Cone (who taught at my alma mater, Coe College, and who befriended Grant Wood) was famous for.
Apart from re-connecting with people I love, my road trip west is also with purpose. Because I have this silly remaining life mission to make a positive difference in the world (and because I believe in the concept of leveraging time and resources), I decided that I’d make this a “speaking road trip” where I would stop along the way and talk about my favorite topic—the need for greater compassion and understanding toward everyone who is “different” from “us.” I’ll be giving my signature talk, “Gray Area Thinking,”™ in three different cities along my route west: on Monday night, I’ll be at the Equality Center in Sioux Falls; on Tuesday evening, I will present at the Rapid City Public Library; and on Wednesday night, I’ll be on hallowed ground—Matthew Shepard country—in Laramie at the Albany County Public.
(My thanks to Ashley, Taylor and Megan for helping to make each of those nights possible; thank you for taking a chance on a deep-voiced woman named Ellie who cold-called with an offer to speak on diversity and inclusion and a bit on what it means to be transgender in states where trans persons don’t have any legal rights.)
My hope is that these talks will allow me to reach at least 100 people in person. From there, perhaps each audience member will speak to at least one other person and share about how it’s possible to be welcoming to everyone, regardless of what they look or sound like—that rippling effect I so believe in.
I’ll give a day-by-day report of each talk and the people I encounter. I hope that you follow along!
Day 1—Sioux Falls (August 1)
Last night I presented at The Bakery meeting center in downtown Sioux Falls. My “Gray Area Thinking” talk was done in collaboration with The Equality Center, a LGBTQ advocacy organization headed by Ashley Joubert-Gaddis, a spunky, smart, energetic St. Paul transplant who’s been working at the Center for less than a year. In that time, she’s built up their programming (they took the lead in defeating last year’s horrible bathroom bill) and social media presence (as in doubling their Facebook “Likes” and Twitter followers). Importantly for me, Ashley and her team were exceedingly welcoming, which made my job as a presenter so much easier.
We had a group of 37 people at my talk, which included a number of transgender persons, along with Gs and Ls and allies. The presentation was well received; in part, I spoke about how South Dakota has no legal protections for LGBTQ people, thereby making it so incredibly important that they find common footing with those who are in power (mainly older straight white men).
A focus of the evening was discussing what I call the “Four Commonalities” (regular readers of this blog will know what I mean): that every human shares at least four things in common, regardless of the color of their skin, whom they love, what gender they identify with, or what country they were born in. The Four Commonalities are (1) a desire for our children (or nieces or nephews) to succeed; (2) a need to be free of physical or emotional violence; (3) a wanting for some degree of personal peace; and (4) a need to love and be loved.
I suggested that a forward-looking strategy for engaging those in power would be to highlight the Four Commonalities as a way to recognize that LGBTQ people want the same things as the larger, straight Christian community. While this appeal won’t touch everyone, certainly it would touch those who through ignorance or fear are afraid to speak up on behalf of marginalized people.
There was talk of bringing me back to SF to conduct additional “Gray Area Thinking” presentations. I also learned that there’s an initiative, called “Compassionate Sioux Falls,” aimed at increasing community-wide dialogue—how incredibly wonderful and outside the box! I applaud everyone involved with this initiative and look forward to learning more about it.
On a more touristy note, this was my first real trip to Sioux Falls; let me tell you, this city has it going on! I’m typing this as I sit at a funky coffee shop called “Coffea” on trendy (yup, that’s the right word) Phillips Avenue, a several block area of quaint shops, retro diners, cigar bars, and cool clothing stores. What’s more, this morning I was up early (say, 5:15) on my bike riding along a glorious bike trail that rings the city—a wonderful 20 mile trail. Wow! What a nice place to visit, and I’m sure, live (although, the lack of civil rights for me would be a huge problem).
One last thought. As things wrapped up last night, I sat with a woman—the only visible person of color who attended the training—who shared about the city’s compassion initiative. Our conversation turned deep very quickly, and she asked “When was it that you actually felt female for the first time?”
In response, I shared that while I’ve always felt female to some degree, my first understanding of living as female came soon after I transitioned while I walked alone one evening in downtown Minneapolis. I found myself looking back to see if anyone—a man—was following along on the sidewalk. It was at that moment that I realized that simply because of my gender, I was vulnerable.
Our talk turned to other things I’d learned on my journey since transitioning in 2009. I shared that as Ellie Krug, “Life is unfolding before me” in countless ways I could never have imagined (my trip to Sioux Falls being an example). In contrast, when I was still presenting as a male, “Life was folding down on top of me.”
My new friend found meaning in those words. My work on this Road Trip West with Purpose continues.
Day 2—Rapid City (August 2)
In Rapid City, we made lemonade out of lemons.
My Gray Area Thinking™ presentation was set to occur in the Rapid City Public Library (thank you Taylor Calderon for helping to set up!), but unfortunately, only one person (other than Taylor and a reporter from South Dakota Public Broadcasting Radio) showed. We defaulted to the reporter, Lee Strubinger, conducting what amounted to a public interview in the large meeting room that had been set up to accommodate 40 people.
It all worked out so incredibly well! Among many things, I was given the chance to speak about my work and about how the words and teachings of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy continually inspire me.
In one question, Lee asked what would I tell the rancher in western South Dakota who’s never met a transgender person? How would I get him to accept me and others in society who are “different”?
I spoke of how I believe that most people want to do the right thing relative to accepting others who are “different,” but we simply lack the tools or guidance for how to accomplish that. There’s so much fear about saying or doing the wrong thing. And of course, I spoke of the Gray Area Thinking™ toolset (awareness of human vulnerability; risk-taking to alleviate that vulnerability; and compassion/kindness) and of how the Four Commonalities (see yesterday’s blog piece) give us a wonderful foundation for welcoming others who are “different.”
I offered that I believe Lee’s rancher, if given the chance to pique his natural human curiosity, would in the end do the right thing and be willing to let others (LGBTQ, people of color, anyone who’s “different”) show up and be accepted. It’s simply a matter of allowing for everyone to become familiar with everyone else.
As I said, we made lemonade. You can listen to the entire interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting Radio here.
On a personal note, I slept in this morning, so I didn’t get a chance for a bike ride around Rapid City. Yet, as was the case with Sioux Falls, I’ve found another small city that’s gone to great lengths to re-invent itself. As I type this, I’m sitting on a red brick patio in the central downtown square that has public sculptures reflecting Native American influence, a splash pad with an adjoining field of artificial turf, a funky stage, and many tables/chairs with bright umbrellas. When I arrived here yesterday, the square was filled with dozens of children playing on the splash pad enjoying a beautiful summer day.
I’m sorry, but I’m not seeing the fearful, broken America that one of our presidential candidates speaks of so much. Rather, on this road trip across the middle part of our country, I’m finding place after place where people have put imagination and hard work into action. I’m seeing an America that’s got it’s act together.
Most of all, I’m finding hope. Hope for you and hope for me.
Onward to Laramie, hallowed ground, where I will speak on the evening of August 3.
Day 3—Laramie (August 3)
The third and final stop on this Road Trip West with Purpose was the Albany County Public Library (thank you Megan Richardson for coordinating!) in Laramie, a place with special meaning to anyone who’s LGBTQ.
As was the case in Rapid City, turnout in Laramie for my Gray Area Thinking™ was sparse—just five persons, including Megan. In response, I shifted from lecture to group discussion (still, I did most of the talking, which is no surprise to anyone who knows me), with a heavy emphasis on what it means to be transgender.
A question to me was whether transitioning genders had simply replaced one set of issues (gender dysphoria and the emotional distress that comes with brain not matching body) with another set of issues (living in a world that presently seeks to marginalize transgender persons [and other people who are “different”] even further). I thought it was an excellent question; certainly, it’s the first time anyone has asked it of me.
I responded by saying that becoming authentic was core to my experience; that accepting myself as female (something that I had fought for 40+ years) at least meant that my gut was no longer tugging at me (and in the end, it was yelling) to live as the person whom I truly am. I remarked that transitioning genders was in no way a panacea, but certainly, doing so made it easier to deal with other problems in my life (such as my alcoholism—I’m sober 402 days now).
For sure, I now encounter discrimination–something that I never had to worry about as a white male. Nonetheless, I’m willing to take that on as my way of fighting to make the world a better place.
I added that I’ve heard from other trans people who thought that if they transitioned, all the difficult things in their lives would suddenly go away. That’s not so, as I’ve found. Still, the value of living authentically, as a whole person, without compartments or hiding, can’t be overstated.
Given that this is Laramie, a place that rose to national prominence with Matthew Shepard’s murder, I asked what it was like to be LGBTQ here. The two self-identifying LGBTQ people in the group reported that it’s a tough place to live, particularly if you aren’t associated with the University (which has an active LGBTQ center). For example, there is no LGBTQ oriented bar or coffee shop in town; at best, they have “LGBTQ night” at a local bar once a month, but only during the school year.
This is not what I had expected to hear. I had thought, naively of course, that something like the murder of a young gay man that touched the world would prompt Laramie to become far more welcoming to LGBTQ people (and anyone else who is “different”). Obviously, there’s more work to do here.
Laramie marked the end of the speaking part of my road trip. (I now get to go a bit further west to a family reunion.) I’ve learned quite a bit on this trip relative to organizing speaking events—that I need to engage multiple sponsors and network better with my existing networks (for example, I’m a Rotarian; can we imagine me standing before the Rapid City or Laramie Rotary clubs? Maybe…). I’m always learning!
