Jumping the Gender Fence: Lessons Learned by a Newly Minted Woman

I am often asked what it was like to transition from male to female while practicing law and how it is to now live as a woman after presenting as male for more than five decades. The answers to those questions are both different and intertwined. Since I am a woman and openly identify as transgender, I am tasked with navigating the world both as a woman and as a transgender person. This comes with unique challenges.
Soon after I transitioned from male to female in May 2009, the male U.S. general counsel of a major international transportation client I had represented for more than 20 years said, “I think I get everything, Ellen, but my primary concern is your aggressiveness in the courtroom. A big reason why you’re our attorney is that you’re very tough. That’s fine for a man, but an aggressive woman? I’m worried a jury will think you’re, excuse the phrase, a ‘b****.’ How do we handle that?”*
That commentary was sparked by a three-page “coming out” letter I had sent to  him; the same letter went to another 200 clients, colleagues, and judges. The letter explained that I was transgender and from there on out, I would present as female. At the time, I was in my 27th year of practicing law with a thriving civil trial practice in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The man’s words, which still ring in my ears even today, pointedly underscored how2002-Krug different things would be for me going forward as female compared to the 52 years I presented as male. My concern was no longer just how I would be perceived as a transgender person, but how my approach as someone who was not socialized as a female would come across to others. 

My response to the client was that I believed speech therapy (which I had been undergoing for several months) would help soften both my voice and demeanor/approach. Along with an impressive courtroom batting average, I hoped that would be enough to placate the client’s fears.
As fate would have it, the last time I ever appeared in court—in September 2011 before the Iowa Supreme Court, where I made history as the first transgender lawyer to argue a case there—was on behalf of that very client. To their great credit, the general counsel and client had stuck with me to the end. 

Unfortunately, that was not the case with most of my other institutional clients, who by then had abandoned me and my firm. My transportation law defense practice involved many high exposure death and injury cases, meaning that the clients weren’t willing to risk millions on having a transgender lawyer appear for them, no matter how good my track record. 

Consequently, I moved from practicing law to serving as a Minneapolis legal access nonprofit executive director. By 2016, fulfilling a deep idealistic passion, I began doing what I do now—speaking and training on human inclusivity across North America. 

Hard-Earned Gender Lessons 

 What have I learned as I jumped the gender fence from male to female? 
A whole lot of what I didn’t expect, it turns out. Note, however, that of the things I relate below, I do so with a broad brush; space limitations for this article do not allow for getting into many nuances. Still, you’ll get the idea.
In transitioning genders, I have realized that all humans—both male and female—respond to men differently than they do to women. This seemingly obvious lesson was driven home when I noticed that people reacted to me as Ellen with indifference, in stark comparison to their reactions to me as a man.
Thus, whether it was in a nonprofit board setting, a condo association meeting, or even a bar committee gathering, when I spoke while presenting as male, people paid attention and even nodded along as I made my points. Clearly, they respected what I said and afterward, it was common for some to approach and say, “Excellent points, I totally agree!”

Speaking as Ellen—“Ellie” to my friends—generated different reactions. Soon after transitioning genders, I realized that listeners appeared distracted, even fatally bored. Rather than attentive faces, I now saw humans—men and women—checking smartphones, looking out windows, or just plain being inattentive. No longer was I greeted with “Good point!” and, instead, folks seemed as if they could not get out of the room fast enough. 

But that is not even close to describing the extent of tectonic gender shift I’ve experienced: six years ago, I was a board member for a Minneapolis neighborhood association. We had a Saturday retreat with 30 or so people in the room—there was a handful of men, but most were women aged 40 and above. At one point, we tackled the subject of preserving original architecture in Dinkytown, near the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota, an area that has long been the focus of intense development that has resulted in many older buildings of character being torn down, only to be replaced by boring, look-alike high-rise apartments and chain retailers. 

Pushing back against out-of-control development, I made an impassioned plea to enforce what I understood were original zoning rules that promoted preservation over development. Admittedly, my knowledge of Minneapolis’s zoning regulations was quite lacking; yet, I thought my passion would make up for any nuances that I did not fully understand. 

As soon as I stopped speaking, a man stood up. He was in his early sixties and an architect who knew significantly more about the city’s zoning laws than me. His response: “Ellen, you have either intentionally misstated the facts or you’re just plain ignorant.” 

My immediate reaction was to think, What the hell did you just say to me? 
Publicly, as Ellie—a newly minted woman who was still trying to understand how all the rules had changed for her—I could only muster, “It’s been a long time since someone has called me ‘ignorant.’” 

