"Before I tell you what this training is," Ellie Krug told the crowd in the church fellowship hall, "let me tell you what it is not. This is not an 'indoctrination session.' This is not a 'grooming session.' This is not a talk to promote a 'certain kind of lifestyle.' "

She smiled: a joke, sort of. You could almost hear her air quotes. Krug was using the language of social conservatism to poke fun at the idea that this 66-year-old transgender woman — a Rotary Club member whose booming baritone is incongruous with her delicate features and blond hair — could ever be an avatar of some grave societal threat. During an era when Krug feels people like her are being pushed from society, Krug knows it's hard to hate someone who is likable. And Krug is likable: She's prone to interrupt conversations midsentence to point out a beautiful sunset, speaks in tones of grace instead of recrimination, and frequently says things like, "98% of humans have good, empathetic hearts."

Krug has given this talk more than 500 times: in red states and blue states, in small towns and big cities, to government employees and state Supreme Court justices and steel mill workers. But since Krug was elected last year to the Eastern Carver County school board in a conservative-leaning county where the Twin Cities' boundary with greater Minnesota blurs, speaking about marginalization has taken on new resonance.

This time was a rainy spring Saturday in Chaska. Thirty people had shown up at the Chaska Moravian Church for Krug's "Gray Area Thinking" session. Krug's sessions on inclusivity are her contribution to one of America's fiercest political debates: efforts to expand transgender rights and the furious backlash it has sparked. A record number of bills restricting rights of LGBTQ people have been introduced in state legislatures in 2023, from laws blocking gender-affirming health care to laws banning drag shows.

By winning one of four open school board seats last year, Krug stepped squarely into one of America's most heated cultural battles. She's now one of eight openly transgender or nonbinary school board members nationwide.

After transitioning from man — a successful trial lawyer, married with two daughters — to woman at 52, Krug is no stranger to feeling like an outcast. But in recent months, as she's felt that general unacceptance morph into something more alarming, Krug has been shaken: "It's killing me to know that so many people are spending so much time and dollars to discriminate," she said. "And nobody is getting bent out of shape. That's the thing I'm angry about."

But she hadn't come to this church armed with anger. Instead, Krug brought a message fit for a kindergarten classroom — essentially, Be kind.

"We can make anyone 'other' — we humans do that," she said. "Let's just deal with the elephant in the room, get it out of the way: I am 'other.' I know that. I look like a chick, but I sound like a dude." Every time she speaks, she watches surprise register on people's faces as they struggle to put her into a category.

On the church wall, Krug had hung posters where participants could categorize themselves: Ethnicity, Political Affiliation, Gender, Veteran, Religion/Spiritual Affiliation, LGBTQ Status. What part of your identity did your parents most stress when you were young? she asked. The largest group stood under "education," with others under "family," "gender" and "socioeconomic."

Krug's solution to America's ills is almost quaint in its simplicity: Get to know others, and feelings of "other" melt away.

"It's the power of human familiarity, the power of getting to know another human story," she said. "Human familiarity is the only pathway — the only pathway — through all the crap."

Krug grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the 1960s, neither a time nor a place for transgender people to live openly. Krug felt confused about one of her most foundational identities: the male gender assigned at birth or the female gender she felt inside. (Krug prefers her pronouns remain consistent with how she identifies now.) At 11, Krug would try on her sister's clothes and feel a shock of electricity at the girl staring back in a full-length mirror: "Oh my God, there you are!"

She threw away her secret lingerie the day before marrying her high school sweetheart. But within a year, Krug secretly started wearing her wife's clothes and underwear. She went to therapy, kept winning trials, switched therapists, bought a BMW to make her feelings go away, switched therapists again, became partner in a Cedar Rapids law firm, started her own practice.

"Then something happened that I never could have anticipated," Krug said. "And it happened to all of you as well: 9/11."

Two of the planes had left from Boston, an airport Krug had flown from often during and after attending Boston College Law School. That made the day's trauma feel more real. That night, the family went to Mass. Before communion, Krug's brain went elsewhere, transporting her onto American Airlines Flight 11. She imagined looking out the plane window, seeing the twin towers and knowing she was about to die.

Krug wondered what her final thoughts would be: family, of course, and her best friend. But right before impact, Krug thought this: "You're going to die a coward. Because you're afraid to be who you are."

Life had finally become clear. She knew the pain it would bring family, knew it would destroy her law practice, but that night, Krug decided she must live authentically.

The attorney nicknamed Killer Krug became Ellie Krug. Krug and her wife divorced after 22 years. She worked with a speech pathologist to sound more feminine. She got facial surgery, including a tracheal shave that affected her larynx, so she could no longer reach higher pitches. Eventually, she would move to Minnesota, which she saw as more welcoming than Iowa.