I hope my learning never ends.
Thanks to those who followed along. I am absolutely positive there are more speaking road trips in my future!
Encouraging open hearts and thriving human spirits
July 9, 2016
Thinking and Acting Differently Toward Those Who are “Different”
It seems as if the emotional fabric that holds us together is tearing with mighty force.
The events that unfolded this week—two black men killed in separate white police officer-related incidents and Thursday night’s murders of five police officers by a black Army reservist who professed outrage over two years of police-involved shootings of black persons—spike fear and terror in everyone regardless of their race or station and feed our collective sense of hopelessness.
I urge that despite fear and hopelessness, we continue to remember that as humans, we are connected to each other in a myriad of ways that make it possible to react with compassion and kindness.
Indeed, millions of times a day, it is our human connectedness—based on our commonalities—which allows us to break through the walls of fear that many have built on foundations of mistrust and separateness.
Everyone who died this week, regardless of the color of their skin or the balance in their bank account or the clothes they were wearing, wanted the same basic things—to love and be loved, to see their children or nieces/nephews succeed, to be free of violence, and to have some measure of peace. It is these commonalities (what I call “the Four Commonalities”) that form the basis for going forward as a society that respects the rights of each and every person to be on this earth without being victimized by violence or hatred.
We can talk about reforming gun laws or improving community policing policies; we can debate the polarization of our political process; and yes, we can tune in to commentator after commentator to hear what’s wrong with the world in general and America in particular.
Yet, none of this will get us to where we need to be.
The pathway out of fear and hopelessness lies within the collective good in our hearts and that which we all share, based on the Four Commonalities. The pathway is marked by the need for much hard work—human to human work of breaking down personal barriers, of thinking differently about others who are “different”, and of understanding that compassion for others and for one’s self allows for life to unfold in ways that nourish us.
The walls that we’ve built deprive us of that nourishment. We are starving ourselves of emotional connections to other humans. We’ve let fear become a lousy substitute for real nourishment and it’s killing us, figuratively and literally.
The way out is not through demagogues or hate-mongering. It won’t happen by further marginalizing or baiting. And it certainly can’t be accomplished with guns, bombs, and knives.
The way out is through that which is within: focusing on our common humanity. We absolutely have it within us to mindfully live day to day, human to human, recognizing our own internal biases and fears. While this takes much personal hard work, the collective payoff would be life and society-changing: openness, mutual respect, and each person’s ability to bring down the walls of fear that box them in.
As I’ve written elsewhere, we need to think and act differently toward others who are “different” from “us.”
No longer can we turn a blind eye to the astonishing gaps that separate us.
No longer can we ignorantly nor blissfully walk past others whom society has burdened with loss and marginalization simply because of the color of their skin or the part of town in which they were born.
No longer can we apply simple black and white thinking to problems that are complex and gray.
No longer can we label, box, and isolate those who have no voice of their own.
No longer can we let walls built of indifference, fear, social norming and mistrust keep us from feeling what others feel.
No longer can “we” refuse to put ourselves out or avoid the unease of communicating with and learning about “them.”
This is the hard work in which we need to engage. I am willing to help with that work. Let us begin today.
Encouraging open hearts and thriving human spirits
July 7, 2016
Another Horror and the Complete Absence of a Plan
I’m writing this while sitting at the Midway airport in Chicago, on my way east to visit an ailing relative. What I need to say can’t wait until I’m more firmly planted at my destination.
As I drove to the airport at 4;30 this morning, I heard about the police shooting death of Philando Castile, a black man who made the mistake of driving through Falcon Heights at dusk yesterday in an automobile with a broken taillight.
My heart is once again hurting, my soul wondering why, oh why, did this happen? How is it that we’ve come to the point of so much fear, so much distrust, and with such deadly results?
Why did Philando have to die in the front seat of his vehicle with a police officer’s gun pointed at his head?
I am so sorry, Philando! To your mother and uncle and other family members, please know that I’m sorry to you, too.
And to my home state, Minnesota, I say once again there is an evil founded on the fear that pervades our people. I know that all of you–all of us, as I’m a part of this–are good, well-meaning people. Still, we’re afraid. We distrust those who are “different” and resort to instinct and emotion when placed in situations that we perceive as threatening.
It’s not automatic that we should perceive a black man with a woman and child in his vehicle as threatening. This is something that we as a society have learned. We must now do what it takes to unlearn this.
The violence by the state and by others must stop. Minnesota has an obligation to deal with the fear and distrust that’s been sown between us. The fabric of our state is at a stretching point; something must be done to prevent that fabric from tearing.
Once more, as I urged last December, we need a PLAN. Without a plan, Minnesota as a state will flounder and go from tragedy to tragedy, horror to horror, without any real change. Lives will be lost, families destroyed, and the sense of hopelessness all of us feel will grow.
As I urged in December, I have actually created a plan for making our state and society a more welcoming and safer place for all. The points set forth in this plan would apply not only to Minneapolis but to all of the state as well. Please see the plan here.
For those so inclined, email Governor Dayton and Mayors Hodges and Coleman with this question: “What’s the Plan?”
How many more people need to die before we comprehensively act to address the racism and marginalization that pervades our state? How many more deaths are we willing to accept?
Encouraging open hearts and thriving human spirits
June 21, 2016
A Single Garment of Destiny
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963 by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
It’s Pride Week in Minneapolis.
For many, that phrase sparks images of partying, same-sex handholding, buff bodies, and one hell of a parade.
Yet, there’s one more image: many white people. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Pride is about celebrating how we’ve overcome prejudice, inequality and marginalization in the nearly 50 years since the June 1969 Stonewall riots.
To briefly recap using broad brush strokes: in 1969, “gay” wasn’t at all about sexual orientation; instead, it was mainly an adjective used to describe the second decade of the twentieth century. Rather, the polite descriptor for folks like us was “homosexual.” If one didn’t care, it was “faggot” and “dyke.” “Queer” was absolutely the last thing that anyone would think of for the title of a popular television show.
Likewise, in 1969 “transgender” hadn’t even been invented as a word; society only knew one phrase: “drag queen.”
In 1969, the idea of same-sex marriage was a pipedream. Similarly forbidden were the concepts of same-sex parenting, “out” men and women in the military, and that someone could go from “he” to “she” without losing their job, a place to live, or their life.
History buffs will recall that the Stonewall riots were sparked by New York City cops raiding the Stonewall Inn to harass men and women because of their sexual and gender orientations, something that wasn’t at all uncommon.
Today, Minneapolis has a lesbian police chief and many police departments count gays and lesbians among their ranks. Now there’s even a transgender law officer association, proof that things really have changed. Could you imagine the collective community reaction if a bunch of cops burst into Lush (a Minneapolis LGBTQ bar) on a Saturday night and harassed the patrons?
Along the way, and amid our collective struggle, we’ve not only kept our jobs, but prospered. We’ve got gay CEOs, lesbian business owners, and a trans woman as the highest paid female executive in the country.
Yes, for us LGBTQers, as the phrase went in the ‘70s, “You’ve come a long way baby!”
I wish I could say the same for everyone else whom society has marginalized.
Thus, why is it that the Twin Cities has been so willing to accommodate LGBTQ folk—most of whom are white—but been utterly recalcitrant when it comes to lifting persons of color?
How is it that Minnesotans could rally for gay and lesbian marriage rights in 2012-13 (hooray!) and yet absolutely turn a blind eye to the largest wage gap between whites and blacks in the country? (Out of 51 states [including Puerto Rico], we—the land of Humphrey and Mondale—come in dead last.) (See citation.) Even worse, that wage gap creates another reality that’s often overlooked: in Minnesota, 38 percent of black households live in poverty compared to the state’s overall poverty rate of 11 percent. (See citation and citation.)(For a family of four, “poverty” is an annual income of $24,250 or less.)
Really? Yes, really.
Or how can it be that we’re willing to fill a school board meeting room with sign-carrying allies to ensure that a ten year old trans kid can use the school bathroom that corresponds with his or her gender identity (something near and dear to my heart), yet we collectively don’t have the energy or impetus to rally to change a 50 point difference in reading test scores between third grade white kids and kids of color? (See citation at p. 13)
Another question: why is it that the LGBTQ community is content to cite progress in achieving civil rights when nearly half the people incarcerated in Minnesota are of color compared to the state as a whole, which is 86 percent white, making the white-of color incarceration ratio among the worst in the nation? (See citation.)
And finally, what would be the white community reaction if, instead of LGBTQ people, there were black, brown, and other colors of people who took over Loring Park for a weekend every late June to celebrate their collective endurance in a society that finds a multitude of ways to hold them back?
As I see it, the LGBTQ community has gained a great deal of expertise and clout on how to shape societal values and attitudes. Why aren’t we working to share that expertise and using that clout to help other marginalized groups achieve the degrees of respect and privilege that we’ve come to enjoy?
Just as Dr. King wrote so long ago, we are “tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Rather than parading, we should be marching.
We all need to remember that as we party.
Encouraging open hearts and thriving human spirits
June 18, 2016
More Thoughts on Pulse Orlando
The tragedy aftermath has now fit into a familiar pattern—media anchors stationed in the street near the crime scene interviewing survivors and first responders; in-depth stories about each victim, complete with personal photos and loved-ones’ memories; a constant “Breaking News” of each new detail learned about the shooter; and of course, the immensely heartbreaking funerals.
What does it say about our society that there’s even a “familiar pattern” to all of this?
