They were identical twin boys, Wyatt and Jonas Maines, adopted at birth in 1997 by middle-class, conservative parents. Healthy and happy, they were physically indistinguishable from each other, but even as infants their personalities seemed to diverge.
By the age of 2, when the boys were just learning to speak, Wyatt asked his mother, “When do I get to be a girl?” It was the beginning of a journey through questions of gender that would challenge a mother to find ways to help her child, even as the father pushed back. The father would learn the truest meaning of family only after his wife felt forced to file a lawsuit against the twins’ elementary school, and when Jonas told him, at age 9, “Face it, Dad, you have a son and a daughter.”
Nicole and Jonas, who grew up primarily in Maine, just turned 18. In “Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family,” published this week by Random House and excerpted below, Washington Post science writer Amy Ellis Nutt explores the remarkable story of an ordinary family navigating its way through extraordinary times.
With the boys about to begin first grade, the family decided to hold a “Get to Know the Maineses” party for the neighborhood. It was a cool, cloudy day as guests streamed into the house. Kelly was still in the kitchen fixing platters of food, but with the party starting, Wayne went looking for the boys. He found Jonas in the den, then Wyatt appeared at the top of the stairs, smiling down excitedly at his father. There he was, his parents’ sweet, irrepressible, chestnut-haired boy — wearing his favorite pink princess dress from Toys R Us.
“Wyatt, you can’t wear that!”
Wayne’s harsh tone cracked through the party chatter, and Wyatt’s little body jerked, then froze. Kelly, who heard her husband’s strained voice from the kitchen, knew something was wrong and rushed out.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Wyatt cannot — ”
“What did you say to him?”
Kelly followed her husband’s eyes to the top of the stairs. One of Wyatt’s tiny hands grasped the banister; the other clutched a glittery wand. On his face was fear and confusion.
“Are you going to let him wear that?” Wayne asked.
Kelly didn’t answer. Instead, she raced up to Wyatt, hot tears 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. How could she explain to him that he’d done nothing wrong when his father had just scolded him? She didn’t think she was ready for this, and yet she knew it was just the beginning.
“This isn’t really the right time,” Kelly gently told Wyatt, persuading him it would be better, for now, to wear pants and a shirt.
“I can’t be myself,” Wyatt said, a mixture of sadness and anger in his voice. “Jonas gets to wear what he wants. Why can’t I?”
Kelly knew it was true, and that it wasn’t fair.
“Let’s just try to get to know people first,” she said.
Still dazed, Wayne remained downstairs, enveloped in a kind of concussive quiet. The world where he was a father and husband in an ordinary, hard-working, middle-class family had just blown up. He stood there stunned, unable to hear whatever was going on around him, as if deafened by the psychological explosion. Was everyone at the party looking at him right now? He felt strangely alone, and, worse, unmasked. As if the hunter, the fisherman, the Air Force veteran and the Republican had all been stripped away and the only thing left was the father — but father of what and of whom? Yes, he was a happily married man and the parent of two beautiful boys, but it was also true he was embarrassed by one of them — and he’d just broken that little boy’s heart.
From a young age, Wyatt was moodier than Jonas; he would occasionally lash out at his brother as if frustrated just by his presence. There was something else, too. At night, when the boys were very little and she bathed them, Kelly would catch Wyatt staring into the long mirror hanging on the inside of the bathroom door. As she pulled off Jonas’s clothes and plunked him into the tub, she’d notice Wyatt standing naked and transfixed in front of the mirror. What did the 2-year-old see? Himself? His identical twin brother?
It was impossible to know, and impossible to ask Wyatt, of course. But often it seemed as if the little boy was puzzled by his reflection, unsure of the image staring back. There was some inscrutable pain behind his eyes. He seemed tense and anxious, as if his heart was in knots and he didn’t know how to untie them.
How can one identical twin be transgender and the other not?
Humans have long thought they could control the sex of a newborn, or, at the very least, influence whether a baby would be born male or female. Ancient Romans believed if a pregnant woman carried the egg of a chicken close to her breast, she would give birth to a boy. Aristotle contended that conception on the day of a strong north wind would result in a male child, on the day of a strong south wind, a female. Hippocrates’s solution, perhaps, was the simplest, if also the most painful: binding of the right testicle for the birth of a girl; binding the left for a boy.
There is no shortage of only slightly more sophisticated theories today. But what we know for sure is that we all begin life essentially genderless, at least in terms of sexual anatomy. The last of our 23 pairs of chromosomes makes us either genetic males (XY) or genetic females (XX). But there are at least 50 genes that play a part in sexual identity development and are expressed at different levels early on.
Sexual anatomy, however, is determined in large part by hormones. All of us begin, in utero, with an opening next to the anus and a kind of genital “bud.’’ The addition of testosterone drives the fetus in the male direction. An inhibiting hormone prevents males from developing internal female reproductive organs. Without testosterone, the embryo develops in the female direction.
