Friday, April 8, 2016

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

As much as cisgender persons may like or dislike their bodies, and engage in altering or enhancing them, they don't deny that their bodies are their own. It's a knowledge so intimate that it remains largely subconscious. When it comes to that physical self, for a transgender person every waking moment, every conscious breath, is a denial of who they truly are. For these people their bodies are at odds with their ideas of themselves, or their ideas of who they should be. They are estranged from the very thing that sustains them in the world, and there is no way to reconcile this conflict through psychological counseling or behavioral conditioning There is only one way out of the alienation, and that's to make the body congruent with the mind. 

I first heard about the Maines family when I read a Boston Globe article about them with my ninth graders a few years ago. The Maines family adopt identical twin boys, Wyatt and Jonah, at birth, and as the twins move through toddlerhood Wyatt begins to express his desire to dress and live as and be a girl. His parents react the way we hope all parents would: they listen. They don't buy in right away, and the dad, a conservative veteran, takes longer than the mom, but they eventually help Wyatt transition into life as Nicole. The transition is fraught: medical treatment for young people wishing to transition is still a somewhat experimental science, her school won't let her use the girls' bathroom, parents of students pressure their children to alienate her, and so on and so forth. The book tracks Nicole's life starting with her parents' childhoods, all the way up to her recent graduation from high school after winning a landmark court case earning transgender children the right to use the bathroom designated for the gender with which they identify (an especially relevant issue these days).

There are parts of the book that are heart-wrenching. Wyatt, at age 2, tells his father earnestly that he hates his penis and his father, despite not fully believing or understanding him, reassuring his kid that "Everything is going to be okay." Wyatt and Nicole's childhood poetry and essays are scattered throughout the book and give a window into just how scary and overwhelming this experience was for her. The victories, both personal and legal, feel huge in comparison, and watching Wayne Maines, the father, grow into the advocate and champion he is by the end of the book is almost a more exciting transformation than Nicole's.

Nutt researched and wrote this book beautifully. She writes with empathy about each member of the Maines family and gives us the background we need to fully understand where they all are at each stage of this transformation. More importantly though, she gives clear, well researched, scientific descriptions of transgender life (as well as other gender permutations) explaining things in ways that make it hard not to understand and sympathize. There is nothing preachy or self righteous about her prose, and she manages to be matter of fact while still being warm and understanding.

One of the later chapters, where Nutt discusses some pretty outrageous anti-transgender legislation, ends with this quote from political activist and writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, which I especially liked:
"The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a person's life, the lives we live each day. Surely the best judge of a person's gender is not a degrading, questionable examination. The best judge of a person's gender is what lies within her, or his, heart. How do we test for the gender of the heart, then?"
If you teach, parent, work with, or interact with other humans on a regular basis, I would recommend reading this book. There's more to this issue that one girl's story, but this feels like a great place to start.

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