Also important for me (apart from the pain each victim felt and the pain their families are now experiencing) is that we are beginning to understand that the shooter (like CNN and various media outlets, I too, won’t repeat his name) apparently struggled with same-sex attractions in a religious and familial community where such feelings are forbidden. This, in my mind, raises the question of whether his extremist ideology is an excuse on top of a self-hatred that spilled over to hatred for those to whom he was sexually (and perhaps emotionally) attracted.
I’m not a psychologist, for sure, but I am a human who for much of her life struggled with gender and sexual identities. I can personally attest to how the epic battle with self can produce fear, frustration, aggression, and yes, self-hatred. I think we’ve just witnessed an extremely horrific case of what can result from refusing to accept one’s true self.
Those who have read my book will recall that I was “Killer Krug,” the attack dog lawyer who took no prisoners and who was extremely difficult to work with vis-à-vis law firm support staff. As I’ve often said, it’s much easier to detest others when you detest yourself. It wasn’t until I transitioned genders that I was finally able to breathe as the “true me.” With that authenticity came an overwhelming gentleness and sense of peace that had eluded me my entire life. I began to thrive as a human.
As I write in my memoir (page 261), one colleague remarked to me post-gender transition, “You were a real a** as a man. It was your disposition: angry and aggressive. Now I see you as a woman, and you’re so nice, sweet actually. I like Ellen a hell of a lot more…”
Those words were said to me in 2009, long before last week’s tragedy.
My takeaway from Pulse Orlando is a feeling of great urgency to spread the message that compassion for self is paramount; indeed, without love for one’s self (and understanding that some things in life—like sexuality or gender—can’t be “chosen”), it’s near impossible to authentically love others.
For this advocacy, I have adopted a new tag line: “Encouraging open hearts and thriving human spirits.”
There is so much fear to conquer and so many human perspectives to inform. This can only be accomplished through opening hearts and believing in the incredible healing power of the human spirit.
I’ve also got another name for this advocacy: Hope.
Encouraging open hearts and thriving human spirits
June 12, 2016 (Twelve + Hours After the Pulse Mass Shooting in Orlando)
Again. We are here at this place of horror yet again. And so quickly.
Fifty (at least that’s the current number) humans dead.
It is beyond eloquent words. As a friend said, there is nothing that anyone can write or say for a tragedy like this–no poems, no magnificent prose, no calming word pictures of any kind.
Nothing fits to salve this horror.
I’ve written before of how bigotry and marginalization of any kind–whether based on religion or ethnicity or sexual or gender identities–can easily spawn violence. Rhetoric, particularly that based on religious dogma, blurs the lines between right and wrong, human and inhuman. The current climate of intolerance, in part fueled by state legislators and special interest groups which seek to portray LGBTQ people as unworthy of equal rights, triggers people. Why should that be a surprise?
What last night reminded is that intolerance of any kind will pay back in violence ten, twenty, or even fiftyfold. The world is interconnected; no one lives in isolation. Words, good or bad, ripple to the hearts and minds of others.
And yet, I call upon all of us to have compassion in the face of horror. Certainly, we need compassion for Muslim people in general; the acts of angry and dispirited persons are not reflective of the vast majority of Muslims in the world. They too, simply want to live their lives in peace and harmony with others.
We also must act with compassionate advocacy for greater acceptance of all persons. Time and again, I find that getting to know someone of a different religion or country of origin or sexual or gender identity opens minds. We must work to counter hatred of any kind by breaking down the barriers and silos that we so easily erect between us.
I am so sorry that we are back again at a place where bullets destroy humans. It has to end.
June 3, 2016
Three Reasons Why Employers Should Recognize Pride Month
It’s Pride Month; let’s have a party!
For those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and ally (“LGBTQIA”), June is a time to celebrate one’s willingness and ability to live authentically as a human.
For employers, there’s often the question of whether to formally recognize June as a month with special meaning for LGBTQIA employees or their family members. I’ve created a quick and easy to understand Employer’s Guide of why June is special to LGBTQIA folks, family and friends and offer three reasons why employers should by all means provide such recognition. Click here to access the Guide.
May 23, 2016
Whoops and Cheers for Hope and Compassion
Last week, I had the pleasure to again visit Rochester, Minnesota to conduct diversity training and speak on living as a transgender human.
As things turned out, I did a total of three events (!) between 9 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. This schedule began to gel two months ago when the City of Rochester asked me back to do a Wednesday afternoon “Gray Area Thinking”™ presentation. After I posted that event on my website calendar, I received an email from the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Department asking if I could train their juvenile detention facility team members on Gray Area Thinking™ and “Transgender 101” on Wednesday morning. Not long after that, I heard from the Rochester Public Library, where I had spoken in early 2014. They wanted me to speak on Wednesday evening with a presentation part Trans 101 and part my personal story.
I thus headed into Wednesday, May 18 with a sense of trepidation wondering how I’d hold up through nearly seven hours of speaking and fretting over how my feet would hold up after being in heels for that long.
I shouldn’t have been at all concerned: the audience at each venue was very welcoming and it appeared that my messages and themes hit their marks. It was great to meet new people at the Sheriff’s Department and to again see folks from the City.
What touched me most, however, was the library audience. At the end of my introduction to an audience of 117 persons, I heard both applause and—quite unbelievable for me—actual whoops.
“Holy cow,” I thought to myself. “They’re treating me like some kind of rock star.”
I wondered whether I had inadvertently walked into the wrong room.
I began by speaking of how transgender and non-transgender (the technical phrase is “cisgender”) persons are each survivors of the human condition. It’s just that for trans people, our survivorship is much more public.
Similarly, I talked of how every human—trans or not—shares the “Four Commonalities”: everyone wants their children to succeed; all want to be free of physical or emotional violence; we each seek a measure of peace; and everyone wants to love and be loved. I offered that if only we, as a people, could remember these commonalities, we’d collectively be able to overcome any obstacle and resolve any difference.
After giving some Trans 101 basics (explaining gender identity, gender expression, etc.) and sharing about my story, I spoke of how I’m inspired by the “Special Ks” (Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, whom I’ve written about before in this blog) and how they taught that we have an obligation to make the world a better place. I then reminded about the need to have compassion for others and for ourselves. “Understanding that one’s gender identity isn’t a choice” I said, “is a form of compassion.”
I talked about the various “bathroom bills” that have been introduced in the legislatures of at least 16 states and passed in North Carolina and Mississippi. “It’s all about fear,” I offered. “People are far more easily motivated by fear than by compassion.”
Most importantly, I shared about the power of the human spirit—that we have the ability to literally overcome anything, even our brain not matching our body. “I believe in the human spirit,” I said. “I believe in all of you, even though I don’t know you. Have compassion for others and for yourself.”
At the end of my talk at the library, I again heard applause, cheers and whoops, followed by a standing ovation. It was incredibly humbling.
I share this not out of ego, but instead to demonstrate that I believe people are tired—worn out and just plain fatigued—of being afraid. Fear seems to be the only messaging today. Instead, I think the audience at the Rochester Public Library showed that more than anything else, people really want one thing: hope.
A message about the power of the human spirit does just that—it tells others not to despair or become lost. Rather, there’s great hope for all of us. After all, if a trans person can survive and thrive (as many do), then anyone can survive and thrive!
I am so grateful (and again, humbled) to firsthand witness how a message of hope has the ability to touch others. Wow! Double wow! Being able to deliver that message is a privilege of immense proportion.
Thank you, Rochester. You rock! (And by the way, my feet held up just fine…)
May 1, 2016
An Open Letter to Target Corporation Team Members
Dear Target Team Members:
I’m a transgender American who’s writing to say “Thank you.”
Thank you for being welcoming and for giving me a safe place to take care of basic human needs.
Thank you for recognizing that I and millions of other transgender persons are actually real people with a need for dignity, respect, and good old fashioned compassion.
Thank you for standing up to those who want transgender persons to cease to exist.
Thank you for enduring the reactive onslaught of bigotry and economic gender-baiting by people who simply don’t understand what it means to live authentically.
Thank you for having my back.
I know the past ten days have been difficult and realize that you’ve had to endure uncomfortable questions, comments and just plain rudeness by many customers and others. I’m sorry that you’ve had to go through this on my behalf.
But I sure appreciate it and I’m so very grateful!
Maybe someday I can repay the favor. In the meantime, please know that I will be a Target customer for life.
Very truly yours,
Ellen (Ellie) Krug Minneapolis, Minnesota May 1, 2016
March 27, 2016
Gifts–Given and Taken
On this Easter Sunday, I’m thinking of gifts–those that are given to us and others that are taken away. Many would say that Christ’s death was a gift to the Christian world; he died so that others could live.
On the giving side, I found a handwritten note on a sticky pad following my recent C* Project training in Alexandria, Minnesota. (The C* Project seeks to spark courageous conversations about diversity and inclusion in the greater Midwest.)
The note tumbled out of papers leftover from the C* Project event. On it, one of the training participants had written “Dear Ellie, thank you for sharing, being vulnerable, and empowering us!”
My heart was so warmed at finding this incredible gift. It told me that yes, my work in Alexandria had value, that maybe I had made a positive impact. That is the goal of course.
Another gift came three weeks ago when South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed a bill aimed at denying transgender public school students access to restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities that conformed to their “true” gender. As the South Dakota legislature was debating the bill, Daugaard publicly announced that to his knowledge he had never met a transgender person. Shortly thereafter, Daugaard met with several transgender students and adults; he later reported that that meeting had meaning for him–that it put faces and personal stories to the proposed bill. No doubt, that personal contact made it much easier for Daugaard to do the right thing by vetoing the discriminatory bill.
