Sunday, 15 September 2013

Interview with Ellen Krug

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Ellen Krug, an American lawyer, author, and transgender activist. She was born in Newark, New Jersey. In 1979, Ellen graduated from Coe College in Cedar Rapids in and three years later she earned a Juris Doctor degree from Boston College Law School. In 2009, she became the first attorney in Iowa to engage in jury trials in separate genders. In 2011, Ellen worked as the first executive director of a Minneapolis nonprofit, Call for Justice, LLC, which helps persons earning lower incomes connect with attorneys. I am going to talk with Ellen about her autobiographical book, her amazing career, and her view on life. Hello Ellen!
Ellen: Hello Monika! I’m honored 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 color.)
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!
Monika: What happened?
Ellen: 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 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 1970s and ’80s, 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 a 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!
Monika: Did you have any friends supporting you?
Ellen: 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 traveled 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.
Monika: What did she do?
Ellen: 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 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 the status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modeling, 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 leads 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!


All the photos: courtesy of Ellen Krug.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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