Ellie Krug

CALL: Being Authentic Even When You Are Afraid

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

In a Changemakers Alliance conversation in May 2022, we talked with Ellie Krug, columnist and adviser to Minnesota Women’s Press, about her journey, her fears, her authenticity, her idealism, her vulnerability, and her interactions with others about who she is. Find the video version of this conversation at our LGBTQ-focus page. Thanks to underwriter Rainbow Health for supporting this conversation and “Let’s Talk About Queer Health.”

I am hopelessly idealistic. I am a student of Dr. King and of Bobby Kennedy. Both of them were murdered in 1968 — I was 11 years old at the time. I had started reading the newspaper when I was seven, and just like with a billion other people in this world, their words sank into me. I grew up in a blue collar transitioning to middle-income family. There were no idealists in my family; my parents weren’t volunteers, they didn’t get involved with the community. But for some reason, Dr. King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s words and examples just hit their mark with me. By the time I was 12 years old, I knew I was going to be a lawyer, because Bobby Kennedy was a lawyer and I was going to be a lawyer to help change the world, because that is what idealists do — work to have positive change in the world.

The problem was, I also had issues around my gender identity. In the late 60s and early 70s, the idea that your brain didn’t match your body — and you could do something about it — was just totally foreign. So I did what people at that time did. I suppressed my identity and thought it would go away; it did not. I ended up falling in love with a girl in high school and I thought, “maybe this will go away, the stuff that was in my head about gender.”

I tried to tell Lydia, my girlfriend at the time, about what was going on in my head. This was about a year into our relationship, and I was about 16. It was on the telephone because I didn’t want to tell her in person. I tried to try to explain to her that I had these things about gender and I wore my sister’s underwear, and she freaked out on the telephone. I learned two important things: the first is that if I ever let anybody know about what was going on with me, I would lose them; and the second was that I was going to be a pretty good lawyer. Because, in the span of her freaking out, I changed the subject and she went for it. We didn’t speak about that for another 30 years.

In my 30s, I tried therapy — not to not to figure out what I was, but to stay married — because by that point, I had married my high school sweetheart. I was living this very charmed life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I had a my own law firm. We lived in the best neighborhood. We had two beautiful daughters. I knew that if this ever came out, I would lose just about everything.

So I went to therapy and said: “Don’t figure me out, help me stay married, give me a mantra.” I had two therapists tell me, “You have to tell your wife what is going on in your head, or you are going to kill yourself.” I fired both of them. I was on my third therapist when I had a moment of truth on 9/11, which was an understanding that unless I was brave and willing to be me — whatever that might be, because it wasn’t entirely clear at that point — I would look back on my life and I would regret not having been braver. It literally was the night of 9/11 when I decided that I was going to unintentionally hurt so many people. All those things I feared happened, but it all turned out fine. I came up to the Twin Cities after I lost my law firm to start all over again, and I’ve had this incredibly charmed life as an idealist living authentically, trying to do good in the world.

Thank you for sharing that. I know you have written two books, but the one I am most familiar with is the first book that you did, “Getting to Ellen: a Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change.” What is the status of your second book?

The second book is not out yet. It is titled “Being Ellen,” which is about going through the world as a transgender woman who does not pass. The voice does not match the appearance. In the trans world,  it is called passing — or in my case, not passing. [The book is about] going through the world as a trans woman who does not pass entirely, but nonetheless finds a great deal of acceptance and love.

One thing that you talk about with people in your workshops, and you mentioned both of these words in your opening: loss and regret. That there is a difference between those two things. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Before I transitioned, I used to believe that if I caused a loss, I would regret it and beat myself up for it. After I transitioned, I learned that — even though I lost my wife, I lost a daughter for four years but she came back, I lost other people in my life, I lost my sister but she came back — even though I had all kinds of loss, I learned that loss fades over time. We are humans; we adapt and we can move on most of the time. Regret, on the other hand, over time burns hotter, not cooler, because the amount of time that you have left to fix whatever it is that you are regretting is shortening. Yes, I have experienced a great deal of loss and I miss my wife everyday, but it has become more bearable for me to deal with that loss. Even with all of those losses, not for a second of a second of a nanosecond have I ever regretted becoming me. I needed to be me. The therapists were right. They were exactly on the money telling me that I had to live as who I am.

There are two other words that come to mind when I think about you and your life story: resiliency and vulnerability. I find you as one of the most open-hearted, vulnerable people that I have been able to meet. I have really appreciated how you are able to stand in front of people, wherever they are, and talk to them about who you are and open their hearts. Can you talk a little bit about both the resiliency that that takes, especially with somebody who is as open-hearted as you are, and how difficult that might be?

I believe that 98 percent of all people are good. It is just that we are afraid of the things that we don’t know and understand. When we get afraid, we run to our groups and we ‘other’ people who are different from us. Whether I am standing on a stage or sitting on a Zoom, as soon as I open my mouth, people are [shocked] because they don’t expect the depth of voice to come out. I think what that does is right away— it endears many people to me. I think they understand that I am taking a risk in front of them, and I think there are a lot of people that respect that. 

The summer I transitioned, I saw Brené Brown’s video about vulnerability, and it was the biggest light bulb that ever went on in my life; to understand that vulnerability pulls us together, it doesn’t push us away.

Brene Brown, god love her, her teachings, and those of Buddhist teachings form the basis of all of my work. That work is about the idea of compassion for all humans and for ourselves. When I speak and talk about compassion, I talk about it from the perspective that it must start with ourselves. We must stop beating ourselves up — we must give ourselves breaks — because if we are not compassionate to ourselves, it is so much easier to not be compassionate towards other people. It is a barrier to compassion for others if we’re not compassionate for ourselves.

Can you talk a little more about how, as you have gone around talking to people, you pierce the armor that is fear? As you know, one of the big adages is that we live in fear or we live in love, and it always seems like it is a political battle between the two. Given especially what we have all seen and witnessed over the last few years, how do you work towards helping people recognize, or not be afraid of, their fear?

That is the million-dollar question, considering what is going on in our country and the world right now. My approach is this: I begin all talks about how we are all survivors of the human condition. All of us are attempting to make our way through the world. If we had 10 hours instead of two — and we could go across the room and ask everybody to tell us “what makes you happy, what makes you sad, what challenge you have had in life, what success you have had, what makes you tick” — in those 10 hours, three things would happen. First, we would do a lot of laughing, because when we share our stories, some of them are hilarious. We would also do some crying, because when we get past the superficial, we get past that crap and we talk about the stuff that is attached to our soul. It is deep in our heart when we talk about that stuff, so you know what happens? We grab other people’s hearts. 

Most importantly, at the end of those 10 hours, all of you will feel closer to each other than you do right now. Why is that? It is the power of human familiarity. The power of getting to know another human, of hearing some of their story. You being able to share some of your story, you coming to understand you are not the only one who went through that. I don’t think people expect you to talk about fear and taking risks.

I can teach you the power of human familiarity in real time. When you first heard me speak, many of you did [an automatic ‘othering’ response] because you didn’t expect the voice to come out the way it did. That was your fight-or-flight response kicking in, because you don’t know what category to put me in. So I ask people, “How are you doing with my voice? Are you getting used to it? Are you adjusting? Are you maybe even starting to like me a little bit?” If you are, guess what — it is human familiarity at work on you.

At the end of my talks, that is the last thing I ask. “How are you doing with my voice?” I am not looking for affirmation. I am a trial lawyer. Very often you get stuck with facts in a trial that stink. These aren’t going to help your case, okay? So, you make lemonade out of lemons. This voice? Total complete lemon, trust me. It does not do anything good for me with men. I have had multiple men say, “I really like you, I might even like to be in bed with you, but I will never introduce you to anybody because of your voice.” But, I have decided to make lemonade here. Use it as a teaching tool on the power of becoming familiar with “other” and it works.

.I want to also talk about another transition that you made recently. You lived in downtown  Minneapolis for a very long time, and then during the midst of the pandemic, you moved. I want you to talk a little bit about why you moved, how you were feeling downtown, what you needed, where you moved, and how that transition is going.

I lived in the heart of downtown at the corner of Portland and 8th. I am a city girl. I loved living downtown. I loved the city. But there is something else that I wanted, and that was a golden retriever. You cannot raise a golden retriever puppy on the 12th floor of a building in the heart of concrete. I was lucky enough to buy a house out in Victoria. It is about 35 miles west of downtown Minneapolis, literally on the edge of the prairie. I can see a farm from my bedroom window. I picked this because it reminded me of Iowa where I grew up. It is gravel roads and farms. I love that. So, I came out here thinking all I was going to do was raise a dog, continue to do my work, finish that second book, write for Minnesota Women’s Press, write for Lavender, do some other things, and ride my bicycle. I moved on a street that is filled with retirees. These are straight, cisgender, white color — I refer to white people as white color, because most white people don’t believe this [pointing to hand] is a color — humans who are in part of a red county. I was pretty positive that I would get to know them and we would be cordial. What I didn’t count on was being accepted as much as I have been. 