I’ve always said that the key to positive, lasting change is human to human contact, where we can share our stories, be vulnerable (see the sticky note referenced above), and find our many commonalities.
Now for the gift that was taken away.
As much of the country knows by now, in the span of twelve hours, and in a special session called solely for a single purpose, the North Carolina legislature introduced, debated and passed an exceedingly discriminatory law that greatly marginalizes transgender persons. Governor Pat McCrory wasted no time in signing the bill that very evening.
Among other things, the bill nullified local ordinances that granted LGBTQ people protection against discrimination–gifts to anyone on the gender and sexuality spectrums. Even more personal to me, a transgender human, the law prohibits me from utilizing a bathroom or locker room that conforms to my gender identity. Now, if I ever visit North Carolina (which suddenly became a doubtful proposition), I would have to use the men’s restroom. Imagine the kind of problems that would create for me; apparently North Carolina doesn’t care about that.
Apart from what this law does to LGBTQ persons, think of what it does for those who are intolerant or bigoted; now, those persons are empowered. After all, the government has clearly said that LGBTQ people aren’t equal to everyone else. It is, in short, an appalling message with very grave consequences for many humans who are simply trying to live their lives with dignity and respect.
For those who haven’t read or shared my recent Lavender Magazine column, “Bullseye” (which you can find here) I ask that you do so. We need to get the word out about how across this country, there’s a very real effort to stigmatize and marginalize LGBTQ people, particularly transgender persons. Most of all, I’m concerned about the messaging to our youth–particularly trans kids and youth–that you’re not worthy of protecting. As I write in “Bullseye”, these are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
Someday things will be better, that much I’m sure of. My concern is how many people we will lose to violence by others or self-harm before we get there.
January 24, 2016
My 2015 Impact Report
For the first time since I started speaking and training professionally, I have complied a report on what I call my remaining “life’s work” to make the world a better place with greater compassion and kindness for others and ourselves. As I explain in an introductory note, my “2015 Impact Report” derives from my current “day job” as the executive director of a small nonprofit. In that capacity, I’ve learned firsthand how outcomes and metrics are critical to determining success. As I speak, train, and consult on diversity and inclusion, I’m always oriented toward ensuring that my work is impactful. As I review 2015, I think that yes, I’ve had a positive impact. (How much of an impact is anyone’s guess.)
However, there is so much more to do. It’s critical that humans everywhere stand back from small-mindedness, fear, and violence. The only way that will happen is if all of us live with greater compassion for others and ourselves. I’m challenging myself to make 2016 an even more impactful year relative to helping the world become a better place for all.
You can view my 2015 Impact Report here.
January 18, 2016
You need not scroll very far in this blog to know that Dr. King has inspired me my entire life. His words ring in my ears almost every day and in my mind’s eye, I can readily see him standing at the Lincoln Memorial giving his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Of course, people have their own impressions of Dr. King and his legacy. Thus, today I heard an NPR story on how children cleaned a park and others painted the entryway of a women’s shelter. There were marches too, including one in the Twin Cities; I had the pleasure of talking to a young twenty-something woman who helped organize that march. Despite the bone chilling cold that marked the day, she and others freely went forward.
As for me, I lunched with several people who, along with me, belong to a service club. Our meeting was purposeful: laying the groundwork to create the very first diversity and inclusion committee in the thirty year history of this particular club. All of us commented on how fitting it was that of all days, we met today.
In preparation for today’s working lunch, I prepared a document entitled, “Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter.” For those interested, the document can be viewed here.
We must continue to do our respective parts every day of the year.
He would have wanted it that way.
January 10, 2016
This Precious Life
The other day, I attended a lecture at my local Buddhist center. The teacher, a soft-spoken woman in her late sixties, talked of how we often look at death as an ending but offered that in many ways, the thought of dying can be a beginning for self-reflection. She asked, “What will you do with this precious life?”
Her question got me thinking, in part because I’ve actually had two “precious lives”: one as a man, the other as the true me, a woman.
When I lived as a man, I spent much of my time trying to accumulate people and things. I found and held onto Lydia, my high school sweetheart turned wife, who offered great love and security. I worked hard as a young lawyer but earned a sub-par salary. Over time, as I matured into a good trial lawyer, my income went up dramatically, allowing me to accumulate my own law firm, a big house, fine cars, a country club membership, and all the other trappings of success.
I guess you could say that in my first precious life, I was focused on winning the success race; I wanted to be the best, to accumulate it all.
Later, with the help of much therapy, I understood that this focus displaced my inner soul—the one that’s female, my true essence. That displacement worked for a while but ultimately, the real person inside had to emerge and be free, lending to my second precious life at age fifty-two.
Now, as Ellie Krug, my focus isn’t on accumulating things or on the success race. (Indeed, I lost Lydia and all the other things I write about above.) Rather, with authenticity came an amazing degree of energy and vigor aimed at making the world a better place.
The desire to effect positive change has always been inside me (I’ve written before that as an aware eleven-year-old in 1968, I read and heard Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy implore about our collective obligation to help others who struggle), but when I was a boy/man, I didn’t have the courage to allow that desire to be my guiding light.
Living as the true me, I have that courage. As Ellie Krug, my remaining life’s mission is to radically make this world more compassionate and kind.
Thus, in my second life, I can humbly report that a letter I wrote in the summer of 2012 and subsequent collaboration-building I engineered became the sparks for creating a community law firm that will help the working poor in St. Paul. Similarly, with the assistance of many others, in this second precious life I have been able to build a nonprofit that helps thousands of low-income Minnesotans access legal resources. In fact, that nonprofit model may soon be duplicated in Cleveland.
Additionally, with the authenticity that now marks my second precious life, I have often been asked to share about my story and the lessons I’ve learned with people who themselves are trying to make the most of their precious lives. Of course, such requests are both humbling and honoring.
And others seem to understand about the nature of my second precious life’s work; last week, I learned that The Advocate (the nation’s oldest LGBTQ magazine) named me to a list of “25 Legal Advocates Fighting for Transgender Rights.” (See link here.) I cite to this not out of ego (which would be easy to do), but as proof that living one’s precious life in accordance with one’s heart can ripple to many others. Those others, in turn, may be nourished by such rippling; living their lives more authentically, they can then ripple to other humans, and on and on the rippling will go.
It’s also not lost on me that my second precious life will be much shorter than my first. That raw truth pushes me to work harder and with much greater urgency than might be expected of a soon sixty-year- old. It’s that sense of urgency which often has me up at five in the morning writing or planning or preparing.
After all, what makes any life “precious” is that our time is fleeting. We must use it wisely.
So now I’ll be the one to ask: What will you do with this precious life?
December 6, 2015
An Open Letter to the Twin Cities
Dear Minneapolis and St. Paul:
My heart is breaking.
The last several weeks have been punctuated by bullets, loss, grieving, rage, protest, debate, and the sad recognition that we’re totally lost on how to close the racial, economic and justice gaps that divide our collective community.
My heart hurts because yet again there’s death and violence and nothing in terms of a real game plan for change by our leaders.
I’m in pain because I moved from Iowa to the Twin Cities five years ago believing that vibrant diversity here would be an asset and a way to fit in. Instead, after sitting in scores of professional meetings where the only color in the room is lily white, I’ve realized that all too often, diversity equates to lip service followed by persistent ignoring and marginalizing. In the worst of cases, diversity seems to be good reason to place targets on the backs of humans.
Did I mention that I’m white?
I ache because it’s so obvious that our problems (emphasis intended) go way beyond police departments that can’t get it right. With an achievement gap between white and black students that’s worthy of the Third World and a dearth of meaningful, career-oriented employment opportunities for persons of color, it’s clear that what’s going on in the Twin Cities is deep-rooted and pervasive. (Did you know that Minneapolis ranks dead last in financial/racial equality in the United States?)
I fear that we’re far beyond forgivable ignorance and mere negligence. “We’re trying” no longer cuts it.
What to do? What will it take to make my heart—and the hearts of thousands of others who want immediate positive change—not hurt? How in the world can we stop marginalizing whole groups simply on the basis of skin color or socio-economic status?
For starters, the two cities should each appoint a diversity and inclusion “Czar” (I suggest the title “Inclusion Czar” since “inclusion” is more to the point of what’s needed in our community) to work jointly to vision, facilitate, coordinate and carry out a Twin Cities-wide plan that has the following elements:
- Facilitated community-wide neighborhood meetings (what I call “Change Sessions”) that focus on our commonalities rather than our differences and which educate on how to live with compassionate inclusivity. Translated: residents of South Minneapolis will travel to talk to residents of North Minneapolis and vice versa. Change Sessions will take place throughout both cities in multiple neighborhoods over two or three years or longer. In other words, the meetings won’t be a one-shot deal.
- Creation of a “Core Values” community education program that covers the economic value of a diverse workforce and which trains on unconscious bias, micro-inequities, and cultural humility. Critically, the training should also cover “trauma informed systems” (e.g. how growing up in dysfunctional family and cultural situations can create life-long acclimation problems). Additionally, the training must involve such basic things as how to talk to people who are “different” and how to involve, promote and sponsor persons of color, persons with disabilities, foreign-born persons, women, and LGBTQ persons. The training should include testing and certification that the participant successfully understands these critical concepts, along with a pledge that the participant will actively work to make the Twin Cities more welcoming to people who are “different.” Anyone should be able to participate in Core Values training and certification.
