When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin baby boys 18 years ago, they had no idea the trajectory their lives would take. Wayne, an Air Force veteran and rugged outdoorsman, was looking forward to fishing, hunting and playing baseball with his boys. Kelly was just excited to have kids of her own after suffering through years of fertility treatments.
As identical twins, Wyatt and Jonas Maines shared matching DNA. But it was soon clear to their parents that they differed in one monumental way: gender. From a very young age, Wyatt identified as female. When he was two years old, he told his dad he hated his penis. He asked his mom when he would get to be a girl. In fifth grade, Wyatt officially took the name Nicole.
In Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, which came out on Tuesday, Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Ellis Nutt follows the Maineses as they learn to understand their transgender child -- and to support each other during the process. In Ellis’ telling, the family's greatest teacher is Nicole. She knows who she is; it is up to her family to listen.The narrative, which takes readers from a rural town in Maine all the way to the White House, includes bullying, family strife and a landmark court case on transgender rights.
It’s a culmination of a story that I’ve personally been following since 2010. I first met Nicole when she was 12 years old and a patient at Children’s Hospital Boston, where I worked as a writer at the time. Her doctor was Norman Spack, a pediatric endocrinologist who co-founded the first clinic in the U.S. dedicated to treating transgender children. At Children's Hospital Boston, Nicole was given puberty-suppressing drugs -- an innovative treatment for transgender kids that essentially pauses their puberty, stopping their bodies from developing unwanted physical changes.
In Nicole’s case, taking puberty-suppressing medication meant she wouldn’t develop an Adam’s apple, facial hair and other male features that could cause extreme anxiety and make it more difficult to transition when she became older.
I was assigned to write a feature on her and on Spack's work with transgender kids. When I interviewed Nicole and her family, they were going through a rough time. They had recently moved from Orono, Maine, to Portland, uprooting themselves after Nicole was bullied at school for using the girls' bathroom.
Nicole had been using the girls’ facilities without incident until a male student began following her into the bathroom and claiming that if Nicole could use it, he could too. In response, the school banned Nicole from using the girls' bathroom, and instead made her use a staff bathroom, isolated from other students.
The Maineses pulled their kids from the school and filed a discrimination lawsuit. In 2014, seven years after the first bathroom incident, the family was finally handed a huge victory: Maine’s Supreme Court ruled that the school violated state anti-discrimination law by not allowing Nicole to use the girls' bathroom. The decision made history, as it was the first time a state court ruled that transgender students must be allowed access to the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
Nicole underwent gender confirmation surgery this summer. She and her brother are now attending the University of Maine.
I spoke to Nutt about the process of writing Becoming Nicole. An edited, condensed version of our conversation follows.
Why were you drawn to Nicole Maines' story?
Meeting the Maineses, it’s impossible not to like them. What impressed me is they seemed, on the one hand, like a very ordinary family. And yet their story is quite extraordinary. I think a lot of people can identify with them.
The other part that attracted me is the fact that Jonas and Nicole are identical twins. It presented an opening, as someone who writes about science, to discuss the science of gender.
These are identical twins, they have the exact same DNA, but they are obviously deeply different. What happened to turn some genetic switches on or off in one and not the other one really goes back to what happened in utero.
If we can look at gender identity as something that has to do with the brain, and not with the genitals we were born with, or how we were raised, or how many dolls we were given, I think that is important.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this story?
The most surprising thing, from the science perspective, is that from what we know, gender identity is a completely separate brain process in prenatal development. By six weeks, our genitals and our reproductive organs have been determined as male or female, but not until six months are our brains either masculinized or feminized by hormones. That was really eye-opening.
From the perspective of the family, the degree to which this was who Nicole was from birth was in some ways surprising. I watched hours of videos [of the twins as children]. It’s impossible to watch all these videos, some of which are very ordinary moments, and not be impressed that this was a child who absolutely, 100 percent knew she was a girl.
At age 2, you barely have a vocabulary to communicate, much less tell someone that the body you are in doesn’t agree with your brain. It’s something so integral to who the child is that it’s impossible to think that this is something that could be influenced by the number of dolls they are given or someone dressing them differently.
What do you want people to take away from this book?
I think that just about anyone who reads this book will find something in it that they can relate to. Even though it’s a book about a transgender child, it speaks to families and how we come to understand each other. It’s a story about four lives, not just one. It's not a biography of a transgender child -- it's a biography of a family.
I hope that people will read it and get to know this family, and by understanding who they are, they will realize that it is not a terrible fate to have a transgender child.
Nicole isn't any different from any other young women. She just knew who she was. And she knew her body didn't agree with that, and her family helped her find an answer.