Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What We're Reading: What It Means to Be Transgender

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of An American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt

Becoming Nicole is the story of young Wyatt Maines and his journey to becoming Nicole, his transition to leading life as the girl he always felt himself to be inside. Jonas and Wyatt were identical twins born to a young relative of Kelly Maines in 1997. Kelly and her husband, Wayne, were unable to have children of their own, and they adopted the two boys in their infancy. The boys were toddlers when Kelly and Wayne began to notice a marked difference between the boys: Jonas liked sports, and toy trucks and the things a young boy was "supposed" to like. Wyatt liked princess dolls, and dress-up, and identified with the Little Mermaid. From early in his young life he wanted to dress like he saw girls dressing, and insisted that he was a “boy-girl.” Jonas, when asked years later about growing up with Wyatt, said that he had never really thought of Wyatt as a brother, but rather as a sister.

Becoming Nicole is the story of how Wyatt’s self-identification as a girl presented a crisis of understanding and adjustment to all the members of his family. Wyatt’s transition to Nicole, however, as we find out, became a public issue and precipitated a change in the law, contributing to a social transformation in understanding and attitudes about transgender children and adults.

Wyatt (left) and his brother Jonas, age 10
Wyatt/Nicole is the remarkable individual at the center of this story, a person who never doubted from the start that her gender was that of a girl even though she found herself, disconcertingly, with the body of a boy. She displays a remarkable resilience and bravery in dealing with the difficult challenges and hurts of her young life. The key to this story having a positive outcome---so unlike the difficult and tragic family experience of so many transgender children---is Kelly Maines. From the beginning, Kelly Maines sought to understand, support, and protect her transgender child, and to fight for that child both within the family and in Wyatt/Nicole’s early years in school. At a time when not much information seemed to be available about transgender children, and when there was no support for a transgender child in schools or other social institutions, Kelly dug for the information, sought allies who would work with her in supporting her child, and when implacable enemies arose she fought them. Her husband Wayne, from a more “traditional” and conservative upbringing, was slower to accept Wyatt/Nicole’s circumstance and to understand and support the things that needed to be done, and the attitudes that needed to be changed, on her behalf. Eventually he became a strong public advocate for the rights of transgender children and adults.

The Maines family Kelly, Nicole, Jonas, and Wayne
This all took a toll on the Maines family. Wyatt/Nicole faced discrimination and harassment at his elementary school. His brother Jonas was in the uncomfortable spot of having to see Wyatt being taunted and having to defend him against others at school. After many years, the Maines family won a landmark case against their local school district, but not before the family was forced to move to another town in Maine, where Jonas and Wyatt (now Nicole) had to keep Nicole’s secret. Their father, unable to find a job closer to their new home, had to remain in his job in their former town and commute home on weekends. The physical, emotional, and financial costs of trying to protect Nicole were heavy.

The story gives us an understanding of what it means to be a transgender child, and a family with a transgender child, in America today. The author discusses gender identity as being primarily a construct of the internal biology of the brain (citing the most recent research), and she explains the medical details of hormone treatments and surgery. Perhaps the most important understanding that will be taken away from Becoming Nicole is that being transgender is an issue that needs to be addressed--and is best addressed--in childhood and in adolescence. In spite of the current notoriety of adult transitions, a transition in adulthood or after puberty is more difficult because of both the social and physical challenges it poses.

Jonas and Nicole Maines today
Some gay people claim that they always knew they were gay, but issues of sexual orientation come to the forefront during puberty. The situation is not the same for a transgender child. Transgender children seem to demonstrate gender identification at odds with their physical body from a very early age, and they are innocently demonstrative in expressing that identification and seem assured about it. Gender identity is something that occurs in a social and public context, and that’s why an understanding among those in the family and in a child’s social world is so important. Unlike a person who is gay and who may be “in the closet,” a transgender child is more often forced into the closet by those not willing to accept his or her gender identification. And this occurs at a critical time when a child is developing a sense of self.  It can be damaging to that development.

Transgender youth experience alarming rates of bullying, violence, discrimination, exploitation, and homelessness in our society. Studies have shown, shockingly, that by the age of 20 half of transgender youth have made at least one suicide attempt. This tragic scenario changes radically in households where a transgender child has had affirming and supportive parents. Nicole’s story, and its positive outcome, is not necessarily representative of the experience of so many transgender youth in our society, but it shows us what it might be. Our understanding and support could make the experience of transgender youth so much less a hurtful and seemingly hopeless one.

Becoming Nicole includes a bibliography for further reading, and a fine resource list of organizations that support transgender youth and their parents. The Burbank Public Library is developing a collection of printed and DVD resources for parents of transgender children. A printed bibliography of that collection will be made available sometime in March.

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