Transgender activist teaches inclusivity, compassion for the ‘other’ at Steamboat Methodist Church (with video)

Methodist church fills with people Wednesday to hear Ellen Krug

Diane Muntean, a member of the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, takes a quiet moment with Ellen Krug during her inclusivity workshop on Wednesday morning. Muntean helped to organize the event as a way to make the church and community more welcoming to people of different minorities.
Derek Maiolo/Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Every seat was filled Wednesday in the auditorium of the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church as nationally renowned transgender advocate and attorney Ellen Krug taught the audience about judgment and compassion.

She knows all too well what it is like to be on the receiving side of the judge’s bench.

After she transitioned genders in 2009 — the first lawyer in Iowa to do so — she noticed how almost everyone gave her what she called “the look.”

“I am reminded that I am ‘other,'” she said of those moments when someone would take a quizzical squint at her feminine body yet hear her masculine voice. “I am reminded that I don’t fit in.”

That is why she developed her workshop, “Gray Area Thinking,” a toolkit to acknowledge the human tendency to marginalize strangers and to find better, more compassionate ways of interacting with others.

Government officials, business and nonprofit leaders were among those who participated in the two-hour training at the church. It was one of five such presentations Krug gave around Steamboat Springs on Tuesday and Wednesday, including two at Steamboat Springs High School. 

The Methodist Church organized the event as the first in its Being Human series, which includes bimonthly workshops to foster compassion. 

Krug, 62, wants her training to be easy to understand and enjoy, no matter one’s identity or minority status. The audience at the Methodist Church often burst into laughter at one of her quips or sudden frankness.

“I know I look like a chick, but I also know I sound like a dude,” she said as an introduction.

If you go

Future sessions of the Being Human series:

• November 2019
Session 2: Being Human with our Differently Abled Community Members

• January 2020
Session 3Being Human with our Immigrant Community Members

• March 2020
Session 4: Being Human with our Community Members  Struggling with Addiction and Mental Health Issues

• April 2020
Session 5: Being Human with our Economically Struggling Community Members

All sessions will take place at the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, 736 Oak St.

As Krug teaches, judgment and pigeonholing are hard-wired into the human brain as ancient, evolutionary tools to quickly decipher between friend or foe. Everyone does it, Krug acknowledged.

“I could bring in a dozen 40-year-old blonde dudes, all with the last name Anders  — it’s an inside joke in Iowa — and we could still pick out differences,” she said. 

While judging and labeling others or oneself can have benefits, such as giving one a sense of community or identity, doing so becomes problematic when it leads to discrimination or prejudices, according to Krug.

Ellen Krug, a nationally known transgender advocate, gives her “Gray Area Thinking” workshop at the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church on Wednesday morning. The two-hour training aims to foster compassion for people of different race, gender, religion or other marginalized identities.
Derek Maiolo/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Over the course of her workshop, Krug attempts to get people to recognize these judgments they pass to themselves and others. During one activity, she directed the audience to 19 signs taped around the room with identity labels on them such as “LGBTQ status,” “socioeconomic status” and “race.” She asked audience members to stand near one of the labels that resonated with them upon hearing various prompts.

One such prompt asked which identity lends the most privilege. Many stood near the “socioeconomic” and “race” signs. Another asked which identity they struggle with on a daily basis. Almost everyone stood under a sign that said, “Not good enough/fear of failure.”

The goal of this exercise was to show that all people, regardless of their appearance or beliefs, struggle under the burden of judgment. And one cannot always recognize these struggles in other people just by looking at them.

Krug then asked the audience to stand by the label they want to be best known for or associated with. Nearly everyone stood near a sign that said “compassion.”

Krug said she believes this is proof of the capacity for people to empathize with others and break the superficial barriers that separate them.

“We all have good, empathetic hearts,” she said. “Everyone in this room wants to love and be loved.”

It was a sobering reminder, specifically at the church considering the global rift in the Methodist denomination after a February vote to ban LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages.

Local church members, including Rev. Tim Selby, have since joined Methodist churches across the globe in rejecting that vote, reinforcing their commitment to being inclusive and welcoming to all.

Diane Muntean, a church member who helped Krug’s training, saw Wednesday’s event as a catalyst for the larger goal of becoming a more compassionate congregation.

“It’s not just an event,” Muntean said. “It’s a movement.”

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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