That was absolutely true. The word “ignorant” had not been thrown at me since an arrogant, narcissistic male partner needlessly attacked me in private when I was a wet-behind-the-ears associate in Boston. In the hard-earned 30 years since then, I had built a reputation as a smart, hard-working, considerate, collaborative human.  Now, some random person felt he had the right to humiliate me in front of my peers. I knew that this reaction had everything to do with his being a man and my being a woman. In similar circumstances, such words never were tossed my way when I still presented as male. 

On top of that public mansplaining, I learned another important lesson of womanhood that morning: not one of the women in the room rose to my defense. There was not a single, “Excuse me, but I wonder how your words just made Ellie feel?” I did not even get another female sliding up to whisper, “Are you okay?” 

I am sorry to report to my sisters-in-arms that women are slow to support other women when they are under attack by men. This, too, I did not understand going in, but I have witnessed such grave allyship omissions many times since. 

Apart from bitter public experiences, other womanhood lessons came from personal observation and speech therapy. One of the simple personal observations: women love exclamation points! When I presented as a man, my emails rarely, if ever, contained exclamation points—why bother? I’d end my emails with, “Have a great day.” 

However, once I transitioned genders, I realized that most emails from women contained at least one, if not multiple, exclamation points. Their emails might end with, “Have a wonderful day!” Heck, there might even be a second exclamation point just to make sure the reader understood the full extent of the writer’s sincerity.  

As Ellie, I started adding more exclamation points to my emails and correspondence to ensure that the overall communication appeared more feminine. Indeed, even now, I will review draft emails to ensure that I have added enough exclamation points. 
Yes, it is a lot of work, but for most genetic females who have been socialized to communicate in a certain way since birth, it comes naturally. 

Speech therapy was an altogether different revelation. The University of Iowa speech therapy school (20 miles from Cedar Rapids) is considered among the best in the country, and, thankfully, even way back in 2008, its director understood the need to assist transgender people in their transitioning. 

Thus, with the help of several graduate students, I worked on raising the pitch of my voice, because society expects women’s voices to sound softer and higher than men’s voices. (A note to those who know me: believe it or not, I am several octaves higher as a result of that speech therapy.)

While the need to change my vocal pitch was a given, what I did not expect were the many rules around “feminine speech patterns”—the ways that women speak differently than men speak. 

For example, if in need of more water at a restaurant, a man likely would say to a server, “We’ll take some more water here.” Most would not even bat an eye to that near-order from a man. Certainly, that is the way I spoke when I presented as male. 
In contrast, the speech instructors shared about female super polite, and even apologetic, speech patterns. Using our restaurant scenario, a woman likely would say, “Excuse me, I know you’re so busy and I’m sorry to bother you, but when you get a chance, would it be possible to bring more water? Thank you!” 

I reacted to this by asking, “Why do I have to go to such elaborate lengths just for a water refill?” The instructors’ collective response: this is what is expected of women and for me, with an allegedly “masculine” voice already, it was essential that I use feminine speech patterns to help me “pass” as female. 

While I understood that and was willing to shift away from male directness, I was more reticent about using female “hedges.” An example of a female hedge: “I sort of think it would be good to see that movie.” 

That compares to a man just saying, “I want to see that movie.”  While the latter just seems so much simpler, my speech instructors reminded me that without hedges in my speech toolbox, I would likely land in the “aggressive woman” category—the very label that my transportation general counsel client had warned me about. 

I learned about other feminine speech pattens, too, like “tag questions,” such as, “That was a wonderful movie, wasn’t it?” A man would say: “It was good. I liked it.” 
Finally, women habitually use exaggerations and elaborations, such as, “I so love that top of yours! The colors just pop and look absolutely wonderful on you!” Meanwhile, assuming he would even be inclined to give a compliment, we all know how a man would say: “That’s a nice shirt.” 

Initially, I was very reluctant to embrace many of these speech patterns because I viewed them as “subservient.” No way was I going to cede speech territory that I had acquired simply by virtue of my maleness. Yet, as I transitioned genders, it became very clear that I darn-well needed to change how I spoke or otherwise, with this voice of mine, I would be viewed far less feminine than I wanted. So, I gave in and shifted my speech patterns as much as I could. 

It took such incredibly hard work, but in the end, I am so very thrilled to report that I adapted exceedingly, even marvelously, well, wouldn’t you agree? Thanks!!

My Evolution Theory

We all know that gender roles are cemented through socialization that begins at birth. Because we are hard-wired to group and label all humans, it is accepted as entirely normal to demand that a mother reveal the gender of her newborn. Indeed, depending on genitalia, a baby may be clothed in pink or blue caps and socks within seconds of birth.
Those colors—pink and blue—go on to dictate much of what follows in life, like clothing, children’s books, toys, friends, and even career. Most importantly, the colors and their underlying gender differences influence how others interact with the human in question; there are expectations about “behaving like a girl” and “behaving like a boy.” Try as we might to be nonbinary in 2020, most of our expectations and wants are dictated by the gender one is assigned at birth. 

