As Wyatt is growing up, there is a fundamental lack of understanding about what it means to be transgender. The topic is generally taboo to speak about, and therefore there isn’t much information on transgender people—either anecdotally or scientifically. As Nutt recounts Kelly’s trials in attempting to find out more about what her son is experiencing, she proves that a lack of knowledge has led to ignorance, discrimination, and even dire consequences for transgender people, whereas gaining information allows for understanding and the ability to help.
Although Kelly doesn’t initially have the vocabulary to understand that Wyatt is transgender, she recognizes his distress when he is forced to wear masculine clothing and expresses resentment toward his male anatomy. Kelly immediately takes it upon herself to figure out more about what Wyatt is experiencing in order to understand—and to help him understand—who he is as a person. Kelly googles “boys who like girls’ toys,” reading about homosexuality, transsexualism, and being transgender. She reads for hours, trying to understand the difference between the terms. She learns that gender is innate—typically not something that a person has to think about, unless other people treat a person like one gender when they, in fact, feel like the other. With this information, Kelly begins to understand Wyatt’s unease. She allows him, more and more, to wear feminine clothing, knowing that he has a very secure sense of who he is. The more information she has, the more comfortable she is able to make Wyatt, knowing what he really wants.
Others express discomfort in not understanding Wyatt. The counselor at Asa Adams Elementary School, Lisa Erhardt, has an initial conversation with Kelly about Wyatt. She immediately pulls out the DSM, knowing that she doesn’t have the vocabulary to help Wyatt with what’s ailing him. She then contacts the LGBT center at the University of Maine, who astound her with their generosity in fielding her questions and providing her with information. The more information Erhardt gains, the more she is able to help others understand as well. When Nicole begins to use the girls’ bathroom in the fifth grade, a mother of another fifth-grade girl calls the school, admitting that she hadn’t been uncomfortable with Nicole using the bathroom until she remembered that Nicole was anatomically a boy and that her own daughter was on the verge of puberty. Erhardt assures the woman that for a transgender child like Nicole, “the last thing she wanted was anyone to see her ‘birth genitals.’” Reassurance and understanding like this demonstrate how knowledge allows for a greater ease in Nicole’s life and the lives of those around her.
Nutt also provides several examples of how a lack of scientific understanding about gender identity, being transgender, or being born with ambiguous anatomy led to deeply disturbing consequences. In one case Nutt cites, a boy named Bruce (born 1965) accidentally had his penis burned off during an operation at eight months old. A doctor named Dr. John Money convinced the parents to raise him as Brenda, remove his testicles, dress and treat him like a girl, and administer hormones to him during puberty. Money believed that gender was a social construct, and parents could choose a gender in which to raise their child (i.e., that gender is based completely on “nurture”). Brenda became depressed and suicidal as a teenager and is bullied. When she was told the truth about her gender at 14, Brenda renamed herself David Reimer and went through a mastectomy, testosterone injections, and two phalloplasty surgeries to rebuild a penis. But David was tortured by what happened and tragically committed suicide at age 38. This lack of understanding, or even willful ignorance, of the scientific basis of gender identity cost this man his life.
In several cases, ambiguous anatomy led to doctors performing surgery on children to enhance their likeness to a given sex without knowing what sex they actually were, sometimes with disastrous results. One infant (born in August 1956) had a sexual anatomy that was difficult to determine: doctors did not know whether the infant had a very enlarged clitoris or a very small penis. They suggested assigning the baby a male identity, and so he was brought home as Brian. But 18 months later, doctors found that Brian had a uterus and gonads containing both ovarian and testicular tissue. They renamed the baby Bonnie and had her microphallus removed. At eight years old, she (unbeknownst to her) had surgery to remove the testicular part of her gonads. Learning of this years later, Bonnie was horrified at the lack of agency she had in making very serious decisions about her own body. She took on the alias Cheryl Chase and advocated that for intersex babies (who have both male and female anatomies), doctors should not perform surgery until they reach an appropriate age to make a decision themselves. Particularly at that time, with so little understood about the complex relationship between one’s gender identity and one’s sexual anatomy, Chase believed that if doctors acknowledged their lack of understanding, individuals would be better off than if doctors simply “corrected” what they viewed as wrong.
In all of these cases, a lack of knowledge led to at best discomfort, and at worse deep depression and suicide on the part of the people who are directly impacted by others’ misunderstanding. Through both Nicole’s struggles with acceptance and the anecdotal and scientific examples provided alongside Nicole’s story, Nutt shows that the more people understand about transgender and intersex children, the better off these children and their loved ones will be as they grow up.
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Knowledge vs. Ignorance Quotes in Becoming Nicole
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.
In other words, our genitals and our gender identity are not the same. Sexual anatomy and gender identity are the products of two different processes, occurring at distinctly different times and along different neural pathways before we are even born. Both are functions of genes as well as hormones, and while sexual anatomy and gender identity usually match, there are dozens of biological events that can affect the outcome of the latter and cause an incongruence between the two.
The plea to hold off on surgery is based on the belief that sex assignment is a cultural pressure, not a biological one. Being intersex. Chase said, shouldn’t be likened to being malformed or abnormal or freakish, and so surgical remedy shouldn’t be the first thing doctors recommend.
Their receptor gene for the male sex hormone testosterone was longer than in gender-conforming males and appeared to be less efficient at signaling the uptake of male hormones in utero, resulting in a more “feminized” brain.
Researchers in epigenetics seek to explain the no-man’s-land between nature and nurture where environment influences a person’s genetic makeup. This happens when changes in the environment trigger some genes to activate and others to deactivate. Identical twins may have the exact same DNA, but not the exact same molecular switches. Those switches often depend not only on environmental influences outside the womb—what the mother does, how she feels, what she eats, drinks, or smokes—but inside the womb as well.