Barely two years ago, I shocked—that would be the right word—much of the Cedar Rapids legal community by revealing I was transgender. Many people expressed support—including my dear lawyer friend and his wife--but not everyone. Some might think I could be a distracting sideshow, so I viewed the invitation as both generous and courageous.
Thus, in late August, I would return to Cedar Rapids for the wedding at a well-known church, followed by an upscale reception at an even better known country club. Many of my old friends would be encountering Ellen for the first time and I worried about what they’d think.
I had to look nice, and reached out to the one person who is always on track with fashion—my ex-wife, Lydia.
I emailed, “Can I wear black to a wedding? Do I need to wear hose? Are flats alright, or should I wear heels?”
Lydia quickly answered: “Yes, no, your choice.”
I went through my closet and found a couple of black dress options. Since I have a million shoes, I was set.
I had time to kill on the morning of the wedding day, so I stopped to see an artist friend and her husband. When I walked into their gallery, Julia asked, “May I help you?” Once I flashed my smile, she gasped, “Oh, Ellen!” After a few minutes, she showed me her most recent a project. It was a series of 4x6 plastic blocks on which she had laminated various items—pictures, parts of letters, a bus ticket—from her life, representing things she considered important. There were maybe 50 blocks altogether. As we talked, I scanned the edges of the blocks, and to my amazement, I saw, “Ellen Krug, Inside Out.”
“Julia, what’s this?”
She had taken one of my columns—one entitled “Taking Risks”—and laminated it to a block. It was a piece about someone reading me in public and asking “Are you a dude?” She had folded the column, accordion style, so that you could pull it out to read.
“I was touched by your column,” she said earnestly.
In an instant, I was humbled. Julia is a fantastic artist who knows hundreds of people. That she would pick my writing as something important enough to preserve was so unexpected. And moving.
Later, on my way out of the gallery, I ran into an artist who had created a painting of my daughters when they were little girls. The painting depicts them drawing in chalk on the driveway at my beautiful old house, the one that I had to leave when I became Ellen. My daughters were chalking the words, “Welcome Home.” When I told the artist the picture is central to the book that I’m finishing, she started to tear up. “You don’t know how important it is that I’m hearing this,” she said as she hugged me. It was impossible not to be touched.
I still had four hours before the wedding and I was already an emotional wreck. But I pulled myself together.
At the wedding ceremony, I was seated next to neighbors from my old neighborhood. I smiled at the woman and she smiled back, but she had no clue who I was. I said, “Hi, it’s Ellen.”
The woman continued to look dumbfounded. Then, I said, “Ellen Krug, you used to know me as a man.”
My old neighbor’s face lit up. “Oh my god. I would never have known.” She whispered to her husband, who was a bit less excited to see me.
At the receiving line after the ceremony, my friend and his wife hugged me tight and seemed to go out of their way to introduce me to the groom’s parents and family members. When I got to the country club reception, people from my old life approached me. “Ellen, great to see you!” They were genuinely interested in hearing about my life in Minneapolis, the one where I have no more compartments, and no more denial.
It felt wonderful. And there were additional hugs, mainly from men. Wow.
I sat at a dinner table between Ray, a cherished Cedar Rapids friend, and Lydia, my ex-wife turned best girlfriend forever. On the other side of Lydia was Stephen, her boyfriend of several years. The scene was surreal. Who could have predicted this, especially after all the pain Lydia and my daughters experienced by my transitioning? It was a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit—theirs and mine.
Everything worked until the post-meal toasts. The best man toasted the bride and groom in an eloquent speech. But then, there were toasts to the bride and groom’s respective parents; each couple had been married thirty years. As I heard, “To thirty years!” I felt a rush of pain deep in my heart. Next year would have been my thirtieth wedding anniversary, and suddenly, the grief became overwhelming.
“I have go,” I said, jumping out of my seat with tears welling.
As I drove from the country club crying, I realized that all along, I had been steeling myself for how people would react to me. I had forgotten that I might react to them or to the memory of my old life. The wedding unexpectedly reminded me of what could have been, had I stayed a man. The losses—especially losing Lydia, the love of my life, my soul mate—are enormous.
But then I remembered there’s a balancing out, because today I get to live as my true self, as Ellen. I discovered that my old friends—and even Lydia--are willing to love and respect me for who I am now.
That, truly, is a gift. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Thank you, Cedar Rapids. Your generosity is enormous.