Becoming Nicole: the Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt (2015)

I was fascinated by this book, beginning to end.  When it arrived in our school library just a week ago, I was ready to check it out before the book had even been properly catalogued.  And now that I’m ready to return it, I hope all teachers and 9780812995411_custom-741e66521190b63326b0cb3e1196971fc82e39cf-s400-c85counselors will have a chance to read it. Nicole Maines and her brother, Jonas were adopted as infants–twin boys. Kelly and Wayne Maines  could not have biological children, so when Kelly found out her teen-age cousin Sarah was pregnant, she and Wayne asked to adopt.  They received two healthy, beautiful boys: Wyatt and Jonas Maines.  But by age two it was clear to Kelly that Wyatt did not identify as a boy.  He begged to wear dresses, play with barbies and princess dolls, sport sparkly clothes, and watch the Little Mermaid. Just before he turned three, Wyatt was watching his dad renovate a bathroom, mimicking his dad by banging on the wall with a toy hammer.  His dad, a self-avowed ‘manly’ man–Air Force veteran and conservative Republican–was thrilled to finally have a father-son bonding moment with Wyatt.  And then Wyatt turned to him and said, “Daddy, I hate my penis” (23).

Thus began their journey–one that Wayne struggled with, leaving Kelly as the rock of the family.  She was steadfast in her beliefs that her son was neither strange nor sick–just different. She devoted her time to researching and learning until she landed on the concept of gender identity disorder (changed to gender dysphoria in 2013, thus emphasizing that it is not, in fact, a disorder, but a state of unease when a person’s sexual anatomy doesn’t match up with his/her inner sense of gender).  In rural Maine in 2000, there weren’t exactly a whole lot of resources or support. The story goes on to chronicle the family’s new understanding, their struggles, setbacks, and triumphs along the way, from Wyatt’s early elementary years through high school graduation in which the kids attended several different schools, ultimately moving to Portland, Maine to attend a more progressive high school.  By then, Wyatt’s legal name change in 5th grade had been in effect for four years.  Much of the latter half of the book centers around a legal suit against the rural Maine school district (Orono), that prevented Nicole (formerly Wyatt) from using the girls bathroom. Ultimately, the Maineses won in the state Supreme Court.

But what I found most fascinating in the story were the many blocks of scientific information that supplement the story–credible, researched information that explains just howand oppportunities complicated gender can be.  A few excerpts that discuss this: “Our genitals and our gender identity are not the same.  Sexual anatomy and gender identity are the products of two different processes, occurring at distinctly different times and along different neural pathways before we are even born” (89). . .”Beyond chromosomes, any kind of mutation, or change, in the balance of hormones will tip the sexual development of the fetus toward one side or the other independently of what the chromosomes ‘say.’  Scientists have identified more than twenty-five genes that are involved in creating differences in sexual development” (90). . . “Unquestionably, there are multiple factors that affect gender identity, and while there are still questions to be answered, what we know now is that the interaction of genes with prenatal exposure to hormones in the second half of pregnancy affects brain development that influences gender identification” (162). . . “Gender identity is not a fixed target…For some, the sense of being male or female is simply not as central as it may be for others” (162).  Perhaps the most important message of the book is this: “How we define a person’s gender has become increasingly more difficult the more science reveals gender’s complexity” (165). This, of course, will be hard for some folks to understand–let alone embrace.  But like women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and now transgender rights, it’s a matter of learning about and accepting that which we do not yet understand and, for some, what which is beyond the comfort zone.  There was a time when people could not conceive of a black person with the full rights and opportunities of a white person (and sadly, some folks still possess this midset). Now we are in a time when many people cannot understand the concept or the rights of someone who is transgender.  I hope that education, science, and empathy will change that—and soon.

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