Among the extraordinary things about “Becoming Nicole” is its timing. Amy Ellis Nutt could not have known three years ago, as she started to write about a child embroiled in a landmark legal case, that the book would arrive in a banner year for transgender awareness.
More extraordinary is the child at the center of this story. Wyatt Maines openly identifies as a girl by age 2, demanding Ariel dolls and pink tops. By second grade, Wyatt tells other kids she’s a “boy-girl” and prefers feminine pronouns. By fifth grade, her legal name is Nicole and she is fully integrated into school and public life as a girl. Nicole has no “closet phase,” and no hint of shame or confusion; only frustration when she is asked to dress or behave as a boy. Her case is also medically surprising. As an identical twin, she shares the same genetic coding as her brother Jonas, yet Jonas has no hint of gender dysphoria (a mystery that Nutt unravels).
Perhaps most extraordinary is Kelly Maines, Wyatt’s mother. Though nothing in her conservative, rural background prepares Kelly for a gender-defying child, she has little regard for other people’s idea of “normal.” She decides she’ll let Wyatt be who Wyatt wants to be and researches gender dysphoria to better understand her child. Wyatt’s father, Wayne, is slower to accept the situation, but he mostly gets out of the way.
When the twins are in fifth grade, another child’s guardian threatens to sue the school for giving Nicole “special privileges” by letting her use the girls’ bathroom. The formerly supportive school now requires Nicole to use a unisex staff bathroom and assigns school staff to police her movements between classes. A long lawsuit follows, which draws national interest as a landmark case of transgender rights. The formerly circumspect Wayne, more used to public speaking, becomes a public champion for Nicole and other transgender people.
Nutt provides no mise-en-scène of the family’s publicity or high-profile legal case at the beginning of “Becoming Nicole.” She first carefully unfolds Nicole’s journey, and that of her family, from infancy on, taking occasional detours to give historic, medical and legal context for their experience. This is a prudent decision: A story about school bathroom policy feels slight until you know the high stakes for a child and her family. In this case, the consequences are severe: compelling the children to attend a new school hours away from Wayne’s job, where they keep Nicole’s identity a secret.
“Becoming Nicole” will be a must-read for families of transgender children, or anyone wanting to broaden and deepen their understanding of transgender experience. It is also a deeply affecting book, largely because of the Maineses themselves. Nicole’s unwavering vision of herself even as toddler named Wyatt, and her parents’ and brother’s unfailing support, make a wonderful and inspiring story.
Kurtis Scaletta is a Minneapolis author.