As something of an ‘elder’ in the third generation of 20th century transgender individuals, I have experienced and benefited from the information revolution that began with the popularization of television in the early 1950’s and the Internet in the 1990’s.
The first modern-era generation included people like Karl Baer, Dr. Alan Hart, “Dora” & Lili Elbe. These individuals were true pioneers for the fields of science, psychology and sociology. They were fortunate enough to live in a time where some degree of rudimentary medical assistance was available to them and enough enlightenment about human diversity was present in the professionals from whom they sought relief. Most of their stories have never been told or publicly acknowledged, with the exception of the upcoming film “The Danish Girl” about the life of Lili Elbe.
The second generation consisted of people like Christine Jorgensen, Hedy Jo Starr, Micheal Dillon & Reed Ericksson…the most famous of which is Ms. Jorgensen. She stood tall on the shoulders of those before her and elegantly and intelligently used the cultural media explosion of the 1950’s to tell her story, giving hope to millions of my generation struggling with the isolation of being different and invisible.
The ‘Jorgensen generation’ and my subsequent generation were the first to mass market our own stories, and to have exploration of gender diverse identity become relatively commonplace in the literature of the time. It was rather hit and miss. For every thoughtful and literate biography, such as Canary Conn’s obscure and underrated “Canary” or Mario Martino’s “Emergence” there were exploitative stories in The Enquirer and other trash rags.
I have read them all…and have experienced being deeply moved, energized, inspired, reassured and angered as a result. In each book I looked for correlations to my own life, often finding them, but only in the most fundamental of ways. As an early gender transitioner, I have been deeply dismayed by the lingering descriptions of clothing, make-up, stereotypical femininity and flirtations with men as things that define one’s journey to gender truth.
None of those narratives completed the circuit of my experience of childhood gender certainty, navigating parental and family response, living a shadowy life in school, identifying sources of help and hope and crossing over into adulthood.
And then I read “Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Amy Ellis Nutt.
Reading the prologue of “Becoming Nicole” not only let me know that I was in for a literary treat, it caused me to physically put the book down before proceeding.
“Am I ready for this?”, I asked, because I suspected this story of one family’s truth was going to take me down a road to self-reflection in a way that might change me forever.
A father’s video entreaty to his son to “show me your muscles”, when all the child wants to do is enjoy his own reflection wearing his pink tutu was shattering. The economy of words and abundance of information contained in that paragraph told me all I needed to know about what I would do next. I turned the page.
“Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” takes you through the roughly 15-year expeditionary struggle of the Maines family. It is the story of Kelly and Wayne Maines and their twins, Wyatt and Jonas. When they were born, the world believed they were identical twin boys, but Wyatt soon made it clear to everyone that assumptions make an…well, you know how that saying goes.
This is the story of one mother’s undying commitment to a universal, eternal truth – this is my child and they came to me as a perfect individual human being. It is also the story of a father’s journey to reconcile his deep love for this child with his own stereotypical upbringing and concern for what others will think, and a genetically identical sibling’s search for that sweet spot of being a loving brother to his transgender sister, while still carving out his own place and identity in the family and the world beyond.
There are many heroes throughout this story, and they include every member of the immediate family, as well as allies from their community. There are also villains, including the Christian Civic League of Maine, a school official named Bob Lucy and an individual named Paul Melanson, a Christian extremist who used his own grandson as a tool to harass Nicole and her family, driving them unnecessarily into an eight-year battle that tested them financially, emotionally and spiritually.
I am not giving too much away, because there is so very much in “Becoming Nicole” that is worth experiencing. It is a book for every member of every family because “Becoming Nicole” acknowledges the struggle that many families experience when a child is gender diverse or transgender.
Wayne Maines’ effort to accept his son Wyatt as his daughter Nicole lights the path for other fathers of trangender daughters to examine their own internal struggles with what it means to be a loving father to a unique child first, rather than simply a father to “boy” or “girl”.
In reading about Jonas Maines’ parallel maturation beside his sister, you will come to know a thoughtful, resilient and talented young man who, in many ways, took the lead in helping the family understand his twin’s true identity.
Kelly Maines is a warrior Mom is the best sense of that word. Her prime directive is protecting her children and ensuring they grow up to enjoy as many opportunities, with the fewest obstacles possible. She is far from a one-dimensional figure in “Becoming Nicole” however. A career woman, juggling work and holding her family together, Kelly is the epitome of what feminism is all about.
And then, there is Nicole. The book makes it clear that she was far from the perfect child, and in many ways, that is what makes her personal story even more moving, admirable, courageous and immensely readable. She is just a regular kid, fighting as hard as she can to live in her own truth with the support of her family against unimaginable odds. She is not a transgender girl, she is a girl who had to overcome some biological, familial, societal and medical challenges in order to survive.
As she writes in “Becoming Nicole” when facing the fear of undergoing surgery for the first time:
“It’s not for me, I feel like I have to do this for Wyatt. I need to do this to make up for everything that he had to put up with. I need to do this to apologize to him. I need to do this to show him that it was all worth it. I need to do this to thank him for not giving up and for giving me a chance…”
“Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” gives us all a chance to open our hearts and our intellects to make whatever journeys are necessary to support ourselves and our loved ones in living in their truth. I waited almost 60 years to read this book. It was well worth the wait.
“Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” by Amy Ellis Nutt is available online in hardcover and Kindle versions from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and through retail bookstores nationwide. ISBN-10: 0812995414
Disclaimer: Dr. Wayne Maines is a member of the Board of Directors for TransActive Gender Center, and personal friend of the blog author, Jenn Burleton. There has been no compensation offered to Ms. Burleton or TransActive Gender Center in exchange for her review of “Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family”, nor would such be accepted if offered.