Sexual differentiation of the genitals happens at about six weeks, but the sexual differentiation of the brain, including gender identity and the setting of our gender behavior, is, at least partly, a distinct process. Again, hormones play the crucial role, with surges of testosterone indirectly “masculinizing” the brains of some fetuses, causing subtle but distinct differences in brain structure and functional activity.
For instance, the straight gyrus, a narrow strip that runs along the midline on the undersurface of the frontal lobe, is about 10 percent larger in women than men. The straight gyrus, scientists have found, is highly correlated with social cognition — that is, interpersonal awareness.
These same scientists, however, caution that differences in biological sex are not necessarily hard-wired or absolute. In adults, they found that regardless of biological sex, the larger the straight gyrus, the more “feminine” the behavior. For most males, the action of male hormones on the brain is crucial to the development of male gender identity. A mutation of an androgen receptor on the X chromosome can cause androgen insensitivity syndrome, in which virilization of the brain fails, and when it does, a baby will be born chromosomally male (XY) and have testes rather than ovaries but also a short vagina, and the child’s outward appearance will be female. Its gender identity is nearly always female.
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.
In some ways, the brain and the body are two very different aspects of what it means to be human, especially when it comes to sex and gender. Who we are, male or female, is a brain process, but what we look like at birth, what we develop into at puberty, who we are attracted to and how we act — male, female or something in between — are all embedded in different groups of brain cells with different patterns of growth and activity. Ultimately gender identity is the result of biological processes and is a function of the interplay between sex hormones and the developing brain, and because it is a process that takes place over time, in utero, it can be influenced by any number of environmental effects.
The idea of a name change for Wyatt had been hanging over the family as the boys advanced through elementary school. If they were going to let Wyatt look like a girl and dress like a girl, then surely he deserved a girl’s name.
When they asked Wyatt what name he’d like, he said, “Raven,” a character on one of his favorite television shows.
“That’s not a real name,” Wayne complained. “That’s a TV name.”
But TV names were the ones with which Wyatt was most familiar. He considered Quinn, a character on the Nickelodeon teen comedy/drama “Zoey 101,” but he kept stumbling over the spelling. Finally, he settled on Nicole, or Nikki for short, one of Zoey’s sidekicks.
Whether Nicole or Nikki, it was difficult for Wayne to get the name out, so he tried to avoid using either. Once again, still feeling ambivalent, he left it to Kelly to sort out the details. When she called the family lawyer, she quickly discovered legally changing a name wasn’t nearly as simple as filling out a form. In Maine, by law, name changes are announced in the newspaper. If the Maineses wanted to keep this out of the public eye, they’d have to petition the court to make an exception. The last thing Kelly and Wayne wanted was to make some public announcement, no matter how small, that their son was now their daughter.
Before any petition would be granted, however, the parents had to appear in person at the county courthouse. Seated in the small courtroom on a hot summer day, Kelly and Wayne fidgeted nervously waiting for the judge. When he finally entered, their hearts sank just a bit — he was an elderly gentleman, probably over 70, with white hair, and a pair of sneakers peeking out from under his black robe.
“Why are you changing your son’s name to a girl’s name?” he asked.
Kelly’s back arched slightly. Their lawyer, or rather the real estate attorney filling in for their lawyer, answered, “Their daughter is a transgender child, Your Honor, and has been presenting as a girl for a number of years. The parents, doctors and counselors agree this is the right thing to do at this time.”
“Why are you petitioning to keep this out of the paper?”
“Due to the recent protests . . . by the Christian Civic League, they are requesting this to be kept private,” the attorney answered, referring to a local, politically active organization with vehemently anti-gay and anti-transgender views.
“Maybe the Christian Civic League should appear in court to have their say,” the judge said.
What the hell is going on? Wayne thought. Kelly’s eyes welled and Wayne shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Wayne, who’d had such a hard time making this adjustment, knew he had to do something. He raised his hand and asked if he could say something.
Wayne explained that his son, Wyatt, had been expressing feelings he was a girl from the age of 2 and that his insistence he was born in the wrong body had made it difficult for him in school. They were convinced, and Wyatt’s doctors agreed, that he should be allowed to transition to being a girl.
“I see no reason to deny your request,” the judge said. “You are obviously very concerned about your child’s safety.”
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 middle name was Kelly’s idea. She just liked the sound of it. Ultimately, the name change and petition were relatively easy. What neither Kelly nor Wayne knew as they walked out of the courtroom was that everyone’s life was about to get a lot harder.
Nicole and Jonas Maines graduated from high school in June, and Nicole underwent sex-reassignment surgery in July. They are both first-year students at the University of Maine.