Because I was deemed male based on having a penis-scrotum glob at birth (yes, you just read that phrase in The Hennepin Lawyer), society largely taught me to be “rough and tumble”;  it was okay for me to occasionally engage in fistfights in grade school. My middle and high school sports (football and, sometimes, basketball) by necessity involved intense physical contact—in fact, I was praised for being the hardest-hitting player on the freshman football team. Did I mention that I was shaving by age 12 and sported a full-grown mustache at 13 that helped cement my (on-the-surface) masculine persona and “jock” role? 

Even today, in our age of “gender enlightenment,” most would be reluctant to cast praise on a female teenager who enjoyed engaging in physical contact sports. For sure, we have the occasional “girl” who goes out for football, and certainly there’s women’s field or ice hockey, but for the most part, gender roles remain separate and distinct beginning at early ages. The designation “jock” is not regularly applied to humans with vaginas, and when it is, a sexuality connotation (a whole different discussion) often attaches. 

Most importantly, based on birth gender, we have expectations about emotional intelligence and public displays of emotion. Putting aside that Minnesotans have particular challenges around showing emotions (now, I just stereotyped an entire state but a fair number of readers also reflexively nodded in agreement), the reality is that socialization often dictates a certain kind of public emotion from one gender and suppresses it in the other gender. 

Again: society deems females “soft” and males “hard” or “tough” and treats them as such, which doubles down the proclivity of each gender to act according to its ascribed role. My theory is that this, too, is hard-wired and has its roots in the hunter-gatherer society where the males of the tribe or clan were responsible for killing the evening meal—not something that lends to regular expressions of emotion over taking a living thing’s life. 

On the other hand, the females who remained at the camp were more likely to be called upon to comfort children and elders who were unable to fend for themselves. Importantly, females were accustomed to wrapping arms around other humans; males, not so much. 

You may question this, so let me relate something that I have consistently found when I engage in my training, “Changed Genders, Changed Perspectives,” which explores how it is different for me to live as female compared to living as male. In that training, I have an exercise where I ask a man and a woman to walk from opposite sides of the room toward each other, with each holding a yellow or red folder. Inevitably, the man will carry the folder at his side (hips or thigh), whereas the woman will carry the folder against her chest, something I call the “baby carry.” Furthermore, often the man holds himself confidently while the woman appears far more tentative. 

Bearing in mind that I am a lawyer and not an anthropologist, my theory is that for a gazillion years of human evolution, males brought the bleeding, dead game back to camp by holding the prey at hip or thigh level (so as to avoid the blood). They did so with confidence and pride—"look at what I accomplished.” Meanwhile, women, tending to newborns or young children or elders, kept them at chest level to shelter against the elements or to comfort due to frail age or infirmity. Doing so meant being soft and responsive.

These simple, basic mannerisms or behaviors became ingrained in our humanhood so much so that today, they largely dictate certain expectations around gender. This translated to my changing how I carry things, like my coat, when I walk in the skyway. As a man, that coat would have been at my side; now, as a woman, I hold it folded against my chest, with arms crossed. 

Continuing with my novice gender evolutionary origins theory, the common expectation is that men will have power. For sure, they are accorded power and stature far more easily than women, something that we see in the legal profession every day. Most of the country’s high-power law firms were created by white men who enjoyed the luxuries of time and possibility, while their wives or significant others tended to children and homes. Thus, once again, we have the difference between hunter-gatherers and baby carriers. 

Those firms succeeded in part because men had the time and opportunity to build something and to then capitalize on their success—things that would not have been nearly as easy had those men been required to balance career and the responsibility of parenting or daily caring for an elderly parent. In this sense, the “baby carriers” clearly underwrote the ascension of the legal “hunter-gatherers”; the problem was (and remains) that the baby carriers got little-to-no credit for this and, to boot, the hunter-gatherers made no room for anyone but their own kind (i.e., male hunter-gatherers). 
When I presented as male, I took all of this for granted and I had absolutely no clue whatsoever of the privilege and power that I enjoyed. 

Going Forward

While I have painted quite a picture of these systems and dynamics being deeply engrained in us as human beings throughout our evolution, there is something we can do about changing our dynamics, how we perceive gender, and how we advocate for nonmale folks. 

First, males (that is, the hunter-gatherers) can begin by acknowledging that much of what they have achieved was made possible by the implicit partnership they made with women (the baby carriers) in their lives. This, in part, requires giving wives or life partners their due. However, in the context of a legal employer, it requires acknowledging that the women who show up (be they lawyers, administrators, or support colleagues) often are doing a double duty (career and family) that many males have the privilege of avoiding. 

