Becoming Nicole follows the childhood of a transgender girl named Nicole Maines (who is born with biologically male anatomy, as Wyatt Maines) and her journey to understand herself and fight discrimination. As Wyatt grows up, he innately understands that his gender identity does not match his outward appearance, nor does it seem to match how people treat or think of him. As Nutt tracks Wyatt’s transformation to Nicole and the change in Nicole’s family and her community’s view of who she is, Nutt demonstrates that it is not transgender people’s understanding of themselves that changes when they transition—rather, it is the perceptions and attitudes of those around them that must change.
Wyatt and his twin brother Jonas are born as identical twins, adopted by Kelly and Wayne Maines. Despite their deep connection and outward similarities, Wyatt immediately expresses himself differently from Jonas. His gender identity is immediately clear, and he understands himself to be a girl. Wyatt prefers Barbies as a kid and takes on the female characters in their games, like Cinderella, Dorothy, and particularly The Little Mermaid. He begins to express that he really feels a girl, telling Wayne shortly before he turns three that he hates his penis. Wyatt instinctively understands that he is “a boy who wants to be a girl” or “a girl in a boy’s body.” Nutt illuminates for readers how Wyatt’s gender identity is both central to his identity as a whole, and how he is very firm in his belief in that identity. What he doesn’t understand, instead, is why he is expected to be anything other than who he believes himself to be. Wyatt grows anxious and even depressed, but not because he is confused about his identity. Nutt writes, “These new stresses seemed to be more about how others saw Wyatt, and him wanting to fit in with the girls.” Nutt again highlights the idea that Wyatt has no doubts about his identity as a girl—it is others who have to accept him and change their thinking about him.
Even at a young age, Wyatt’s ideas of himself are so strong that Kelly and Wayne understand they need to transform their own attitudes toward their son’s gender expression. Wyatt refuses to wear the red flannel shirts that Kelly buys him, preferring to go bare-chested. Rather than torture her son, Kelly allows him to wear more traditionally feminine clothing and grow out his hair, even if it leads to awkward comments or questions. She decides that it is other people’s problem if there is an issue with what he wears. In elementary school, Kelly fights for Wyatt’s right to play on the girls’ softball team rather than the boys’ baseball team. In an email advocating for Wyatt, she refers to Wyatt as her daughter and uses female pronouns. This shift in language is not a small one; it indicates a shift in how Kelly thinks of Wyatt and how she expects others to think of Wyatt as well. This is only further reinforced when she helps guide Wyatt through his name change to Nicole. Unlike Kelly, Wayne at first views Wyatt as a source of shame. When they move to Maine, Wayne yells at Wyatt for wearing a pink princess dress during a housewarming party they are holding. He sees Wyatt as deliberately rebelling and continues to insist that he is not transgender—perhaps out of a lack of understanding about what being trans means, or because he views Wyatt’s actions as a comment on his own masculinity or his ability to be a father. Gradually, Wayne comes to understand that Nicole’s gender expression is not a phase. He starts to accept her, even taking her to a father-daughter dance, to her delight. He eventually recognizes that he’d “spent too much time dwelling on the loss of a son and had never really considered the special rewards of a daughter.” In this way, Nutt examines how it is actually Wayne’s transformation that allows Nicole to feel like herself. His acceptance of her identity makes her feel more comfortable in her own skin.
Nicole does certainly undergo her own transformation alongside her parents, as she socially and biologically transitions to female over the course of her teenage years. She gains a new name, undergoes hormone treatments, and has sex reassignment surgery. All of this does nothing to transform who Nicole feels herself to be, however; it instead transforms her outward appearance to match her inner sense of self, so that others treat her the same way. The Maines family aren’t the only ones who adjust how they think about transgender individuals—society as a whole also transforms in big and small ways. Nutt cites how, in the four years it takes to write her book (from 2011-2015), the rights of transgender people have completely evolved. As of 2019, 18 states and the District of Columbia bar discrimination of transgender people. Seven countries legally recognize more than two genders. In July 2015, the Obama administration moved to lift the ban on transgender people in the military. This is a testament to the transformation of the public in recognizing that transgender people deserve the same rights as every other person.
