I called a small Idaho jail on a September Monday afternoon while sitting in a rental car parked in front of a worn-out convenience store in western Massachusetts; the rental was my temporary office since I was set to speak at a nearby university over the next two days.
I heard a couple rings before a woman’s voice answered on the other end.
“Hi,” I said brightly. “My name is Ellie Krug and I’m calling to speak to Blair; John Balding, her probation officer, told me that you folks would arrange for me to talk to Blair.”
“That’s right,” the female voice responded. “Can I put you on hold while I go get her?”
“Yes, sure.” Clearly, they had been expecting my call and I made a mental note that the voice had even used the proper pronoun.
A week before, I had given a “Transgender 101” training in Idaho at a conference for justice system professionals—probation officers, correctional officials and social workers. As is my practice, I put forth my “Standing Offer” which I’ve written about here before. To remind, the offer is this: “I’m willing to talk to anyone in a public place or on the phone for up to an hour—and I don’t watch my watch—relative to being transgender or gay, lesbian, or bisexual, or anything else that has nothing to do with gender or sexuality and simply relates to surviving the Human Condition.”
I always throw in that the offer is “transferable”—“You can give the offer to someone whom you think might benefit from it.”
I don’t do this because of an enormous personal ego, but instead because I’m a student of the “Special Ks”—Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy. I was eleven years old when they were murdered and before they went, they taught me (and millions of others) that we have an obligation to make the world a better place. “I’m a hopeless idealist,” I say. “Talking to strangers who are struggling is one of the ways that I seek to carry out the Special Ks’ charge.”
Some have taken me up on my Standing Offer, including John, the Idaho probation officer who started the whole process that had me waiting on the phone now. An attendee at my Trans 101 talk in Idaho, John called a couple days after I returned to Minneapolis. He explained that he had a twenty-seven-year-old client named Blair, his first-ever transgender client; she had previously served time for burglary, and once out of prison, Blair was assigned to him. The week before my talk in Idaho, she had attempted suicide by drug overdose and to protect her from further self-harm, John put her in lockup.
“There’s no other place to keep her safe from using drugs again,” John said during that call. “We’ve got no real mental health resources out here.”
His request: maybe me talking to Blair would help. “Absolutely,” I said. “I am happy to do that.”
My phone, on speaker now as I looked out the windshield at a brilliant blue sky, repeatedly clicked on hold. Eventually, the female voice returned. “I’ve got Blair here and will transfer you.”
A second later, there was a new voice.
“Hello?” I heard a mixture of pitch—part masculine, part strained feminine.
“Hi, this is Ellie Krug calling from Massachusetts. John Balding said you’d be expecting my call; he thought that it might make sense for us to talk.”
“Oh, wow. I can’t believe you’re calling me.”
“Of course I’m calling,” I answered. “Even though I don’t know you, I care about you.”
“Thank you.” The words rang heavy with emotion.
I said, “I hear you’ve been having a tough time of it. John gave me some of the details, but we don’t need to dwell on the past. I’m happy to just talk about whatever you’d like.”
Blair answered, “I’ve never talked to another transgender person. I’ve always just been alone.”
My heart sank. The isolation—she was in Idaho, after all—had to be overwhelming.
“Well, you have me. I’m happy to know you and be here for you.”
Again, I heard, “Thank you.” Blair then continued, “I’ve been taking hormones off and on for three years, but I’ve known that I’m a woman for much longer than that. It’s just that no one understands—my family doesn’t accept me, and I don’t feel that I matter to anyone. Yes, my mother has been trying but we got into a fight and that led me to going back to drugs. I OD’d on purpose trying to end things.”
I needed to interject.
“I want you to know, you matter to me. I mean that. You deserve to be you.”
More silence, followed by a shallow voice soaked with tears. “No one has ever said that to me.”
“Well, it’s true,” I said. “Don’t let anyone shake you from believing in yourself, in believing that you have the right to show up as you, Blair, a woman.”
I heard a human sniffling.
I asked where they were housing her in the jail—all too often, transgender women are thrown in with men, which frequently leads to disastrous results.
“They have me in isolation,” she answered.
Blair related that during her earlier prison stint she identified as female but went along with prison officials who housed her with men, which had led to her being assaulted repeatedly.
“I didn’t know that I could ask to be housed with women,” she said. “I just did what they said—that I had to be with the men.”
Her words underscored how many transgender humans absorb from society that they’re not worthy, who believe that they don’t matter, so much so that they don’t know to fight for themselves. Or who believe they’re not even worth the effort.
I responded, “From here on out, insist that you be housed with women or at least be kept from men, even if that means a medical floor or isolation. You’re a woman and shouldn’t be placed at risk with men, okay?”
I shifted to her family and friends, hoping she’d report that there was support from someone crucial. Instead, she shared about rejection on top of rejection. Her father wasn’t in her life and Blair’s mother was trying to accept her but found it difficult.
“I know that she loves me,” Blair said. “It’s just that it’s hard for her. While I understand that, she’s my mother. She’s supposed to be there for me regardless.” Blair’s voice dropped with the last few words.
This is the case way too often—parents or friends who can’t accept us for our true selves. It hurts like hell and the rejection lends to greater depression and isolation.
I said, “I’m sorry about your mother. That just stinks.” There really wasn’t any other way to put it.
Shifting, I asked, “Can I remind you of something?”
“Believe it or not, you have great grit and resiliency,” I said. “Grit is like sandpaper—the power to withstand the crap that life throws at you.”
“Resiliency is the ability to bounce back, to rebound from setbacks.”
“I’m telling you,” I said, trying to churn empathy into inspiration, “you’ve got far more grit and resiliency than you know. I’m absolutely positive of that.”
“I don’t feel like I have either of those,” Blair answered.
“Oh, yes you do,” I shot back. “You’re still alive. You’ve navigated jails and prisons as your true self. Heck, you were willing to talk to me, a total stranger. Trust me, you’ve got reservoirs of grit and resiliency that you’ve barely tapped. Remember that as you go forward.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she said. “Maybe you are right.”
“I know that I’m right. Grit and resiliency will pull you through.”
After another ten or fifteen minutes of my long-distance attempt at coaching, it was time to end the call.
“I’ve enjoyed talking to you, Blair,” I said. “I believe in you.”
Again, I heard the crinkling sound of human tears.
“Thank you for calling me, Ellie. This has meant a lot.”
“It’s meant a lot to me as well. Hang in there and feel free to reach out if you’d like.”
As I ended the call, I thought about how incredibly difficult it must be for the Blairs of the world—alone, wanting to matter to those in their life, fighting for some semblance of respect, and simply desiring to love and be loved.
Then I thought, But for the grace of God, there go I.
How lucky I am.
Notes: (1) Blair has granted permission to use her real name; (2) As we mourn the many transgender humans lost to violence on this Transgender Day of Remembrance, we absolutely cannot forget those lost to self-violence; (3) My Standing Offer is open to all humans, including you dear gentle reader; and (4) If you are thinking of self-harm, contact the Trevor Project (866-488-7386 24/7) or the Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860) or dial 911.
You matter to this world and you matter to me; please do not end your life! Others and I care about you!
Ellen (Ellie) Krug, the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change, speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit www.elliekrug.com where you can also sign-up for her monthly e-newsletter, The Ripple. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.