From her impeccable makeup to her feet clad in stilettos, Nicole Maines looked ever the picture of maturity and poise when I sat down to speak with her. We had been placed in front of a picturesque fireplace in the ballroom of a bona fide castle – we’re talking a wall of windows, a ceiling that boasted gold and flying angels, mirrors lining the walls – and Nicole seemed right at home. She joked as we sat down, warning me to cut her off if she rambled too much, laughing and sweeping her hair back out of her face.
Nicole isn’t your average college student; she’s given a TED talk, appeared on TV, visited the White House, and had an entire book written about her life and family. Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, written by Amy Ellis Nutt, traces Nicole’s life from her birth, when she was given the name Wyatt, through her rejection of toy trucks, GI Joe’s, and blue-colored clothes and her transition to living publicly as a girl, to her family’s battle for her rights in court.
Nicole and her identical twin brother, Jonas, were born 1997 in upstate New York. Their father, Wayne, was ecstatic to have two boys to teach how to hunt and fish and do other ultra-manly things with – but life never goes according to plan, and neither do children. Nicole knew she was a girl from the outset, despite the world that told her otherwise.
The twins’ mother, Kelly, was the heroine throughout most of the book – and Nicole’s life. She listened to the person she thought was her son, and allowed ‘Wyatt’ to wear pink, tutus, and heels. Her husband, Wayne, took longer to understand – not only was he not on the same page as Nicole, it took him years to even open the book. For much of her childhood, he was distant, living in denial that his child was transgender.
When Nicole was young, Kelly sat down at a computer to try to find more information about what was going on with her child. She didn’t understand why her son was so drawn to Barbies, sparkles, and other ‘girly’ things – and so she searched on the Internet for answers: ‘Boys who like girls’ toys.’ The results included information about transgender children. It was all new for Kelly, but she soaked up all the information that she could. Later, she would see Jennifer Finney Boylan, transgender author of She’s Not There, appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show. She picked up Boylan’s book and read it cover to cover, then left it out for Wayne to read as well.
While information about being transgender was more available 15 years ago than it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago, it remained on the fringes. It’s hard to relate now to someone not even knowing what being transgender is, because transgender issues, along with other LGBTQ issues, are on blast almost daily in the media now. Everyone talks about it and everyone, for better or worse, has an opinion.
Nicole, however, was alone at the end of elementary school in Orono, Maine, when she was being bullied by another student and forced to use a separate bathroom from everyone else. The policy smacked of ‘separate but equal’ and prompted the Maines family to take legal action, which thrust them into the spotlight not just in their town but eventually, throughout the state and country.
The Maines’s case traveled all the way to the Maine Supreme Court, and by the time they won, Nicole was 16 and the family had been forced to move from Orono to Portland so the twins could attend a more accepting school. The victory, however, set a precedent: it was the first time any court in the US ruled that it’s unlawful to deny a student access to the bathroom that matches their gender identity. “By the time the decision was made in the court case, I was already practically graduated from high school,” Nicole says. “So it didn’t really affect me personally anymore. It was more a victory for transgender people as a whole to set that precedent and that’s I think what kind of made me want to do public speaking, that no one should have – this shouldn’t be a conversation that we have to have.” That conversation, of course, being the one playing out over and over across the country these days: do transgender people have the right to use the bathroom that matches up with their gender identity?
It’s a question of very basic rights. “I talk about bathrooms for a living,” Nicole jokes, and as odd as that may seem, the bathroom represents a very crucial part of life. It’s a place where we’re all vulnerable, but it’s a necessity. Too often, transgender people are forced to hold it whenever they’re in public to avoid the confrontation and danger that may come with using the bathroom. And something very personal has become politicized in recent years as transgender people fight for their rights, and opposition groups fight to strip those rights away.
These groups have raised legislation termed “bathroom bills” that would force transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their sex at birth. Hate groups claim that allowing transgender people to use the correct bathroom would lead to sexual predators taking advantage of those laws to harm women and children in bathrooms. They seemingly ignore the fact that anti-discrimination policies are already in place in many states and have been for years, to the detriment of exactly zero people. Often, these hate groups conflate being transgender with being a predator, which is of course a ridiculous, ignorant, and harmful ideology. And that’s where people like Nicole come in. In fifth grade, she was hardly going to harm anyone by using the girls’ restroom, but she was denied access because one student’s grandfather got it in his head that it was wrong for Nicole to use the same bathroom as the other girls.
In a large survey of transgender Americans conducted by the Williams Institute in 2013, it was concluded that 70% of respondents have been either denied access, harassed, or even assaulted in public bathrooms. So it isn’t cisgender people who are going to suffer at the hands of transgender people using the bathroom – it’s the opposite way around. Trans people just want to use the bathroom in peace, but too often, it can become a dangerous situation.
In Nicole’s case, the desire was simple. “For us it was just us doing our darnedest to have a safe, normal childhood where we don’t have to worry about people looking at us when we go to the movies, people whispering behind our backs, we could just be a normal family,” she says. The issue of which bathroom Nicole would use snowballed until the Maines family was victim of a barrage of opinions from the other residents of Orono, as well as a religious hate group based in Maine. And on top of that, Nicole was bullied by students at school. She used to come home crying because students on the bus called her a freak. The school didn’t seem to care.
As difficult as it was to have everyone know that she was transgender, Nicole hasn’t looked back. Instead, she’s used her experiences to drive forward and fight for her own rights and the rights of other transgender people across the country. “I decided to use this platform I’d been given to speak on behalf of my community,” she says.
Despite Nicole’s victory, transgender people still don’t have all of the rights they deserve; there is a disproportionate amount of violence against trans people. So far in 2017, at least 21 transgender people have been killed in violent hate crimes. Most recently, days before her 18th birthday, trans teen Ally Steinfeld was murdered in Missouri and subsequently misgendered by several media outlets.
All of the violence and discriminatory laws and policies against transgender people comes from positions of hatred and ignorance, which Nicole works to dispel. Through her public speaking, and by broadcasting her journey on TV and in the book Becoming Nicole, she’s a role model that transgender children and their parents can look up to. Her visibility brings hope to transgender people that they’re normal, there are people that accept them, and they deserve the same amount of rights as anyone else. And thanks to activists like Nicole, someday all transgender people will be able to pee in peace.