What makes for a hero?
I’m talking real-life, human-inspiring heroes; not ones that social media manufactures or people to whom others latch on to because of their fame or money.
Think humans who stand up to injustice, who seek to right wrongs, and who have something to lose for doing that.
A real hero can be someone “ordinary,” whose brave act or decision puts something dear to them at risk, such as their job, family, or life.
When I think of a hero, I think of the woman who stood up in a recent “Transgender 101” training I conducted with Wisconsin human resource managers. The woman—whom I’ll call “Terri”— spoke about how her boss had made a disparaging remark about transgender people. What the boss didn’t know was that Terri was the mother of a 13-year-old transgender son (female to male).
As Terri explained, “I had to make a decision on whether to let the comment go by, or whether to instead stand up for my son.”
She chose the latter, braver course. Doing so, she was certain, would put her job at risk.
Terri told a pin-drop-quiet conference hall with 110 listeners how she composed a three-page email laying out what it means to be transgender. She dispelled some of the misperceptions about trans people and wrote how she needed to respectfully point out her boss’s ignorance because of her love for her son. When she got done typing and revising, she fretted about the potential consequences of being so assertive with the man who held the keys to her economic future.
Then she hit “send.”
Within minutes, Terri’s boss knocked at her office door. Shutting the door behind him, he sat down. As he did so, Terri thought to herself, “This is it. This is where I lose my job.”
The boss took off his glasses and began to cry. “I had no idea,” he said to Terri. “No idea at all—about your son, about transgender people, about anything you wrote.”
Terri relaxed as her heart soared.
“Thank you for educating me,” the boss said.
As Terri told her story, I looked around the room and saw many dabbing tissues to wet eyes. This is the power of a hero—the power to touch, to teach, and to inspire.
There are other heroes that I’ve encountered as of late, like the county HR director in a conservative Midwest state who brought me in to train on human inclusivity. She did so even though she suspected that some of her team members might object on religious grounds to having me—a woman who is transgender and who doesn’t “pass” 100 percent—as the trainer. Yet, she bravely had me come train anyway. (And for sure, some of the reviews—where one writer was appalled by my “transgenderism” and others called me “him” and “he”—bore out the HR director’s suspicion.)
Then there’s Mary Bridget Lawson, who in the late 1980s and early ‘90s was the first “out” lesbian in the St. Louis County, Minnesota administration workforce. Understanding that St. Louis County is darn big (and extends to such liberal places as Virginia, Minnesota), Mary Bridget cut the path for countless people—GLBT and persons of color—who otherwise would have a much tougher go of it.
Finally, consider Eli Umpierre, who in the early 1990s was the first female police officer (and “out” lesbian) on the Rochester, Minnesota police department roster. After working her way up to lieutenant, Eli one day chose to speak out about a Puerto Rican police officer who had been passed over for promotion four times in favor of less qualified white officers. She knew that highlighting institutional racism would put her at risk; ultimately, it cost Eli her job. She didn’t take that laying down by any means, and filed a human rights claim against the city. Three months ago, she settled that claim for nearly $1 million in exchange for her resigning from the department.
Certainly, justice was served with Eli’s settlement, but the incident cost Eli a career that she loved. Heroes, it’s clear, sometime pay big prices for their heroism.
The next time you meet a hero, tell them how much you appreciate their bravery. You never know when their heroism will benefit you or those you love.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change (2013). She speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit www.elliekrug.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter, The Ripple. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.