I’ve often been asked which books I would recommend for those who are interested in learning more about transgender topics. Usually, there aren’t many I can suggest – popular coverage of these issues often contains deficiencies that misinform readers about key aspects of our lives and experiences. I’m happy to say that “Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” by Amy Ellis Nutt is an absolute breath of fresh air.
The book documents the story of Nicole Maines, a transgender woman who came out and began living as a girl in her childhood and started transitioning in adolescence. Nicole and her family became involved in a landmark human rights case in the state of Maine after her elementary school prohibited her from using the girls’ restroom. The case was ultimately decided in her favor when the state Supreme Court ruled that the Maine Human Rights Act did protect the right of trans students to use the school restroom for their gender.
While much of the existing media on trans people treats us as isolated entities, focusing on the more superficial aspects of our bodies and the many changes we undergo, this book’s coverage isn’t limited to Nicole as an individual. The body is just an interface between our self and the world, and the physical procedures of her transition, including puberty blockers, hormones, and surgery, are explained thoroughly but without sensationalization or unnecessary detail. Instead, this book devotes far more time to exploring larger social systems and their processes viewed through the lens of their impact on one person.
In my own coverage of the issue of public restroom usage by trans people, I’ve often mentioned it’s nearly universal that any “incidents” related to our presence are not actually the result of any misbehavior by a trans person. Instead, these confrontations are typically provoked by hostile cis people who simply don’t think they should have to be around us at all.
The book mentions a previous case in 2001 in the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled against a trans woman’s right to use the women’s restroom at her workplace. I’m friends with the plaintiff in that case, and she’s mentioned that she was only confronted by H.R. after a woman from another department noticed that she was trans and decided to complain about this. In 2013, a Christian conservative group fabricated a story that a 15-year-old trans girl had been harassing other girls in a school restroom. The group later admitted that the girl hadn’t done anything at all – instead, they objected to her presence altogether.
This same pattern was repeated in the case of Nicole Maines. Nicole had previously been allowed by her school to use the girls’ restroom consistent with her gender. However, in the fifth grade, one of her classmates told his grandfather, Christian conservative activist Paul Melanson, that Nicole was trans. Melanson then directed his grandson to follow her into the girls’ restroom and provoke a confrontation, which he did on two occasions. Instead of punishing this student, the school responded by requiring Nicole to use a unisex staff restroom even as the other student continued to harass her for several months.
Her family was ultimately forced to uproot their lives, sell their house, and move elsewhere to find a school district that was willing to protect and support Nicole. This was an extraordinary disruption to introduce into the life of an innocent and well-behaved student – and all over the school’s completely unnecessary obstinacy toward something as simple as bathrooms. Nicole’s experiences demonstrate how the basic respect normally afforded to a person – even the protections of children in their own schools – can be completely suspended when that person is trans. Cultural, religious, political, and educational systems all worked together to inflict injustice upon this girl from a very young age, and these injustices would not have been righted without the intervention of a state Supreme Court.
While exploring the systems that wielded all of this influence over a young girl’s life, the book also chronicles the personal growth of Nicole and her family as they all come to terms with her gender. One of the most common beliefs I’ve heard about trans youth is that a child is far too young to know that they’re trans, and they’re likely mistaken or in the grips of some fantasy. The book illustrates that Nicole’s life as a girl is in no sense a mistake. Her girlhood was never a matter of mere whim or confusion – this is simply who she is, and who she’s always been. Children do know their gender, and a trans child’s gendered self and identity are not a disorder. Who they are is not something that’s wrong with them. Cisgender parents of trans kids do struggle, but they can reach a point where they can understand and wholeheartedly support their children. This book can serve as an excellent resource for family members of trans youth who are looking to learn more.
There’s also an extensive overview of the current scientific knowledge regarding fetal development of gender identity and sex-dimorphic traits. In contrast to popular simplifications of “biological sex”, there are actually numerous diverse components to sexual traits in humans, and the biology of physical sex extends far beyond just XX or XY chromosomes. Without postulating any specific physical process behind trans people’s genders, the book illustrates how anatomical sex develops at a distinctly different stage from various sexually dimorphic areas of the brain. These stages can each be influenced by certain factors, and may diverge in ways that produce some degree of discordance between gender identity and sex-dimorphic traits during fetal development. It’s a fact that gender variance can be a biological reality.
One of the most striking parts of this book was an entry from Nicole in her diary when she was seven years old, during a time when she wasn’t yet allowed to present as a girl in public or at school.
“UnnHappy, sad, mad, Unnspeakable blue red Unnsunshining and hot and cool and red hot and ice cold.”
When I shared this quote on Twitter, many trans people said they related to that feeling. If I had possessed such a way with words at that age, if I had been able to understand what was going on with myself, I might have said something very similar. It captures certain experiences of dysphoria so elegantly: how it almost scrambles your very sense of reality and throws your experience of the world into disarray. Everything is both oddly blunted and distanced, yet still has so many sharp extremes, and it all fails to come together as a cohesive whole. It wasn’t until I reached an understanding of my gender and began transitioning that I felt like a whole human being. “Dysphoria” as a word doesn’t always convey the depth of it; depersonalization, derealization, and dissociation seem much nearer to describing the experience. My transition never felt focused on “becoming” a woman – I was already a woman. It felt like becoming a person. Reading Nicole’s experiences will help underscore the importance of respecting who someone is and ensuring they have the means to live comfortably as their gender.
Amy Ellis Nutt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and this is reflected in the quality of her book as she masterfully unifies all of the themes present in the lives of a transgender girl and her family. “Becoming Nicole” is very readable and can be finished in two or three sittings – I found it difficult to put down. I would definitely recommend this book for its comprehensive, valuable, and humanizing look at the foremost issues facing trans youth today.
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt. New York: Random House. 320 pp. $16.00.