All too often, women are penalized for that double duty. Instead, I would offer, they should be praised, even rewarded. Most certainly, they should not be marginalized because they are “part-time” or “in transition.” 

Secondly, males in power need to show up as allies to women. This is not a lunch once a year or showing up at a mentorship mixer; rather, true allyship requires devoting time and expending political capital to raise up women who otherwise lack voice or power. If you are a “woke” male, you already understand this; now, you need to carry the water. This may mean being the squeaky wheel who pushes back against the status quo, the one who time and again says, “We need more women in the room.” Certainly, that involves risk-taking; darn it, please take the risk! 

I realize it is very difficult to buck other hunter-gatherers but trust me—a former hunter gatherer myself—allyship is critical. If you do not speak up for my sisters and me, literally no one else will. That much has been made clear by history, and the silence is deafening even today. 

Thirdly, to my sisters reading this, you need to show up, too. Frankly, I am appalled at the number of times I have seen women denigrate other women in terms of appearance, education level, or socioeconomic status. I have been equally ashamed in instances where women have stood by silently while men have blatantly controlled or exercised power over other women. This must stop. We cannot move forward if we do not look out for each other—again, something that takes risk and courage. 

Still, I do not want to be a Debbie Downer here. Please read this loud and clear: many times, I have seen women speak up for other women or children or marginalized humans of all ilk, often in magnificent ways. Equally so, I have witnessed women risk their physical lives for others who are at risk (think of the Hindu Indian women who pushed away men seeking to beat Muslim Indian women late last year). The guts, resiliency, and selfless bravery that women demonstrate for those most vulnerable is legendary and worthy of awe. We need to celebrate how women display courage and grit, just as we highlight their emotional intelligence and support. 

All of this takes mindfulness and hard work—things in short supply in the legal profession with its super-charged stress, deadlines, and profit margins. We so lag on diversity and inclusion—largely because many hunter-gatherers do not see the value of allowing non-hunter-gatherers in—that we are held up to ridicule in many strata. The reality, however, is that most lawyers really do want to get it right; many of us entered this profession to make the world better and to improve the lot of humans who do not have voices or access to resources. 

Fundamentally, what I am saying is this: women want and deserve an equal place at the table. I was so oblivious to this when I presented as a high-powered male. I now better understand that the good-old-boy system still to this day does not recognize women for their worth. We must acknowledge this deficit and work to correct historical wrongs (and concomitantly change internal marginalizing systems) that hold women down. Once again, this takes speaking up, mainly by males who hold power. 

Lastly, speaking to the women reading this, I have one more item: consider the girls and women who are invisible. Watching out for other females requires a broad net and imagination. What are you—the women of the legal profession—doing to lift up those who occupy the lowest rungs of society’s ladder? In the Twin Cities, what outreach have you conducted to marginalized girls and women in low-income neighborhoods? I would offer that you are obligated to do such outreach. 

One way that I have chosen to give back is to volunteer to be a mentor to a young girl through Big Sisters Twin Cities since 2012. It has been among the most rewarding experiences of my life—I have gotten from her as much as I have given. (And to underscore the point, mentoring is the last thing I would have done when I presented as male.) 

We have wisdom and experience, my sisters. We need to share that, and as well, we must learn from others with different life experiences. This is how we go forward as a profession and as compassionate humans. Most of all, America needs this, particularly now. 

One Last Lesson

Two years ago, when the developer for my new downtown Minneapolis condo building ceded control, I was elected president to the condominium board of directors. For a year, I oversaw board meetings and helped field unit owner questions and concerns; for the most part, the unit owners seemed appreciative and genuinely supportive. 
It was not entirely clear sailing, however. Some male board members resisted my no-nonsense “let’s just get this done” approach. This came to a head when a particular male board member pressed me on an item about which he felt I had not been transparent. Even though I and others explained that he was mistaken, he unrelentingly pushed against my authority. Quickly, the pushing became personal and denigrating; it overwhelmed me. 

In response, I lost it. The f-word flew out of my mouth several times. In an instant, I was back to being a tough, aggressive lawyer barking at an adversary—the stuff that my clients loved about me as a man.   

Maybe I did not absorb that speech therapy stuff nearly as much as I had so smugly presumed.  On the other hand, sometimes a woman’s gotta do what she’s gotta do. 

Ellie Krug
In 2016, Advocate Magazine named Ellie Krug one of “25 Legal Advocates Fighting for Trans Rights.” She is a monthly columnist for Lavender Magazine and pens a widely-circulated monthly e-newsletter, The Ripple, that reaches 9000 readers. She views herself as an “Inclusionist” and founded an inclusion-oriented consulting and training company, Human Inspiration Works, LLC, in 2016.
Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter