Sunday, 15 September 2013

Interview with Ellen Krug


Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Ellen Krug, an American transgender author and activist, with whom I would like to discuss about her autobiographical book and view on life. Hello Ellen!
Ellen: Hello Monika! I’m honoured to be here today!
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Ellen: Oh, it’s been a career that literally spans two lives. When I was a boy (I like to use the phrases “boy” and “girl” because they seem more innocent), I had always wanted to be a lawyer. At first, that career goal was driven by altruism—I wanted to change the world, just like Bobby Kennedy wanted. (Bobby Kennedy—President Kennedy’s younger brother—had been a lawyer. He too, wanted to effect much positive change, and he did that by talking about the plight of the poor and people of colour.)
Later, after I started law school, my goals changed—I still wanted to be a lawyer, but then I became more interested in being a trial attorney. Eventually, I did just that. However, by then I was somewhat jaundiced about the world (Reagan had been elected president), and my attention shifted to making money. That continued for a couple decades.
I was good at both trial work and making money. When my gender issues started to surface with great ferocity, I spent more and more time at the office as a way to occupy my mind and avoid dealing with gender issues. Of course, that didn’t work very well!
In 2009, I began to transition from boy to girl. By then, I had a law firm that represented many big and powerful companies. Most of my clients were afraid to use a transgender lawyer, so my law firm ended.
After I surgically transitioned, I went back to Goal No. 1, seeking to change the world. I’m now trying to do that by working as the executive director of a small non-profit that helps low-income people connect with legal resources in the Twin Cities in the US. For example, we helped a program that served 80 women and 50 children connect with two large law firms---now those women and children have regular access to attorneys. That, in my view, is far more rewarding than when I earned much more money—that’s at least until I have to pay my bills.
"Getting to Ellen".
Monika: What inspired you to write your autobiography titled “Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change”?
Ellen: There were three reasons. First, I wanted my children, two daughters (now in their early twenties), and my ex-wife, Lydia, to understand that really, I had no “choice” about transitioning. I wanted them to understand that gender isn’t something one “chooses.” 
There has been so much loss in what was once the most loving and close family; I just had to explain why I hurt three people I love so very, very much. (I am still in love with Lydia, but she has since remarried. I am happy for her in that she found someone else to love.) 
Second, I wrote “Getting to Ellen” because transgender people need to hear of transgender success stories. I wanted others like me to understand that with much luck and hard work—which includes self-honesty and resiliency—that it’s possible to live as your true self and survive. Many trans people don’t believe they can get to the other side. Yes, there is likely much loss and loneliness through that process, but I found it quite worth it. There is so much value to living as your true authentic self.
Finally, I wrote my book because I wanted to connect with the larger community of humans. I hoped that everyone who read “Getting to Ellen,” whether they are LGBT or not, would understand that we all share the common hopes, desires, burdens and demons. 
As it turns out, most people who read “Getting to Ellen,” are not trans or LGBT. Instead, they are straight, and they identify with the issue of struggling to be true to one’s self. This is a universal message, and in my view, so very powerful.
Monika: For most of transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Ellen: Not really. While my gender issues began to surface when I was a young boy, I didn’t understand them fully. It wasn’t until I was in my early forties (I am now 56) that I even called myself “transgender.” In the 1970’s and 80’s, it simply wasn’t possible for me to imagine actually becoming the female person who roamed through my spirit.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Ellen: I was 36 years old the first time I ever talked to anyone about thinking that maybe I might be something other than male. Those discussions were with a therapist who, while very committed to me, had never treated a transgender person.
Later, when I was 45, I went to a support group named the “Gender Puzzle” at the University of Iowa. I learned that not only are there male to female trans people, but female to male, too. I spent the next several years trying to leave Lydia and trying to figure out if I was a gay man, or if instead, I really was female.
Needless to say, it was a time of great confusion, isolation, and emotional suffering—I suffered and those around me (particularly Lydia and my then teenage daughters) suffered. I’m glad all of that is over! And yes, I had wonderful support from several people.
One person was my younger brother, Mark, who started calling me “Sis,” long before anyone else ever acknowledged me as female. Mark has been incredible!
Another key supporter was my best friend, Dennis Tharp, whom I nicknamed “Thap” long ago. Thap and I have been friends for 43 years—we were on the same high school football team. Thap was such a good friend that he travelled with me to interview surgeons when I was investigating sex reassignment surgery. Now that’s a heck of a best friend!
Thap helped me through many very difficult emotional times. Often, when I felt unloved and alone and lost, I called Thap and asked him to simply say, “I love you, Ellie.” He would do that. (We have a platonic relationship in case anyone wonders; Thap is married with four children, to whom I am “Aunt Ellen.”)
The third person who supported me is my youngest daughter, Lily, who is now 21 and a college senior. Early on, she told me that she “understood,” about me needing to express the real me. She came to live with me for the last three years of high school because she felt comfortable in my house.
Later, as I was transitioning, she championed me. She complained to Lydia when Lydia continued to use my male name. She made Lydia promise to use only my female name when referring to me—and for a 17 year old to stand up to her mother like that was quite remarkable! Lily now lives in the Twin Cities not far from my condo.
Finally, I was lucky to find the right therapist. Samantha (who I nicknamed “Sam the Hammer”) pushed me at the right times and hugged me at others. I wouldn’t have made it without her. All in all, I have been very, very lucky to have so many people support me. I have great gratitude for that!
Back cover of "Getting to Ellen".
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Ellen: Yes. I thought that Chaz Bono was a wonderful role model. He had much to lose, but lived his life genuinely anyway. I also read Jennifer Finney Boylan’s book, “She’s Not There,” which helped me focus on the need to transition. (Although, I must say, I thought that Jennifer seemed to gloss over the hurt and difficulty associated with transitioning while married.)
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a lovely lady yourself but what advice you would give to ladies with the fear of not passing as a woman?
Ellen: Well, I’ve learned that not everyone actually cares about passing. Many trans people do care, but some do not. Thus, I try to watch about making generalizations. I am particularly sensitive to that since I’m a writer and many people seem to think that I speak for all trans people. I do not.
I also appreciate the compliment, Monika, but while I seem to pass physically (and that was with the help of much facial feminization), my voice is still far too masculine. It always gives me away. I have spent much time trying to feminize my voice, but it hasn’t helped very much. As a result, many times people give me what I call “the look:” a pained pause when they realize that my appearance doesn’t match my voice. Even after three years of post-transition, it is still very hard for me to take! (And I am a pretty strong person….)
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Ellen: Leaving Lydia, my soul mate. I miss her every day. I also hurt my oldest daughter, Emily. However, she seems to be more accepting of me the older that she becomes. I am thankful for that.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Ellen: It’s a mixed landscape. On the one hand, I believe that many in society want to “get it right” with trans people and they desire to be open and accepting. I’ve found from my speaking events that people are simply thirsty for information re: what it means to be trans. They want to know how to be respectful, etc.
On the other hand, there is a reactionary segment of society—religious, conservative, macho—that views trans women in particular as “freaks” or something to abhor. I fear that Bradley Manning’s recent coming out as a transwoman will feed into this segment’s fears and prejudices. While I certainly support Manning’s desire to be true to herself, her coming out will be seized by the ultra right as a reason to argue that trans people (and transwomen in particular) shouldn’t have a place at the table. 
Monika: What is your view on transgender stories which have been featured in media, films, books etc. so far?
Ellen: I think the media are also trying to “get it right” when it comes to trans people—at least as of late. Like the rest of society 20 years ago, the media at that time portrayed us as drag queens and confused gay men. I think those stereotypes have now evaporated in the media.
With her friends Joe Jennison and Joe Clark.
Monika: We are witnessing more and more transgender ladies coming out. Unlike in the previous years some of them have status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modelling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you think we will have more and more such women?
Ellen: Yes. I think the more that society is accepting of trans people, the more that trans people will be accepting of themselves. That lends to personal bravery and doing the hard work of coming out, regardless of who it may hurt or the problems (economic or relationships) that it may cause. However, we need to remember that it’s still legal to discriminate against trans people in 33 states in the U.S. That has to change!
Monika: What are the current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda?
Ellen: There are several issues. One relates to enacting state and federal laws that protect gender variant people in employment, housing and credit. There’s also a huge issue about bullying; most trans teens report being bullied on a regular basis. Bullying in general can leave emotional scars that become lifelong problems.
In addition, access to the court system and protection of gender variant individuals who are incarcerated are exceedingly important. For example, I saw a statistic recently that 2-3 gender variant people are being arrested in the Minneapolis metro area daily; not only does that raise housing issues (e.g. do female identifying trans people have the right to be placed in female housing), but it also raises the question of whether gender variant people are being targeted by law enforcement. There simply is much work to do. 
Monika: The American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the transgender community in this respect?
Ellen: It’s a work in progress. I believe the Human Rights Campaign understands that it made a mistake to not press for trans rights several years ago when Congress was considering expanding employment discrimination laws to protect gays and lesbians. The trans community, in my view, doesn’t speak with a unified voice, which makes it difficult to effect consistent change.


Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Ellen: For a long time, trans people were considered the “ugly cousin” in the LGBT alphabet. However, just as society in general is becoming more accepting of trans people, so too are gays, lesbians and bisexuals. One of my favourite readings from my memoir, “Getting to Ellen” was with a group of LGBT people; they were a wonderful audience and they asked great questions. Most important, I felt genuinely accepted and liked.
Still, as I said before, the trans community doesn’t speak with a unified voice. Some in the community are quite reactionary—I call them the “burn it down” segment. While I respect their right to express an opinion, I don’t agree that the route to acceptance/inclusion is by eliminating prisons or law enforcement. Certainly, as a society as a whole, we need to evaluate incarceration policies and police targeting of various communities, but I don’t believe that trans people have a monopoly on being marginalized.
My view is that all positive change is incremental. It may be two steps forward, one step backward, two more forward, etc. The key is having positive role models, positive messaging (“we simply want to live as our true selves”), and acting with loving kindness toward others.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Ellen: Yes, yes, and yes. I’m involved in local community organizing; I have been told that I should take a more prominent role politically, but I’m uncertain whether I want my life to be dictated by fundraising and nonstop meetings. I have participated in lobbying. Recently, I testified before the Minnesota Senate relative to expanding state-subsidized health care to cover sex reassignment surgery. (Unfortunately, this change was not enacted.)
With her brother.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live until the day when a transgender lady could become the US President?
Ellen: Oh, woman! I’m 56 years old, so no, I don’t think I’ll ever see a transwoman as the U.S. President in my lifetime. However, I do believe the potential exists for transwomen to be elected to the U.S. Senate or House or to a state governorship.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Ellen: Of course I love fashion! In Minnesota, the weather is a bit skewed toward longer winters and shorter summers. Still, I wear skirts or dresses every chance I get—in large part because I could never do that in public when I lived as a man. I am a big fan of Banana Republic clothes. I also love—absolutely love—Athleta dresses. They’re easy to wear, easy to clean, and just plain fun!
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Ellen: I’m not a big fan of beauty pageants in general. I think they marginalize women and make them objects for men to covet and women to be jealous about. The same goes for transwomen beauty pageants.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Ellen: Love. Wow. I was so incredibly lucky as a man to have Lydia in my life. We were together for 32 years (going back to high school) before everything fell apart. I miss her every day. I would really like to love and be loved again. The problem is that I’m incredibly picky about who I become involved with.
The key requirement is that we be able to giggle together; I’ve not found many people who are my kind of giggler. I just don’t know if love will ever happen for me again. Most of the time I’m okay with that since now, I have someone whom I didn’t have before—I have me, Ellie Krug.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Ellen: What a great question!
As I said before, I feel that I’ve lived two separate lives. My life as a man included finding my soul mate, learning how to be a good trial lawyer, and then building a law firm that was quite successful. Of course, I wasn’t living an authentic life at the time and everything eventually had to change.
With Thap.
My second life as a woman is barely four years old. I am still learning many things about how gender roles differ and about how to make my way through the world as a woman, let alone a transwoman.
I would like to complete my non-profit work which was work I could never do when I had a law firm and obligations to employees, clients and the like.
On a larger scale, I would like to continue my work at what I call “growing human-to-human contact.” I believe the many of our problems directly relate to how we have become separated from each other—through multiple screens per day, through the grind of schedules, and by living segregated lives where we never see or interact with people who are different from us.
As humans, we have so many commonalities—we all want to love and be loved; we cherish our children and want to be cherished back; we want peace in our lives; and we all have personal demons.
I’d like to travel around the world talking about the importance of “going into the gray,” the uncomfortable place where we force ourselves to reach out to one another and give of ourselves. Many wonderful things can ripple from getting to know each other as human beings. So, in a perfect world, I’m a speaker who touches people. That would be my way of changing the world, one person at a time. I think my story makes that at least possible.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Ellen: Yes, I am incredibly happy! All of the compartments that I lived with previously as a man are gone, gone, gone! I’m now living as one unified person, and the freedom of having that is quite wonderful, and something that I could never have fully understood before transitioning.
I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to live the life I have now, and I have much gratitude for how kind people have been to me. Very few people get a “do-over,” like mine, and I never forget that it was luck, self-honesty and the love of other that got me here.
Monika: Ellen, thank you for the interview! Thank you so very much
Ellen: Monika! Great questions! I appreciate the opportunity to be heard!

All the photos: courtesy of Ellen Krug.
Done on 15 September 2013
© 2013 - Monika 

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