Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, was released on October 20, 2015, two weeks before the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was defeated in large part due to fears generated over bathroom access by transgender individuals. I learned about the book through the flurry of news coverage immediately preceding its release, and I was first in line for Lincoln City Library’s print copy. Written by Amy Ellis Nutt, it tells the story of the Maines family who, in January 2014, won a landmark civil-rights case against the Orono school district after school officials denied their transgender daughter Nicole the right to use the girls’ restroom.
The value of this book at a time when every news story about transgender rights results in a flurry of mean-spirited comments is that it tells the story of a transgender child and her family from day one. It allows those of us who have no personal experience with being transgender or raising a transgender child to glean, just a little bit, through the power of story and the willingness of the Maines’ family to share theirs, what it might be like.
The story begins in 1997 when Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys named Wyatt and Jonas. Despite having the same DNA and being raised in the same household, the boys identify differently from early on. Even before he’s three Wyatt prefers girl things and displays distress over being treated as a boy. The anecdotes shared to illustrate this early dissonance are poignant and heartrending.
By the time the boys are three Kelly is already doing research, trying desperately to understand what is going on with Wyatt. Wayne, on the other hand, is deeply uncomfortable with Wyatt’s gender nonconformity and disapproves of Kelly’s willingness to partially accommodate the boy’s toy and clothing preferences. Although Wayne clearly loves both boys, his initial response is to withdraw and leave the reins primarily in Kelly’s hands.
Interestingly enough, at least early on the boys’ friends and classmates had the fewest problems with their differing gender identities: Wyatt had no problem making female friends and bonding with them over “girl” things; the son of a family friend contradicted his mother when she referenced the “Maines boys,” telling her that Jonas is a boy and Wyatt is a girl; and at one point, when the twins are nine, Jonas tells his dad to face the fact that he has a son and a daughter.
It wasn’t until fifth grade, when the grandfather of a classmate complained about a boy using the girls’ restroom, something Wyatt (now Nicole) had been doing with school approval for some time, that things got bad. In response to the complaint and ongoing harassment by the boy whose grandfather had lodged it, the school eventually told Nicole she had to use a staff restroom. The continuing conflict and increasingly hostile school climate began to take a toll on the family, and in 2009 they decided Kelly and the twins would relocate to Portland. They also filed their initial lawsuit against the school district.
Although this was a difficult time for the family financially and emotionally, it was also a turning point for Wayne who realized he needed to step up to the plate and begin advocating for his daughter. He became the more public face of the family, eventually giving speeches, writing letters and essays that appear in national publications, and lobbying politicians. In this sense, the story of Nicole’s transformation is also the story of her father’s transformation as he opened himself to a reality unfolding in front of him that contradicted his expectations and beliefs.
Nutt, Amy Ellis. Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family. New York: Random House, 2015.