Nutt concludes her book with an exchange between two boys and a girl in a third-grade classroom. The exchange takes place in the elementary school that Nicole had attended, after Nicole has left the school. One boy is coloring his giraffe in pink and teal, the colors of the transgender flag. He and another girl start to discuss Nicole, and one girl says, “Oh, I know Nicole. She’s cool. I didn’t know she’s transgender.” The boy responds, “Yeah, but it isn’t a big deal.” The girl affirms, “Oh, I know. It doesn’t really matter. As long as she’s happy.” This exchange, like the whole of Nutt’s book, illuminates a fundamental truth: although there is still a long way to go to combat stereotypes, curtail violence against transgender people, and achieve full equality, subsequent generations are increasingly understanding and accepting of transgender people.
Gender Identity, Expression, and Transformation ThemeTracker
Gender Identity, Expression, and Transformation Quotes in Becoming Nicole
By the time Wayne reached home and embraced Kelly, he was smiling, thinking not about the added expenses but about the double joy: two baseball gloves, two basketballs, two rifles for his two baby boys!
Part human, part fish, Ariel, with her shiny green scales, is decidedly a mermaid below the waist. But above it, with her long hair and luscious red lips, she is all girl.
Ariel’s problem, however, is that she lives in one world, under the sea, even as she yearns to be in another, on land. As she gazes at her image in a mirror beneath the waves, she feels comforted by the top half of her reflection. It’s the bottom that doesn’t make sense.
“Daddy, I hate my penis.”
Jolted out of his reverie, Wayne tried to take in the words his precious son had just uttered. Then he reached down, scooped up the young boy, and hugged him fiercely. He kissed away the tears in Wyatt’s eyes. He kissed the tip of his nose, his cheeks, his lips, all the while fighting back his own tears.
Kelly was learning to do things pretty much on her own for both boys, but especially Wyatt. He clamored to wear the same colorful clothes as Leah, and rather than wear the flannel shirt his mother bought him to match Jonas’s, he would go bare chested. Kelly felt it was cruel to keep dressing Wyatt in clothes he hated, so she made the decision, without Wayne’s input, to shop every now and then for something less masculine for Wyatt to wear.
One evening, when the twins were about three years old and had been tucked in for the night, Kelly sat down at the computer in the living room and typed five words into the search engine:
“Boys who like girls’ toys.”
It was both a question and a statement of fact. For Kelly, it was also a beginning. She scrolled through science articles, online forums, and medical sites. She read about homosexuality, transsexualism—wasn’t that what drag queens were?—and something called transgender. She read for hours.
“Are you going to let him wear that?” Wayne asked.
Kelly didn’t answer. Instead, she raced up to Wyatt, hot tears now streaking his face, took him by the hand, and led him back into his bedroom. It was, she knew right then and there, the worst moment of her life. It wasn’t so much the reaction of the people at the party, who were mostly stunned into silence—that was Wayne’s issue—but rather the hurt her son was experiencing, and for no good reason other than that he wanted to wear his princess dress to the family’s party.
Wyatt was flooded with relief, knowing there was someone out there just like him. Wayne couldn’t believe it. Wyatt, he realized, had all the same anger issues, and he and Kelly all the same anxieties, but Jazz’s parents were openly discussing them on national TV. Wayne fought back tears for the rest of the hour.
For Wayne, this was the first time he’d shown any kind of public support for Wyatt being transgender. His instincts as a father had been tested without his even realizing it, and he’d responded to the challenge. The petition was granted, and in a matter of days Wyatt Benjamin Maines would officially and legally become Nicole Amber Maines.
“The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a person’s life, the lives we live each day,” Jennifer Finney Boylan once wrote. “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?”
He always remembered that there was something to be gained from putting up with everyone else’s nonsense—he was going to have the body that he always felt like he deserved and was meant to have. And that made it all—the harassment and the bad feelings and the discomfort and the awkwardness—worth it.
I feel like I need to have surgery because I promised him.
Her good friend Lexie texted, “HOW U FEELIN?” And then, “YOU’RE LIKE ARIEL,” the little mermaid who emerged from the sea in the form she’d always longed for.
Nicole’s transition was now complete. She would still need to take female hormones the rest of her life, and she would never be able to have her own children, but she knew she wanted to marry a man some day and adopt.