- Enlistment of each city’s chamber of commerce to train business leaders on Core Values. The list of certified businesses and their trained leaders should be published and updated regularly.
- With the certification process, an employer should pledge to aspire to have a workforce that mirrors the percentage of non-white Twin Cities residents (approximately 36%), understanding that this target will be variable depending on workforce size and type of business.
- Each city’s school system should undergo Core Values training and have the same minority workforce target expected of Twin Cities businesses. The names of Core Values-certified teachers and administrators should be published.
- A condition of granting any city-based license should be Core Values training and certification. If you’re going to be sanctioned by the city to do business, you darn well should be required to understand the customers and workforce with whom your business will interact.
- Creation of a “Change Force” (as contrasted with yet another ineffective “task force” to study the problem) comprised of representatives from organizations that have already demonstrated how to effect positive racial and socio-economic change. (Examples include the Jeremiah Program, Joyce Preschool, Achieve Minneapolis and the collaborative that ensured for a diverse Vikings Stadium construction work force.) Working hand in hand with the Inclusion Czars, Change Force members will identify and implement additional strategies for positive, impactful and permanent change.
- Enlistment of various white power centers to engage in Core Values training. This list must include the Minneapolis Club, the University Club, the suburban county clubs, and social service groups like the Rotary and Lions clubs. Until we have buy in from these white power centers, nothing will change for the better.
- Obviously with developments of late, the two cities’ police departments need Core Values training and an assortment of structural changes. This should be a priority of the Inclusion Czars.
- Finally, there should be an annual report on the “State of Our Diverse Community” which tracks progress or non-progress toward making the Twin Cities more welcoming and equal for all of its citizens. In the event of non-progress, people and institutions should be held accountable.
I’m sure that some of the above is susceptible to being dismissed as naïve or uninformed or too harsh. Yet, I feel the need to offer something to get us moving. What’s more is that I’m willing to back these words with my actions—I’m not afraid to enter the fray.
But I can’t do it alone. I need your help.
Thus, even though my heart is hurting, it still functions as meant to be—it remains open to offer compassion, kindness and energy to make our community a better place. To those thousands of other humans with similar hurting hearts, let’s work collectively to change the Twin Cities for the betterment of everyone.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug
(A lengthier version of this letter may be downloaded by clicking Open Letter re Change.)
August 1, 2015
Review: I am Cait
Many in the transgender community are weighing in on the launch of I am Cait and Caitlyn Jenner’s “performance,” to the extent that phrase even applies to a reality TV show.
Here’s my two cents worth.
First, some perspective. Like me, Caitlyn is a “gender corrector” who built a very good life based on her birth gender. And, like me, she made the “courageous” decision to “correct” in mid-course (some [including me] would say that it was pure self-survival rather than bravery which took her to where she is now–this was certainly true for me), which meant upending life’s apple cart and risking the loss of many loved ones and friends.
“Gender correctors” constitute a large camp in the transgender community. However, there’s another identifiable group, the “baby trans” camp—children, adolescents, and young teens who both know and articulate that their birth gender doesn’t match their emotional/intuitive gender identity. Often, but not always, humans in the “baby trans” camp find support from their parents and friends to a degree that “gender correctors” could never imagine happening for themselves at a younger age.
Both gender correctors and baby trans share some similar issues—struggling with understanding self-identity; challenging societal gender norms; access to quality therapeutic and medical care; and much institutionalized discrimination because only 19 states currently provide legal protection for transgender persons.
There have been a number of transgender “activists” at work of late—Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are the most notable—but Caitlyn Jenner is taking activism in a new direction. With her recent speech at the ESPY Awards, she signaled that her focus would be on transgender youth. In particular, she made clear that she’s willing to tackle the horrific suicide rate for trans teens and the circumstances that foster such self-destruction.
Thus as we hear in the first minutes of I am Cait, achieving true authenticity has given Caitlyn newfound energy to make a difference in the world. Later in the show, she visits the Prescott family who horrifically lost their 14 year old transgender (female to male) son Kyler to suicide. Mom reported that she and other family members told Kyler “I still love you” from the moment Kyler came out as transgender. Surprisingly, it wasn’t classmate bullying that led to Kyler’s death, but instead, non-acceptance by adults. From there, we see Caitlyn at a balloon memorial in Kyler’s honor where Caitlyn is supportive of and encouraging to LGBTQ youth who had gathered for the event.
It is this bridge between senior and young, confident American hero and struggling transgender youth, which Caitlyn so vividly represents. In this capacity, Caitlyn has potential to be THE transformative agent in the public discussion about transgender people. Simply put, by focusing on trans youth, Caitlyn Jenner will surely save lives. In doing so, yes my dear Caitlyn, you will be making a true difference in the world.
Thank you for that. Thank you also for not allowing your celebrity status to completely occupy your existence. One could certainly see you going in a totally different direction rather than staying true to your humanity.
There are some elements of I am Cait that for me evoked less admirable reactions—the fact that Caitlyn seems to have moment’s notice make-up artists and hair stylists; the complete absence of any discussion about how substance abuse plays a huge role in the transgender community as a coping mechanism; and the fact that there were no men anywhere to be seen in Caitlyn’s social interactions—but these are relatively minor compared to the other messaging that Caitlyn offers.
As this blog piece goes to print, I’m also reading previews about tomorrow night’s episode of I am Cait where Caitlyn’s conservative attitudes (read Republican) come into play. Assuming Caitlyn holds to the course she appears to have charted in helping change the landscape for transgender youth, I’m even willing to put up with her politics. (Of course, let’s see how I feel about this by the time the eighth—and last—episode of the series airs. As the saying goes, stay tuned!)
To summarize, I don’t know if I have all that much hope for I am Cait, but I can say unequivocally that I have mountains of hope for Caitlyn. She is a true game changer. The great thing is that she knows this and apparently isn’t letting it go completely to her head.
July 16, 2015
Caitlyn Jenner: A New Era Begins
That’s the only word that even comes close to describing last night’s ESPY Awards speech by Caitlyn Jenner, a cataclysmic event that marks the beginning of a new era for transgender persons across the globe.
Caitlyn’s words were a combination of light humor, sheer honesty, poignant reflection, and raw emotion. She reminded the world that while all of us are different (“and that’s a good thing” she added), we have a common obligation to respect each other.
It was that word—respect—which stood out above anything else.
Think about it: an American icon, a true hero as a man, spoke to tens of millions about what it means to find authenticity and be true to one’s self. Her very appearance epitomized authenticity. As well as courage.
I have to imagine that the power brokers of the world—mainly middle-aged and older men, many of whom no doubt vividly recall a male Olympic champion named Jenner—rapidly reset attitudes and preconceived notions about trans persons as they watched Caitlyn’s speech. That of course would be a good thing.
Indeed, Caitlyn acknowledged that she has a unique platform to “educate” others about trans persons, particularly about trans youth who are desperate to live as their true selves. No one else is so uniquely positioned to help the world understand what it means to be torn between brain and body relative to gender. In utilizing that platform as she’s promised, Caitlyn will fundamentally change the landscape for transgender persons. I’m just positive of it.
Let me come back to that word, “respect.”
Humans have been teaching about respect for centuries. It’s one of those things that we never seem to get quite right. Coincidentally, whether we’re talking about transgender people or persons of color or those who are foreign-born and travel to the U.S. for a new life, respect is in exceedingly short supply at the moment.
It may be that the “Caitlyn effect” will help increase the reservoir of respect that’s so desperately needed for all humans, transgender or otherwise.
One can only hope.
p.s. you can read about some lessons that one transgender person has learned here.
May 25, 2015
Paying it Forward
Memorial Day. Remembering. Sacrifice. Gratitude. Hope. Paying it forward.
These words come to mind as I write on this special day of solemnity and celebration. In particular, I’m remembering that I get to live as Ellie Krug–the true, authentic female me–because of others who acted as protectors and champions. At the most basic and raw level, people fought and died to preserve this country I call mine. Others bravely said “no more” to hatred, discrimination and marginalization. Many marched in the streets demanding change at a time when change seemed so impossible. Some, elected to lead, valiantly fought for laws to protect and empower me. Yet more, lawyers like me, litigated and advocated for those who lacked a voice.
I know the identities of almost none of those humans who did so much for me. Yet, I am extremely thankful for their sacrifices.
I’m also thinking of the final scene in Saving Private Ryan that has Tom Hanks’ character Captain Miller mortally wounded. The solider that Miller and his platoon rescues, Private Ryan, attempts to comfort Miller when Miller speaks his final words to Ryan, “Now earn it.” (I’m recalling this from memory; I’m sure that some movie buff will give me the exact quote; regardless, you get the idea.)
All of which brings me to the last words in the heading above, “paying it forward.”
I so believe in giving back; for me, it’s not voluntary or something “extra.” Instead, after having fought so very hard to achieve authenticity, I’m now driven to help other humans find their footing in the world. This is the reason why I speak and engage in outreach; it’s why I enter rooms filled with strangers to talk about core issues, such as fear or loss or disconnectedness. Always, my talks are about compassion and kindness and the connection that comes with vulnerability.
Paying it forward is also why I work what’s essentially become two jobs–one that helps poor people find lawyers and the other which helps spark internal and external dialogue about being human. I find both gigs extremely rewarding (and at times, exhausting!).
Thus, one of my standard lines when I give presentations is this offer: that I will meet with anyone in a public place to discuss gender or LGBTQ issues, or anything else related to being human. Certainly I don’t hold myself out as a therapist; still, I have a fair amount of perspective. I find that in general, people are hungry for perspective.
