Among Amy Ellis Nutt’s well-wishers in 2011, when she won the Pulitzer Prize, was Jennifer Levi, a long-lost grad-school friend.
While Nutt was becoming an award-winning investigative journalist, Levi had become a lawyer and director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) Transgender Rights Project. Levi legally represented the family of a transgender girl forced to use segregated bathrooms at school—the news item had gone national in the Boston Globe—and wanted to know if Nutt was interested in writing about the family.
“I had read the [Boston Globe] story, and I was utterly fascinated by it—it’s the kind of story I would have loved to have done for my paper at the time,” says Nutt, who covers health and science beats for the Washington Post. “But when it came to concept of writing a book, which my agent sort of seized on, my first thought two years ago was, I find this really interesting, but will anyone else? That’s how much things have changed in two years.”
Arriving at a time of improved trans visibility, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family seeks to continue the trend. It’s the intimate and engaging story of an ordinary American family thrust into activism in response to their daughter’s harassment. They are the Maineses of Portland, Maine: mother Kelly, father Wayne, and their identical 17-year-old twins, a cisgender boy and a transgender girl.
In toddlerhood, Wyatt and Jonas Maines had the same DNA but highly disparate interests.
“Wyatt loved everything Barbie. Jonas loved everything Star Wars, Power Rangers, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He spent hours making his own imaginative action figures out of clay, then liked to smash them with makeshift weapons. Wyatt tended to take out his frustration on Jonas; Jonas took his out on his toys. From an early age, he was more of an interior child, with an unusual gentleness,” Nutt writes.
As Wyatt grew, he began referring to himself as a “boy-girl,” and asked when his penis would fall off. His behavior puzzled and troubled his parents, a hard-working, educated, politically conservative couple, who initially responded in different ways: Kelly bought Wyatt the sparkly pink “girl” clothes he craved; Wayne ordered him to change them when company came. Wayne did a lot of late-night soul searching; Kelly did a lot of late-night internet searches.
“ ‘He’s trying to tell us something,’ Kelly would say. ‘He’s showing us who he is, and we’ve got to help him figure it out,’ ” Nutt writes.
By fifth grade in Orono, Maine, Wyatt was living as Nicole, fully supported by her family, and widely accepted by teachers and classmates as just another one of the girls. But the repeated harassment of one male classmate, coached by his grandfather to follow Nicole into the girls’ restroom, led to the revocation of her right to use it. The family’s decision to sue the school district for discrimination, and advocate for protective legislation, was led by Nicole.
“Nicole was the one who said, no, we have to do something, and so it was her decision to take this very private story—that had been a little bit co-opted by the press—to fully own it in a powerful way, to try and change the story of what was happening in Maine,” Nutt says. “So all along I was really impressed with the power of how we form a story about ourselves and our relationships, and the value of all those.”
As a science writer, she was also impressed by the substantial evidence that being trans is a medical condition—perfectly natural—and not a “problem.”
“We need to decouple this idea about something being wrong or different or a problem from differences in sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity—that’s the other thing I discovered in studying and doing all the research on this,” Nutt says. “Basically, science is realizing there are three very different developmentally processes that happen prenatally: when our genitalia is set, when our gender identity is set, and when our sexual orientation is set. They happen at different times in utero, so think of all the things that can happen in between.... Nature is not homogeneous. There’s tremendous variety out there in the natural world, so why shouldn't there be among human beings?”
In sharing their lives with readers, the Maines family intends to be part of the solution to problems of discrimination and violence against the trans community.
“These are your husbands, your wives, your sons, your daughters, your friends,” Nutt says. “Read it—you’ll recognize yourself somewhere in the book.”Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.