Understanding Transgenderism with Becoming Nicole‘s Amy Ellis Nutt

Culturally and politically, this is a very important moment for transgender people, and is therefore an important opportunity for all of us to better understand what it means to be transgender. And Becoming Nicole, a true story of a transgender girl and her family from Pulitzer Prize–winning science reporter Amy Ellis Nutt, is one of the best resources we have to learn. Nutt takes us inside the world of transgender girl Nicole Maines and her family, exploring the obstacles they stood up to for Nicole as she went through her transition. It’s an emotional book that will educate you, anger you, and make you want to cheer for Nicole and her family, who struggled with not only their community but themselves in their fight to ensure Nicole could be the person she was born to be, with the respect and rights of any other child.

We interviewed Nutt about writing Becoming Nicole and her close relationship with the Maines family. After you read the interview, add the book to your to-read list—it’s the kind of reading that tears you apart and puts you back together again.

How did writing this book change you?

I was deeply affected, both emotionally and intellectually, as I reported and then wrote the book. Before taking up this project, I had read very little about what it means to be transgender, so as part of my deep background research I read widely about the science, history, and politics of gender identity. I’d always felt that the phrase “gender spectrum” was partly a social convenience, a kind of shorthand communication meaning we’re not all the same and we need to accept the differences in others even if they fail to conform to traditional notions of gender. But my reporting and understanding of the biology of gender shattered that “soft” notion. Gender fluidity isn’t a choice or a political position or a social construct. It is, quite simply, a human attribute.

On a deeper level, I was profoundly moved getting to know the Maineses. Their experiences exemplified the challenges all families face as they learn to grow, accept, understand, and cherish each other. Kelly and Wayne, Nicole and Jonas—they all taught me that we are more than the names we give ourselves, or the words we use to describe ourselves, and that embracing that idea is one of the most freeing, life-affirming acts we can ever make.

Why did you decide to focus on Nicole and her family?

Honestly, it was serendipity that brought us together, but when it did, I realized they were the perfect family to write about in large part because they were so average: solidly middle-class, hard-working parents with two young children. I knew readers would understand this family, recognize themselves in Kelly and Wayne or Jonas and Nicole, and that was very important to me. When I began the book the movement for transgender rights was not front and center in American culture by any means. This was before Orange is the New Black, before Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner were household names. So I wanted readers to understand that being transgender was not exotic, or foreign, or freakish.

It was also important, I think, to convey how “normal” all the members of the family are, and this very much included Nicole’s confidence, from the time she was a toddler, about who she really was. She did not grow up afraid or ashamed or hiding herself from her family. She had a happy childhood, just a very different one from most other kids.

Was it important to you from the very start to also focus on Nicole’s brother, Jonas? Or was that a choice you made while you were writing?

Including Jonas was a decision I made before even meeting him, because I knew this was really a book about a family. Nicole’s life, her problems, her joys, her challenges and changes didn’t and don’t happen in isolation. Jonas is not only her twin, but her best friend and because they are identical, he was a constant reminder to Nicole both of who she was and who she was not. Beyond the physical, however, Nicole’s search for her identity was mirrored in the family’s search, and how they came to understand each other.

Was it hard to write this book and stay on top of everything that was happening in the news and in the world? It seems like a very hot time, current event–wise, for transgender issues.

Yes, it was, and not just politically, culturally, and legally, but scientifically. So yes, it was a bit tough to juggle all those aspects and make sure the most trenchant material made its way into the book. Then again, it was a good problem to have—the more material an author has, the better. The hard part is choosing what to leave out, but that’s what great editors are for!

What was the most fascinating thing you learned writing this book?

Honestly, it was understanding how various gender truly is, both in humans and in the animal kingdom. The idea of gender as binary, it turns out, is not only antiquated, it’s wrong. In the natural order of things, there are fish that switch genders and mammals that are intersex. Nature favors diversity, and that applies not only to genes, but to sex and gender as well. Society favors conformity, nature favors diversity. How could gender identity NOT be a spectrum? It seems so logical to me now.

What’s your favorite thing about Nicole?

Her fearlessness, her willingness to dare the world to NOT accept her, even embrace her, on her own terms. She is an unremittingly hopeful person who has never seen a barrier she thought insurmountable.

The Maineses are really fighters. What is it about them that made them so willing to put themselves out there and do what they think is right?

It sounds corny, but quite simply, it’s the love they have for one another. This is a family that, no matter how difficult it was for Wayne, at first, to accept Nicole being transgender, never wavered in their love. That simple but powerful bond is what made it possible for Nicole to grow up thinking she would eventually get to be fully the person she knew she already was. The Maineses did nearly everything together. Jonas accompanied Nicole and their parents to her doctors’ appointments in Boston. They were together in court for every legal decision in their lawsuit. And they were there, in the hospital room in Philadelphia, to greet Nicole after her sex-reassignment surgery. When a family is that close, and that supportive of each other, all their challenges seem that much smaller.

Did you worry about how the Maineses would react to this book?

I’d be lying if I said I did not worry. It’s not easy to bare one’s soul to a journalist, and every one of the Maineses did. They knew I had to write about their lives with all the warts included, so I wasn’t worried they would be surprised by anything they read, but reading about yourself is very different from talking to a writer about yourself. Nicole and Jonas were unflappable. It was probably most difficult for Wayne because he underwent the biggest transformation. I know it was hard for him to relive those times when he was not on board about Nicole—he told me so!—but he’s so honest and generous that he also told me reading about himself, while painful, actually helped him understand himself, and other family members, better.

What’s something you could not include in this book that you’d like everyone to know?

There were many more people who supported the Maines family along the way than I could give space to in the book. They included Maine state legislators, school teachers, neighbors and occasionally perfect strangers who heard or knew about the family’s challenges and who reached out to Kelly and Wayne with help, advice, or simply words of encouragement. They far outnumbered the people who were critical of Kelly and Wayne, or who harassed or bullied or rejected Nicole and Jonas, and they always made the Maineses feel they were never completely alone.

Becoming Nicole is available now.

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