Within the last few weeks, I’ve met with complete strangers to talk about their challenges in transitioning genders; others have asked for help in figuring out career plans; one person even wanted to discuss how society could better address depression and those who contemplate suicide.
All of these meetings have enriched me. Yes, I’ve offered my perspective and talked about my experiences, but I get so much back from these strangers. Sometimes, I’m challenged and find that my thinking needs to be modified. In other instances, I’ve been surprised by the generosity that’s been offered.
Always, I’ve been humbled. I am so incredibly honored that someone would want my advice.
I am also honored to have many mentees, past and present. I’ve been called upon to review resumes, cover letters, job offers, and evaluations. Every once in a while, someone asks for my time to talk about a romantic or personal relationship. On other occasions, I’ve been there for a mentee who’s lost another to death or addiction.
We all have the capacity to pay it forward. Everyone has perspective. Collectively, we are tied to each other in an infinite number of ways.
On this day, I ask you to remember those who paved the way for you. Think of how you can help pave the way for others. It simply takes intention and time.
And a willingness.
April 26, 2015
A Transgender Person’s Reflections on Bruce Jenner’s Coming Out
I knew that I was in for an emotional two hours when Bruce Jenner started his interview with Diane Sawyer by volunteering, “I’ve been thinking about this day forever.”
What I didn’t know was how remarkably similar Bruce’s story would be to mine.
Thus, my jaw began to drop when Bruce used phrases—my phrases, words that I’ve actually written—like “My soul is female,” “I’m not stuck in a body; it’s just who I am,” and “I want to be true to myself.” He (recall that Bruce indicated male pronouns are proper for now) later related how he threw himself into Olympics preparation and other work as a way of displacing thoughts about being female; I too had displaced by becoming a workaholic lawyer.
The uncanny similarities didn’t end there. In particular, there was one thing that Bruce said which so resonated with me: he couldn’t endure the idea of dying without being himself, a woman. As he put it, “I’d be so mad at myself if I didn’t explore that side of me.”
Those who’ve read my book, Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change, will recall that the pivotal moment in my struggle for authenticity came with the tragedy of 9/11. I was 44 years old then and it was on that day when I realized for the very first time I could actually die without being me, the real me, a woman who would ultimately be named “Ellen.” That enlightenment set in motion a long series of painful events (for myself and many loved ones) which culminated in my transitioning genders in 2009.
Bruce’s interview helped the world at large understand the very real struggle transgender people experience. He talked of feeling disingenuous as a motivational speaker who gave talks about “living as a champion.” As Bruce related, he would walk off the stage from a presentation and say to himself, “You’re a liar.” He’d then retreat to his hotel room and don women’s clothing, the one refuge where he could find momentary authenticity.
I know that many can’t understand the conundrum that trans people face. We “gender correctors” build lives around our birth genders and often find great success—love from spouses or partners and children, notable careers, and money in the bank. Yet, for someone struggling with an inner spirit—for Bruce and me, that spirit is a vibrant, persistent female—love by others and accumulations just aren’t enough. As a consequence, and despite what are tremendous personal losses for many of us, we “correct” to our “true” genders.
On Friday night, Bruce announced his “correction.” Call it “brave” or “courageous” or anything else laudatory. Me, I simply see it as being finally truthful with one’s self in order to survive.
Many people can’t fathom how love and money wouldn’t be sufficient to stay one’s course in life. Some will still believe that Bruce is making a “choice,” that living as a woman isn’t something that’s absolutely necessary. Those same people surely also believe being gay or lesbian are choices. I know about this because, I too, frequently heard the “choice” argument.
Sorry, but I’m here to report that some things in life—like gender or sexuality or one’s need to paint or write or act on stage—aren’t choices. Instead, they are reflections of one’s essence. They go to our core as human and are as natural as the act of breathing. Take them away, separate us from them, and a human will die, either emotionally or in actuality.
That’s one of the reasons why transgender people have a horrific suicide rate compared to the general population.
Undoubtedly, others will invoke religion and the idea that God doesn’t make mistakes. Even worse for some is the idea that a person would “tinker” with “God’s gift” of one’s body. It’s this camp of people which is pushing in several states legislation to criminalize a transgender person’s use of bathrooms that conform to one’s gender identity (as opposed to one’s birth anatomy). Such legislation is both demeaning and harmful, and echoes of Jim Crow. I can only hope that Bruce’s coming out will elevate the national dialogue about how transgender people are being treated inequitably.
Indeed, Bruce spoke of “doing good” for others now that he’s living as his true self. I’m sure he’ll have the platform for it.
Hence, here’s one last similarity: those who know me understand that I travel across the country giving “Trans 101” presentations in order to make the world a better place, not only for trans people but for all humans. For that to happen, we need to understand each other way better than we’ve done thus far.
In the end, it’s all about living authentically. Tied to authenticity is compassion for self. All too often, we forget about compassion—either for ourselves or for others. In this world of screens and soundbites, it’s easy to judge both ourselves and others negatively. Transgender people (and others who live authentically) offer an opportunity to reflect on the real work and sacrifice that it takes to be compassionate.
We get only one chance to live life in a way that’s truly right for one’s self. Bruce Jenner reminded us of this critical realism on Friday night.
Hopefully, the world will better understand as a result.
April 4, 2015
Lately, I’ve been repeatedly reminded of how making one’s way through the world can ripple to others.
For example, within the last couple of months I’ve experienced an uptick in the number of people—absolute strangers theretofore—who reach out to me for advice. Some of these “new friends” are transgender and ask to meet to discuss gender transition-related issues. However, the vast majority of people aren’t transgender. These folks are simply asking for advice or perspective on their particular life situations.
Thus, over lunch last Monday I spoke with a Luther College senior who wanted advice about attending law school— was a good idea; if so, should he take off more than one leap year; and what kinds of experiences should he cultivate before law school? At happy hour that same day, I met with a University of Minnesota third year law student who wanted to brainstorm on her job search and networking strategies. These young people were delightful and extremely engaging. Good for them to be astute enough to reach out to an “elder” (ahem, I’m not entirely crazy about that word but it precisely connotes my role) and take the risk of perhaps being lectured to. (Something that I tried to avoid, but I’m not sure that I entirely succeeded.)
I found myself giving much of the same advice to both momentary mentees: think big, take calculated risks, be honest with yourself to the point that it hurts, and do whatever you can to expand your perspective about the world and its people. We discussed the need for authenticity and how making a positive difference for others is critical. We also talked about student debt and how it can so handicap one’s choices. On the other hand, with the Luther student I spoke about “golden handcuffs” and how making a lot of money can also handicap one’s spirit—you get used to a lifestyle that requires a high income, meaning that money, rather than doing good, becomes the confining primary objective.
I also explained that every bit of my advice was founded on mistakes—some huge, others small—that I had made along the way. Learning from one’s mistakes, I said, is critical. Finally, I told both young persons to keep a written journal because ink and paper are granular; moreover, journaling documents one’s personal journey like nothing else. There’s great value in being able to flip forty pages back to discover that you’ve had the same recurring thought for months on end.
For me, these kinds of interactions are humbling and honoring. It’s readily apparent that my speaking activities and leadership roles are rippling to others, leading them to seek me out one way or another. I am so incredibly honored that anyone would ask for my advice. And too, I take that responsibility very seriously. A mentor is one of the most special roles that anyone can take on.
What I call my “good work” is rippling in another way, too.
I’ve been doing more and more consulting for employers relative to transgender employees who seek to transition genders in the workplace. (Look for a soon-to-be new tab on my website covering my consulting work.) I am finding that many companies want perspective and advice on how to make the transition process a win-win for employee and employer.
Once again, I am humbled. I’ve received wonderful feedback from both transgender person in transition and his/her employer. Just yesterday, a “transman” (a person transitioning from female to male) wrote that he’d never forget me because of how my work (and that of the employer’s team members) helped him to feel authentic and whole. He wrote that it took a huge weight off his shoulders—there’s always such apprehension and fear associated with transitioning genders, both for the employee and employer.
The thought of being remembered by a relative stranger is pretty overwhelming. It’s the best kind of rippling; making a difference in the life of one person here and then there is really why I changed from “junk yard dog” lawyer (a favorite phrase of Janelle, a former girlfriend turned dear friend) to compassionate and positive change-producing human.
In short, I’m so incredibly lucky to hear that others are finding value in my work. Not everyone gets that kind of feedback, I know.
Here’s to more rippling in the future. I’d love if the ripples could flow on and on!
January 5, 2015
An Open Letter to Every Leelah Alcorn in the World
(On December 28,2014, a 17 year old transgender woman named Leelah Alcorn committed suicide near her home in southern Ohio. In a suicide note, Leelah described how her parents wouldn’t accept that she was female due to religious convictions and their belief that because she had been born with male genitalia, God “doesn’t make mistakes.” Leelah wrote about hopelessness, despair, and feeling as if she had no options other than suicide. To give meaning to Leelah’s death, here is my message to every other young transgender person–every potential Leelah Alcorn–in the world.)
Dear Hurting Human:
I feel your pain. Actually, I know your agony all too well: I lived with it for fifty years until I transitioned from sad and gravely depressed man to to the real me, a happy and full-of-life woman.
Like you, I know what it means to keenly understand that your body doesn’t match your brain. I too experienced the never-ending gut tug and pull–the relentless voice of authenticity from deep within–that shouts at you night and day about not living in your “true” gender.