In 2009, she tried her first case as Ellie Krug. It was exhilarating. Not long after, the railroad company that made up more than half of her firm's business fired her. The company didn't explain why.

Central to Krug's philosophy is working within the system to change hearts and policies, not blowing up the system from outside. A couple of years ago — still a licensed attorney but now working as a diversity and inclusion speaker and trainer — she moved from her downtown Minneapolis condo to a suburban cul-de-sac in Victoria; she wanted a big dog and a yard. She volunteered at an alternative high school nearby and felt a connection to students in the gay-straight alliance. A recent high school graduate cried to Krug, saying she'd been afraid to come out as gay while in school. Krug felt called to run for school board.

She knocked on more than 1,000 doors. One man kicked her off his property, but nearly everyone else was kind, and hardly anyone wanted to talk culture-war issues. Krug didn't hide her gender identity — it was in the final paragraph of her campaign literature — but she wanted a broader message.

"I don't go around saying everything is trans-related," she said. "But it's important for people to know someone like me was elected, that it wasn't a close call, and that I'm showing up trying to be a unifier and not a divider."

Transgender rights have replaced a yearslong culture war over same-sex marriage. That fight is mostly in the past; the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans in 2015, and last year, support for same-sex marriage reached a record 71 % in a Gallup poll.

"Demonizing gay people is no longer a politically advantageous thing to do, but taking that place are trans folks," said Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, which works to elect LGBTQ officials. "Voices like Ellie's are more important than ever."

Krug got her first taste of school board controversy at her first regular meeting. The district's policy for library and media materials was up for renewal, and a debate was brewing about whether librarians or parents should have more say on the contents of school libraries.

One woman, part of a conservative slate that ran for school board last year, warned of explicit books in the district's media centers, and a mother spoke of a graphic novel depicting sex acts. Another parent said her child ought to be able to choose what he wanted to read.

Culture wars had invaded this boardroom before, when a scuffle broke out about pandemic masking at a 2021 board meeting. On this January night, the overflow crowd spilled into an adjacent room, but the atmosphere was far less heated. Most had come for student recognition night: Parents wanted to see their kids honored. Only a handful spoke about the library policy.

One school board member pointed out the policy already allows a parent to tell a librarian they don't want their child to see a certain book — but not to remove that book altogether. Another spoke of the district's book challenge policy — and said only four books had been challenged the past two decades.

"If you don't want a book in the library," Krug said, "don't read it."

Joe Scott, the other nonincumbent elected last year, spoke up. A self-described "old, white, conservative Christian," he said he believed parents ought to have a bigger voice.

Against all odds, Krug and Scott had become friends since running against each other. They bonded over a shared interest in reading scores, and they focused on what they have in common, not where they disagree.

After Scott was the only vote against the library policy, Krug voiced support for someone she vehemently disagrees with.

"Joe, I think we need to talk about the division," she said. "It's not something we can just sort of ignore. I appreciate what you said."

Later, Scott talked about these interactions as the lifeblood of democracy.

"God put us here together to accomplish something that's never been accomplished before," Scott said. "If a Buddhist trans woman and an old conservative Christian can agree on stuff, there's hope."

At the church fellowship hall on the recent morning, Krug asked people to sort themselves: What identity gives you the most privilege? Most stood under skin color, with others under socioeconomic and education. What's the identity others use to label you, judge you and discriminate against you? Groups stood under gender, political affiliation and religion. What's the identity you struggle with most? The biggest group stood under physical and emotional challenges; one woman began crying when talking about weight struggles.

Then Krug asked a surprising final question: What's the identity you want to be known for?

She wasn't surprised at what happened next. It happens the same way every time, whether in the reddest of red areas or the bluest of blue. Nobody stood under gender. Nobody stood under skin color. Nobody stood under political affiliation or LGBTQ status. All but one stood under the same sign: "COMPASSION."

"Hear me loud and clear on this," Krug exclaimed. "For those of you who are afraid, who are dejected, who are like, 'How can we ever get past this?' I am here to report this is what almost everybody in America wants to be known for. If we went on Twitter and Facebook and asked, 'What do you want to be known for?,' what do you think they'd be saying?"

She paused.

"But when we can finally show up as humans, what do we want people to think of us? Compassion!"

Several people wiped away tears at this shared humanity in a divided country. Krug wound up her talk, chatted, sold some books and headed home. This was a progressive church, an easy audience, but she wants to take her message to less comfortable places: "I need to keep going west, into greater Minnesota, talk to more people, get them past their fears."

Because familiarity, she believes, doesn't breed contempt at all. She doesn't care if it sounds hopelessly idealistic or impossibly naive. It's what she believes at her core: Familiarity only breeds compassion.