I’ll give you an example of two things. I live on a side of the street that has basements, because it is on a hill. The other side of the street is just slabs and there are a lot of retirees. They don’t want to deal with stairs. It works okay, until you have tornado warnings. Two weeks ago, the sirens started going off, and I’m very well aware that my neighbors across the street don’t have basements. I opened up my garage door and I said, “come, come, come.” I had people from three different houses that came in. We all went down in the basement. The storm got bad; the wind and the rain was whipping. We were all there laughing and sitting on folding chairs in the most solid part of my basement. It clears, and as people are leaving and thanking me, one of the gentlemen on the street — who I am positive has a completely different political affiliation than mine — he gave me a kiss on my cheek and he said, “thank you, Ellie.” Everyone knows I am transgender, everyone knows I am different.

The second story. The local rotary here in Chaska asked me to come speak about, of all things, critical race theory. To prepare for that, I started to research the school district here and their test scores, because one of the ways that you figure out about structural racism —  as in white supremacy — is that you look at data. It is embedded. It took me some time, but I was able to find the third grade reading scores [from 2019], and the disparity is horrible for Black kids in this school district. About 32 percent of them are reading at third-grade level. The white kids like are about 78 percent reading at third-grade level.

The talk was well received. People were very nice to me. I also learned that the school district has a diversity, equity, and inclusion department. So I contacted them and said I speak to a number of LGBTQ+ students at their Gay Straight Alliance,  sometimes called Gender and Sexuality Alliances. All of that has morphed into me going to multiple schools and sitting with LGBTQ+ kids, and some kids that are straight that want to be allies, and talking about authenticity. 

I explain to them that a mantra is the thing you say in your head on a loop every day. We talk about whatever these kids want to talk about. It is incredible how smart these kids are. How self-aware they are. How they continue to be bullied. It is incredible how many of them have so much figured out at sixth or seventh or eighth or high school ages — things it took me 52 years to figure out. I tell them I am totally jealous because they have it figured out at a much younger age, and they are going to get to live as themselves. They’re not going to go through what I did.

Long answer, but I hope it paints the picture for you about what I am finding, because all I thought I was going to do is come out here and raise a darn golden retriever.

Ironically, you talk about how your voice sounds — you have a tremendous amount of voice in the community with your radio show on AM 950. As you mentioned, you write for Lavender and Minnesota Women’s Press. You do workshops. By many stretches, you have arrived and succeeded and have nothing to worry about anymore. I know the journey for you is not smooth sailing all the time, so I am wondering if you can speak a little bit about the fact that it’s not always easy to quell fears and be who you are. 

The reality is, it is not. We are living in a country right now where, because of fear, people think that somehow their way of life is being threatened, or maybe their religious beliefs are going to be taken away, or hampered in some way ,or maybe they are going to lose their job to somebody who is different or “other.” There is so much of that fear.

I believe we need to have conversations across Minnesota, focused in Greater Minnesota, where people can talk about their fears. “What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid?” Having those conversations with people who are ‘other’ so they can talk about their lived experiences with people from ‘dominant culture.’ Through those conversations, I am absolutely convinced we are going to find that we are alike. We all want the same things out of life. Because we are afraid to have these conversations, we sit in our respective camps where we are simply afraid.

From my perspective, there are two things operating. The first thing is that I am 65 years old and I don’t know how much time I have left. In my real life, I had a wonderful life beforehand, in the sense of all the love, but in my book, my authentic life did not begin until I was 52. In theory, I am only 13 years old.

The second thing is this: all of my cohorts are retiring. I have been best friends with somebody for 52 years and he asks why I have been working so hard, why I keep doing this. What my cohorts don’t understand is that my idealism won’t leave me alone. I can’t shut it off. I will be an idealist until my final breaths.

Without needing to go super dark, because we all have our own take on what is happening in the world — can you speak a little more about how you are able to persist? You talk about the fact that you need to because you are an idealist, but I know there is also self-care that is required. How do you maintain the ability to be out there when the world is not always ideal?

I have a newsletter, called the Ripple, that goes out to 9,000 people. In it, I share stories about how humans are good to each other. In this month’s newsletter we have a story about James Bode, the Lyft driver in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, who told a woman in his car who got in and said, “Oh good, you are a white guy. You speak English!” He told her to get out of his car because that is racist. So we have that story about somebody brave. Also a story about an 18 year old, Claire Mengel, in Cincinnati, who testified before Congress about how her school board decided to eliminate diversity day. She talked about it and is incredibly eloquent. Every month, I get to see these stories about how humans are good.

I am curating this, that feeds me, that makes me feel that I can be braver, or that warms my heart. Like the story about the people in Baltimore who started stringing Christmas lights from one house to another house across the streets because they wanted to show that they were connected to each other. If you are curating that kind of work, how can you not have resiliency?

On the other hand, I think I am the poster child for naivety. I was naive about raising a puppy by yourself; no idea about the challenges around that, let me tell you. But, we go back to how I do believe that 98 percent of all humans are good. I really do.