I also know how that voice won’t go away until you’re whole, living as your true self.
I’ve lived through the other things we transgender people experience to extremes before we’re able to transition genders, like the compartmentalizing and hiding that we must do lest we be judged or unloved or beaten up or worse.
And yes, I know about the self-hatred that comes from being caught between their world where gender is based on birth anatomy and our world where we intuitively know that gender resides in our brains. I’ve found that unless you act with self-compassion and understanding that being born into the wrong gender wasn’t something you willingly did, the hatred you feel toward yourself will devour your soul.
What’s more, just as you’ve experienced, I was judged by others for wanting to live as who I really am–a woman. Like you, I heard that I was “choosing” my new gender; that I was electing to hurt those I loved; and that I was unforgivably “tinkering” with “God’s gift.” One person even called me a “ghost”–that the real person they knew and cared about (me as a man) was dead.
Boy, that stuff hurt. On some days, I heard words that caused me to want to die–to just give up and end the struggle to achieve Me. But I didn’t.
In short, I understand how incredibly hard it may be and I absolutely get how you’ve arrived at this point.
I also absolutely know that you can get past all of this crap. Trust me on this.
For starters, please remember that you’re not alone. Hundreds of trans people are coming out every week; there are thousands of us showing up every month; hundreds of thousands of us are finally living as our true selves every year. Education systems, governments, churches, and businesses are making room for us. More and more therapists understand what it means to be transgender and can better counsel us. The world is changing at light speed–all for the better.
Please also know that many people–some familiar, some not–care about you. We are all interconnected: electronically, emotionally, by affinity. There are those in your circle of friends who care about you; no one is ever totally alone. Moreover, there are many public trans people who make it their mission to mentor and guide younger trans folks. Search out those people; they will help you.
If all else fails, I will help you. I mean that.
Another thing: please give yourself credit. We trans folk are persistent and incredibly resilient, even tough. We take journeys that most people can’t even fathom taking. We’re smart and savvy–it’s not easy clearing the hurdles that others put in our way, but we do it. Most of all, we understand that everything good in life comes incrementally. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one backward; however, over time, we move forward until we achieve the one thing we know life’s worth living for: authenticity.
Two last things before I go. First, you need to be in therapy. This journey of ours is incredibly difficult and no one can do it alone. If you have the wrong therapist, find a new one. If that means banging on a table until you get a new therapist, then do it. (There’s that persistence thing again.) If things get too bad, go to the hospital and ask for help. There is always some therapeutic alternative that’s available. (Put into your phone the number for the Trevor Project’s Trevor Lifeline: 866-488-7386 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. Use these; they can save your life!)
The second thing?
I actually know what it means to be left behind when someone takes their own life. My father. I was thirty-three. I never had the chance to help. Even worse, I never got to say goodbye. There’s a wound in my heart that will never, ever heal and that really sucks.
In the end, suicide isn’t about you. It’s about those who are left behind. Many of those you’d leave behind have the capacity to change, to become open to you–the real you–over time. I’ve seen people who I lost when I came out as Ellie come back to me with open arms. If you kill yourself, you’ll never give those who don’t understand the chance to grow and love the authentic you.
Finally, I started this letter with the salutation, “human.” That’s because “human” is, after all, synonymous with “transgender.” Humans are by no means perfect but when allowed, they can be infinitely genuine and true to themselves. So can trans persons.
Please allow that to happen with you. Please give yourself the chance to be a genuine and authentic human. I promise, you will be worth the effort.
September 21, 2014
The “Rent” for Living: Mentoring
I recently attended a luncheon, “The Value of Mentoring Relationships,” which was sponsored by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce Executive Women’s Council. One of the speakers was a heroine of mine, Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Wilhelmina Wright, who shared that having certain mentors was pivotal in her rise from private practice attorney to state supreme court justice. She spoke of the need to create one’s own “board of directors” comprised of various mentors who may fulfill different roles–the confidant, someone who can help you network, an idea person, and so on.
Justice Wright ended by quoting Marian Wright Edelman, “Mentoring is the rent you pay for living.” This quote absolutely grabbed me; I couldn’t agree more.
I’ve been extremely honored to have the privilege of acting as mentor to a number of younger lawyers, law students, and persons trying to establish themselves in non-legal careers. Last week I had lunch with a past mentee, Alyssa, a University of St. Thomas Law School graduate who recently passed the Wisconsin bar and is awaiting word on a Milwaukee job prospect. Several weeks ago, I had helped her prepare for that job interview.
My lunch with Alyssa was some catching up on our respective lives and planning for what she’ll do if this job doesn’t come through. What struck me most was her gratitude for our past relationship and the kind words she had for the impact that I’ve had on her views about diversity and inclusion. As she related, she grew up in a small Wisconsin town where she never met anyone “different” from her. I’m the first transgender person she”s known. Understanding that, and then hearing that she valued my opinions and guidance, simply made me feel good. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to positively influence Alyssa. It is, as I said, an honor. It’s also a responsibility that I take seriously.
I believe that everyone has something to offer in terms of mentoring to another person. I also believe that mentors can be crucial toward helping a mentee develop the confidence and perspective needed to succeed. Women in particular benefit from mentoring; after all, in many ways the deck is stacked against them. A mentor can serve as a navigator for younger women, giving them the extra edge that’s needed to succeed.
If you’re a younger person reading this, I urge you to reach out to someone you respect. Ask if they’d be your mentor; I suspect that person, like me, would be honored by your request.
If the person reading this blog entry is older, I ask that you offer to mentor to a younger person. We experienced folks owe it to the younger generation–after all, it’s that “rent” stuff.
April 19, 2014
It’s been two months since I last blogged. Partly that’s been due to busyness–at my nonprofit we spent weeks planning for a fundraiser featuring the string quartet, Well-Strung. I’m quite thrilled to report that the fundraiser, which took place barely a week ago, was a huge success!
Many thanks to my board of directors, our volunteers, and my wonderful colleague, Emily.
But there were other reasons for my absence. Much of it had to do with the weather in Minnesota. As in much of the country, it’s been a brutal winter here; the cold particularly. So cold that it forced me out of my exercise routine. Many mornings I found myself sticking under the covers, not wanting to set foot in a cold condo to ride my stationary bike. This led to me not sleeping well and not feeling particularly good about my body. In short order, I found myself caught up in a vicious cycle, one that wore at my resiliency.
It wore at me so much that I stopped blogging. Facebook and Twitter became distant memories, too. Somehow, I kept up with my obligations as a columnist for Lavender Magazine and ACCESSLine.
I’ve always prided myself on my resiliency. It was the one thing I could count on. It’s what kept me pushing ahead even as I fought myself over my “gender demon” back when I lived as a man. Time and again, I deflected depression and suicidal ideation as I told myself to stick with figuring out who was the woman lurking within my spirit. Over and over, I found the strength to slog forward.
And too, there were the surgeries–three within an eight month period. You can do this, I told myself. And I did.
That’s the thing about transgender people–we’re extremely resilient. I often talk about this quality when I speak of why employers should hire us. We’re exceptional when it comes to hanging in under difficult conditions–precisely the kind of team member that many employers crave.
Still, the last several months have seen my resiliency wane. I found myself being a bit less patient and a bit more crabby. It wasn’t even close to the old “man days” of frustration-aggression, but it put me on guard. I turned to my reserves of generosity and kindness as a way to counter my resiliency deficit.
I tell myself that at least I’ve noticed my resiliency issue. I’ve been able to label it. And now, I’m working to regain resiliency. Just today, in fifty degree weather, I took a ride on my beloved bike, the White Knight. It was a quick trip from the Stone Arch Bridge to Lake Calhoun, but it was enough to nourish me, to feed my soul, and to force the resiliency meter upward rather than downward.
Moreover, the bike ride helped me return here, back to this space for anyone who finds my words of value. My friends. Or soon-to-be friends.
I’m also sleeping better this week. There are no more dreams about poor fundraiser ticket sales or event-cancelling snowstorms. Now I have the peace of mind that comes from a fit sleep.
This resiliency stuff is incredibly important. It allows us to weather all kinds of challenges and personal storms. I wish you, dear gentle readers, all the resiliency you need!
February 15, 2014
Intent and Forgiveness
Intent matters. So does forgiveness.
I’ve thought about intent and forgiveness a great deal in the four weeks since I last blogged. In just a month, I’ve watched the national dialogue about trans people ratchet upward. First, there were Katie Couric’s well-intentioned yet very awkward interviews of model Carmen Carrera and actress Laverne Cox, which included questions about “bottom surgery” (my phrase but you get the idea). With class and adroitness, Carrera and Cox shifted the inquiry from anatomy to how society fails to “get” that transgender folk want to talk about more important things–like marginalization, violence against trans women of color (in particular), and their general inability to be accepted.
Later, many criticized Couric for her invasive questioning. That led to a Couric admitting to having a tremendous “learning moment” about trans people.
And then just last week, a very supportive Piers Morgan walked into a buzz saw with his interviews of Janet Mock, a thirty year old trans activist and writer who is out promoting her newly released memoir.
In the first interview, Morgan innocently asked Mock about her life, including commenting on the fact that she had been “born a boy.” With a contagious smile, Mock went on at length describing how she grew up in Hawaii knowing that she was in fact, a girl, and with the support of her family, how she navigated her way to transitioning genders at age eighteen. I watched as Morgan repeatedly plugged Mock’s book and gushed over her femininity and beauty. It was a brilliant marketing moment for both Morgan and Mock.
