When One Identical Twin Comes Out As Transgender

Photo: the Maines family.
When Wayne Maines, a middle-class Republican-voting veteran, and his wife, Kelly, decided to adopt, they thought they were bringing home two baby boys. What they didn't realize is how much raising their twins, initially named Wyatt and Jonas, would end up teaching them about gender, self-identity — and expectations.

From the time Wyatt could speak, it was clear to her family that she identified as female. “This challenged all of Wayne's notions of what a family is, what a son or a daughter is, and what gender is,” said Amy Ellis Nutt, who's written a book about the family.

Jonas, on the other hand, “understood his sister all along as his sister,” and in a way became her biggest advocate to their dad. “He said to his father, ‘Look, Dad, face it. You have a son and a daughter.’ That came from a deep, honest, open place,” Nutt said, “and I realized that they each had a voice and each had a story to tell.”

Three years later, Nutt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has turned these stories into Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, released yesterday. It does not limit itself to the subject of Nicole Maines, born Wyatt, and her transition. It also describes the journey of Nicole's twin brother, who helped his father come to accept his sister as just that, and her parents, who went through an evolution all their own. What emerged, in Nutt's own words, “wasn't just about Nicole, but a family and a community.”

Nutt spoke with us about parents raising a cisgender son and his transgender twin, reassignment surgery and school bathrooms, and how the Maineses experience, though unique, is a universal story about parenthood. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Photo: the Maines family.
In the book, Nicole’s mom tells a story about one birthday, early on, when she bought both kids — then still called Wyatt and Jonas — action figures. What happened?
“When It seemed like both kids were entranced by these action-figure cartoons on TV, Kelly thought, 'Here's a toy I can get for both of them, that they'll both really like.'

“And yet, when she gave the kids their presents and Nicole opened hers, her face fell. Kelly asked, 'Wyatt, what's wrong?'

“She said it wasn't really the action figure she wanted, but the house it lived in. It was at that point that Kelly said, 'Forget it. It's cruel to keep trying to make a child fit into my behavior as a parent or some kind of norm when it doesn't make them happy.' That's when she told Wayne, 'This isn't a phase. This isn't passing. And it's mean to force a child to want things they don't want.'

“Wayne as a father was instinctively protective, and later on, when he felt that his child was being bullied and threatened, he stepped up. He began to realize, at that point, that he'd fallen down on the job. That he wasn't there for Kelly. He acknowledges that, and acknowledges that he was flawed. I found that really impressive.

“The first realization was that this is a child that is transgender, and that's not going to change. The second was to ask, 'What are we going to do to protect this child?' And to help other people understand what they were only just beginning to understand themselves.”

It's mean to force a child to want things they don't want.

These instincts you describe, particularly Kelly's, to be nurturing and encouraging and protective, don't seem different from any other mother's.
“Exactly! That's exactly right, and I think that's very important. Kelly came from a difficult background herself, not a typical nuclear family. So she didn't have any expectations of what a perfect family should be, and I think that benefited her with Nicole.

“She began where so many other modern parents begin. She Googled something as simple as 'boys who like girls' toys.' And that began the process of self-education. But it's what any parent does with a behavior they don't understand: educate themselves so they can help their child. It's no different from a large majority of families.”
We recently ran a piece about a mother raising a young transgender child, and it got a very strong response from what is, generally, a tolerant readership. Why do you think that people have such a heightened reaction to these stories?
“What we do know, statistically, is that of kids who express opposite gender behavior and language and feelings as children, only about 20% are truly transgender. Some will turn out to be gay, some will turn out to be cisgender and heterosexual. It's a time of fluidity and learning and experimentation.

“What Kelly and Wayne would say is that they didn't force anything on their child. When they met Dr. [Norman] Spack, who's one of the pioneers in transgender health and medicine for children, they decided to suppress puberty. They want to give their child a chance to fully explore before they did anything as dramatic as taking hormones or sex-reassignment surgery. And the reason is that it's much easier to do that before puberty. (And much less expensive!) So Nicole didn't have to wait for the bones in her face to thicken, to grow facial hair, or for her voice to deepen, and because of that she feels more genuinely, inside and out, a female and feminine, than if she had gone through puberty. It feels less difficult.

“Because Wayne saves everything, I had hours and hours of video, and I watched all of it. There is no doubt. This is a child who never veered from thinking she was a girl. That was who she was, and as a two-year-old who is barely able to speak and who certainly doesn't have the language of gender, she was expressing, 'I'm a girl. Maybe this is going to fall off, and I'll just become a girl.' She knew exactly who she was. It was just a matter of educating everyone else around her.”

This was a child who never veered from thinking she was a girl.

The Maines family fought against Nicole's school when she was asked to use the staff bathroom rather than the girls' room. Eventually, they became advocates against a proposed “Bathroom Bill” that required students to use restrooms in line with their sexual anatomy, rather than gender identity. Can you elaborate on why this was such an important issue, and trying experience, for Nicole?
“At first, when the school made the demand, it was okay. But then she realized she's not with her friends. She's having to be singled out, having to be watched in the hallways. It was as if she was the problem, when she wasn't the problem.

“It seems like a simple thing. On the one hand, it's understandable that people react the way they do. They think, 'Oh, my God, you can't have a boy who thinks she's a girl using the girls' restroom!' But by the fifth grade, her name was Nicole. She always identified as a girl. She looked like a girl, dressed like a girl, and had girl friends. It would have been insane, illogical, and unsafe for her to use the boys' room.
“People ask, 'What would happen if another girl in there saw her anatomy?' Well, the last thing a transgender person, especially a child, wants is for someone to see their genitals. The very last thing. This was a girl who would take showers in the dark, because she didn't want to look at herself. Who was embarrassed when her own mother would see her.

“These are fears that are primitive, but that are unfounded. There was no reason to make Nicole use a staff restroom. She, and her friends and everyone else, thought it was perfectly acceptable and comfortable to use the girls' restroom. It's about privacy, frankly. To make this a public issue just seems wrong and wrongheaded.”

It seems as though those who knew Nicole as a person, as a family member or peer, were eventually able to accept her for who she was, but the institutions around her hadn't caught up yet.
“There's always going to be a dichotomy. All of us as individuals look to define ourselves, to understand ourselves, to find our identity. That is always going to rub up against society's attempts to classify and organize according to categories. It's just the way societies are built and the way, sociologically, we think. But it's contrary, often, to how we feel about ourselves.

“To some extent, the identity crisis was never with Nicole. It was an identity crisis with people around her being able to understand and accept that.”

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