Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family

Image of Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family
Release Date: 
October 19, 2015
Random House
Reviewed by: 

The travails experienced by transgender persons in the United States are receiving an increasing amount of publicity.

Most people are unfamiliar with the issues surrounding gender identity. Most are unaware of the transgender individuals whom they encounter daily. When Caitlyn Jenner made her appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair in spring 2015, it may have been the first time most people stopped to consider what it means to be transgender.

Transgender individuals face legal, social, and political exclusion. They are ridiculed, bullied, beaten, and murdered. And too many believe they get what they deserve. Transgender individuals are discriminated against in employment, housing, and health care. Most live lives of desperate loneliness. State legislatures throughout the country are enacting laws that legalize discrimination against the LGBT community in general and transgender persons in particular. And the primary focus is to prevent transgender people from using the bathroom.

This book offers a different perspective on the subject. In Becoming Nicole, Pulitzer Prize winning author Amy Ellis Nutt introduces readers to the experience of one transgender person and her family. This book relates the story of a Maine family and their efforts to protect their transgender daughter. It is a story filled with frustration, minor and major victories, hatred, confusion, and denial. Throughout the story, however, one thing remains constant: Nicole’s belief that she was a girl, like any other girl, just one born in a body that presented itself as a boy.

Because most people do not understand what it means to be transgender, the book delves into more than the family’s experiences. And that is a good thing. The author spends significant time trying to explain the concept of “gender identity,” “sexual orientation,” and the biological as well as psychological components of why we are the way we are. Chapters 14 and 26 provide a crash course in “Transgender 101” and are worth the price of the book.

Yet the heart of the book is Nicole. As a toddler, she preferred “all things Barbie,” just as her identical twin brother, Joshua, “spent hours making his own imaginative action figures out of clay, then like to smash them with makeshift weapons.”

Nicole’s father, Wayne, initially thrilled with the idea of introducing his sons to hunting and other outdoor pursuits soon realized that Wyatt (Nicole’s birth name) was different. It started when Wyatt told his father, “Daddy, I hate my penis.” Wayne responded as any good father would, “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay. I love you very much.”

The book does not whitewash a difficult subject and can be difficult to read. Sometimes, it is hard to wrap one’s head around the various medical, psychological, social, and everyday life issues that face Nicole and her family.

At times, Nicole seems oblivious to the sacrifices everyone in the family is making on her behalf. She seems surprised when bad things happen to her and her family.

The incidents involving one of her classmates, Jacob, contributed to Nicole’s problems and discomfort in school. Jacob, for his part, seems to have been trying to please his grandfather with whom he lived. In any event, Nicole’s life changed for the worse because of one boy and his grandfather. Jacob is living proof that children are taught to hate and fear. It is not something with which they are born.

In elementary school, Nicole had used the girls’ bathroom without incident. In middle school, however, Jacob, followed Nicole into the bathroom, bullied and harassed her throughout the day. The school administration did nothing.

Nicole and her parents filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission against the Orono, Maine, school system. Even after receiving a decision in favor of Nicole’s family, the school system refused to act. After being forced from the Orono school system because of its systemic discrimination, the Maines decided their only alternative was to file a lawsuit. The Boston-based advocacy group, Gay and Lesbian Defenders and Advocates (GLAD) agreed to represent them.

Initially unsuccessful, when the trial court ruled in favor of the school district, Nicole and her family decided to appeal to the Maine Supreme Court. In January 2014, GLAD called Wayne Maines with the news “You won.”

By then, Nicole and Joshua were happy in their Portland high school. They would not return to the Orono school system.

The only deficiency in Nutt’s Becoming Nicole is the lack of an index. This is a nonfiction book and the author cites court cases, studies, and other sources in the book. It would be nice to have the citations for those references, and an index would allow readers to find the information quickly. The book does include a list of sources and that is helpful but an index is needed.

Aside from the lack of an index, Becoming Nicole is a book that parents of transgender children will find helpful. Most of the books about transgender individuals are written by adults talking about their adult lives. Becoming Nicole, however, tells the story from the perspectives of the parents, the transgender child, and that child’s cisgender sibling.

This is not a PG version of a Disney movie. It is raw and wrenching, uplifting and depressing. The reader follows the angst experienced by Nicole’s father, Wayne, who has difficulty coming to grips with his daughter’s reality. The tenacity exhibited by her mother, Kelly, who comes across as a classic mama bear protecting her cub. And the struggles her twin brother, Joshua, endures to be supportive of his sister while trying to discover his own identity and avoid being overlooked.

Throughout this book, the reader is left in awe of and inspired by a young girl whose absolute belief in her right to choose her own identity is, well, “normal.”