However, immediately following that interview, Mock sparked a firestorm on Twitter and other fronts by claiming that many of Morgan’s questions were inappropriate–in particular his asking Mock about being “born a boy.” Mock’s newfound appall–that she was “born a baby,” and not a boy, since she had no choice in determining her gender at birth–earned her a second interview with Morgan the next day where she repeatedly attacked Morgan for insensitivity. When Morgan raised that Mock publicly came out as transgender in a 2011 Marie Claire article entitled, “I Was Born a Boy,” Mock deflected the question, saying that she didn’t control how that article was titled.
Obviously bewildered, Morgan wondered out loud how it was that in the span of twenty-four hours, he went from a champion of the transgender community to being its worst enemy. He also asked how it was possible that Mock could be offended about the “boy” question when she discussed her birth gender in her memoir.
I felt so sorry for Piers Morgan. His bewilderment was quite understandable. His first interview of Mock was a love fest by both participants. When that unraveled, Morgan’s common sense questions during his second interview relative to Mock’s writings pointed out the reality that as a writer-activist, Mock can’t have it one way in print and then a completely different way in person. Back when I practiced as a trial lawyer, that kind of inconsistency made for great courtroom drama through what lawyers refer to as “impeachment.”
So let me get back to intent. And let me, a transgender person, say something that needs to be said.
I don’t believe that either Couric or Morgan intended to embarrass or maginalize their interviewees. Nor do I believe that they should be ostracized for asking questions that some trans people find off-putting. Morgan’s interview in particular was devoid of anything to cause a trans person real discomfort.
Yes, for sure, Couric and Morgan clearly didn’t (and probably still don’t–how can they?) understand what it means to be transgender. However, it was also equally clear that their intent was well-meaning–they simply wanted to learn more about us, about what it means to be a trans person. Sure, genitalia is not a great place to start, Katie, but okay, I get it. It’s natural to wonder.
In other words, there’s a difference between being curious and being critical. One is forgivable, the other isn’t.
What’s more, neither Couric or Morgan deserved the kind of backlash they encountered. Rather than attack, the trans community and its allies should reach back with the one thing that we seek the most: compassion. How is it that we can’t be understanding here? Couric and Morgan clearly were trying to help broader society understand the “trans experience.” Isn’t this what we want?
I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t enormous issues facing transgender people. Thirty-three states provide no legal protection for trans folk. Our attempted and actual suicide rates are horrific. Many of us lose loved ones, jobs, and housing because of who we are. And then there’s the violence against trans people.
Yet, when “straight” society reaches its hand out good-naturedly, we find ourselves biting back? Who are we trying to help here? Is it our community? Or is there some other agenda?
The compassionate approach is to understand that all of us–trans and cisgender (non-trans) people alike–have so very much in common. All of us want to love and be loved; we fret about and aspire for our children; and we simply want to be accepted for who we are, regardless of orientation, occupation, or avocation. Can’t we simply operate from that perspective? Why do trans people feel compelled to fling shoulder chips instead?
Katie and Piers I forgive you.
Now, let’s get on with the business of understanding each other, human to human.
January 4, 2014
I sat with a delightful new friend the other evening, getting to know him. “Erik” (pseudonym) is an articulate and friendly transman (female to male transgender person). He’s in his mid-thirties, very smart, an educator, and someone who’s just starting his gender journey. He talked about being in the early stages of transitioning genders, which means getting to know a new therapist and investigating insurance options relative to “top surgery” (double mastectomies to remove breast tissue for a man’s chest). He was very excited about transitioning, but expressed apprehension, too.
After all, flipping genders isn’t easily accomplished.
Our discussion took me back to the initial days of my transition, something that wasn’t all that long ago, all things considered. In 2008, I had micro-short hair, a beard heavy enough to sport a three o’clock shadow, and a coarse black-pepper voice. When I walked into a salon in April of that year, I asked the stylist, Gerard, whether he thought it possible to grow my hair out. I showed him several clipped magazine pictures of women with shoulder-length hair.
Gerard spent a good good five minutes examining me from all sides; he repeatedly rubbed his hands through the short bristles on my head. Finally, he said, “Oh, yeah, I can do that.” He grinned as if I had just thrown down a glove in challenge.
As my hair grew, I learned (point of fact, I’m still learning) about make-up, clothing, feminine speech patterns, and the legal requirements for changing one’s name. I started a year of weekly speech therapy sessions to raise that voice of mine (another point of fact–I’m still deep voiced, much to my chagrin).
Barely a year later, in May 2009, I publicly came out as Ellen Krug. From that moment on, it was only skirts, heels, and women’s jeans for me. I no longer wore even an iota of men’s clothing. I finalized my name change and went through the not inconsiderable hassle of changing my name on everything–driver’s license, social security card, life and car insurance, utility bills, and bar licenses. By the time I was done, I had a much greater appreciation for what theretofore newly married women went through when they took their husband’s name. (Thankfully, as I write this, with gay marriage in nearly twenty states, that stereotype no longer applies nearly as much as it once did.)
Three surgeries followed in 2010 and early 2011. Within seven months, I underwent facial feminization (think super-duper face lift along with a nose job and tracheal shave [to eliminate my Adam’s Apple]) and two procedures to replace my penis scrotum glob with a fully functioning vagina, labia and urethra.
Thus, by April 2011, three years after I first walked into Gerard’s salon, I was done. Ellen Krug had finally arrived. Hooray!
When I think back, I wonder how I could have ever mustered the guts to do all that. And of course, I was extremely lucky; unlike the vast majority of trans people, I had the financial resources to pay for everything out of pocket (for me, insurance wasn’t an option).
The emotional and financial barriers to transitioning account for why only about 20 percent of all trans people actually transition genders. Thus, my discussion with Erik had real meaning. He and I are both part of a very privileged group of transgender people.
This is part of the reason why I speak and present on what it means to be transgender. It’s important that non-trans people have some idea of what it takes to transition genders; the net result is that more information reduces both the stigma and mystery.
For other trans people, it’s important that they have role models, people who have survived the process of transitioning. They need to be reminded about the hard work (emotionally and physically) involved. And too, they need to hear that life on this side of the gender fence, post-transition, is worth all the trouble.
After all, what price do you put on living authentically?
Good luck my new friend Erik. I wish you well!
November 27, 2013
Thank You, Iowa!
It’s been a week since I spent a day at Iowa State University where I spoke to several classes, held a reading for my memoir, Getting to Ellen, gave a radio interview, and met many wonderful people. The day culminated with a keynote address to commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance, where I spoke to a crowd of 300. My speech was titled “Living as Transgender: Compassion for One’s Self and for Others,” and I took the occasion to honor trans people who have died violently simply because they wanted to live as their true selves. However, I went one step further and focused on the many transgender persons who attempt suicide and those who succeed. (I also didn’t limit my approach simply to the T’s; I also highlighted suicide’s impact on the L’s, G’s and B’s from the queer person alphabet, and just plain humans without a letter attached to them.)
I asked the audience:
Why do we hate ourselves so very much that death—the utter nothingness of death—seems the only viable option? Why do we feel that we have no choice about whether to live or die? How is it that we have a society that nurtures pets—cats, dogs and exotic fish—to the tune of billions of dollars a year but yet can’t find within its collective self to nurture humans who are simply seeking to live their lives authentically and genuinely?
At one point in my speech, I asked for a show of hands from those who had been touched by the suicide of loved ones, family members or friends. I watched as 50 or so hands crept upward. “Look around,” I said. “See those who know firsthand the price that we pay for being human.”
The reality is that suicide is a real risk for many trans people and for many others in today’s society. We live in a world that’s a huge paradox: on the one hand, lesbian and gay people are becoming more accepted (Illinois–the 16th state–legalized same sex marriage just last week!); on the other hand, there’s a huge backlash against people who challenge the status quo. Trans people happen to be the most frequent target of that backlash. Just watch Fox News; many of its leading personalities aren’t hesitant to engage in trans bashing as a way of making ratings.
The net result?
For some, it’s hard to believe in one’s self when society at large is calling us freaks or even worse. We’re marginalized to an extraordinary degree and it becomes extraordinarily easier to permanently check out when you think you don’t matter.
My Iowa State address was aimed at instilling in listeners the idea that we need to love ourselves. Key to that love is recognizing that one’s gender isn’t a choice. Just like sexuality, gender is something that simply shows up. There’s no choosing whatsoever. For trans people like me, our brains and spirits just won’t cooperate with our birth bodies. Memo to Self: Someone made a big mistake!
Which brings me to compassion. It’s an under-used phrase if you ask me. Not enough people talk about the need to be compassionate for others. Or ourselves.
My formula for living a compassionate life–both for one’s self and others?
Three words: honesty, kindness, and gratitude. Each can lead to an awakening of the human spirit. And to the strength needed to live an authentic life.
By the time I was done at Iowa State, I’d been in Ames for more than 12 hours. The high point–better than all of the rock star treatment I received the entire day–came after I had put my coat on as I was readying to go to my car. A student–maybe 20 years old–came up to me. He/she told me that she was “trans;” my impression was that this person had been assigned a male gender at birth and had not yet started transitioning to her true gender, female.
“Thank you for all that you said tonight,” this person said. “It meant a lot to me.”
The words were genuine and heartfelt. That much was very obvious.
The words also warmed my heart. I am sticking around in this world to do one thing: change it for the better.
It appeared that my stint at Iowa State may have done just that, if in an ever so small way.