'Becoming Nicole' Recounts One Family's Acceptance Of Their Transgender Child

'Becoming Nicole' Recounts One Family's Acceptance Of Their Transgender Child

5:04pm Oct 19, 2015
Transgender student Nicole Maines (accompanied by her father, Wayne, and her twin brother, Jonas) speaks to reporters after winning on appeal a discrimination lawsuit against her school district. In 2014, Glamour Magazine named Maines one of its 50 inspiring women of the year.

Transgender student Nicole Maines (accompanied by her father, Wayne, and her twin brother, Jonas) speaks to reporters after winning on appeal a discrimination lawsuit against her school district. In 2014, Glamour Magazine named Maines one of its 50 inspiring women of the year.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys, Jonas and Wyatt, at birth in 1997, they were thrilled at the idea of having two sons. For a while, it was virtually impossible to tell the boys apart. But as they grew older, one child, Wyatt, started insisting that he was a girl.

"I [was] like, 'Hmm, I've got twins but one's not like the other. They're very different,' " Kelly Maines, the twins' mother, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on: ... Is she gay? Is she transvestite? Is she transgender? I honestly had no experience in understanding what any of that meant."

Over the course of several years, Kelly and Wayne began to accept that one of the twins was transgender. They had Wyatt's name changed to Nicole and began buying her dolls and girls' clothes, which she had been asking for.

Wayne acknowledges that it wasn't always easy. He worried about what the neighbors would think, but those concerns faded when Nicole began being bullied and harassed. "When people start coming after your kid, you get your head right: 'This is my baby. Don't mess with my kids.' That's probably when I turned a corner," he says.

The Maines went on to file a discrimination lawsuit against Nicole's school district, which they won on appeal last year. This year, Nicole and her twin brother, Jonas, graduated from high school and Nicole had gender reassignment surgery.

Together with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, Wayne and Kelly Maines tell their family's story in the new book, Becoming Nicole. Nutt joins Kelly and Wayne Maines in the studio to discuss the book and how biology affects gender identity.


Interview Highlights

On Wayne's initial reaction to Nicole insisting she wanted to be a girl

Wayne Maines: I tried to influence it in other ways, you know, you meet Nicole, even at that age, extremely strong personality. If I would say to her, 'You don't want to be a girl,' she'd say, 'Yes I do.' I'm a 40-year-old guy having this debate with this little kid and I'm losing, you know? It was hard. ... You have this vision of what you think the American dream is and your family, and it's not what it is. I've learned more from my two children and Kelly than I ever thought possible. I learned that everybody needs to be who they need to be, and I learned that people, little children, know who they are at that age.

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Becoming Nicole

The Transformation of an American Family

by Amy Ellis Nutt

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On Kelly taking the lead on accepting Nicole

Kelly Maines: Back then ... the popular way of proceeding was gender neutral, try to keep her gender neutral. But Nicole did not like that at all. It took a while. I think it was about when she was 7 ... we had a birthday party for her and Jonas and we gave her all the boys toys ... and she was very unhappy and I looked at Wayne and I said, 'That's it. I'm not doing this anymore. It's not working. She's angry. She's doubting herself. This is not healthy. She has to have a safe place here.' So we took the toys back and we got her some mermaid things, and she was very, very happy with that and about then that's when I was like, 'This is crazy. I just gotta do what's gonna make this kid the best person she can be.' ...

I would be in those aisles in Target with girl's clothes like, "I wish I could get this for her, for Wyatt. I know Wyatt would love this. I can't. I can't." Or sometimes I would [buy the girl's clothes] and it would be like, "These are your home clothes. These are your school clothes." It just got so much better when we finally said, "Enough. You can like it or leave it: This kid is who they are."

For a parent, too, when you do finally make that turn, the biggest fears are she's gonna get hurt. Somebody's not gonna like it. And when we ended up having our problems the anger [of others toward Nicole] was the thing that was so shocking.

On the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] changing gender identity disorder to gender identity dysphoria in 2013, and the significance of that change

Nutt: I think the most important thing is that it changes the view of gender identity, or of an anomalous gender identity, as being somehow abnormal. It's not a disorder. The problem for kids, for transgender people, isn't within, it's without. In other words, their trouble with their gender identity comes essentially because others view them one way when they view themselves another. Nicole, for instance, even as Wyatt, always described herself as a "boy-girl," or a "girl-boy." She was completely confident in who she was. She knew that she was a girl, but she also knew that people referred to her as a boy and that she had a boy anatomy. So this was a child who was never unsure of who she was, but she knew there was a problem with how other people and the rest of the world viewed her. And that's where the dysphoria comes in — when there's a mismatch between what we expect and what, perhaps, the sexual anatomy says, and what the brain is telling us.

On how gender anatomy, sexuality and identity are set prenatally

Nutt: In the first six weeks our gender anatomy, our sexual anatomy, is set. Essentially we all begin in life asexual and then certain genes and hormones kick in, and our sexual anatomy is determined to either have male genitalia and male reproductive organs, or female. However, scientists are learning that while that happens at six weeks, it's not until six months that the brain masculinizes or feminizes. That is, that the hormones in the brain determine is this the brain of a girl or is this the brain of a boy? Sexual orientation, they're also discovering, is a third process, but what they're really focusing on is trying to understand that they're not all congruent.

Normally, prenatally we develop along the same lines, that our sexual anatomy matches up with our gender identity, but what they've discovered is that there's a space in-between. There are weeks in-between in pre-natal development when many things can happen. We know that many things can influence the environment of the womb and the environment of the womb influences the level of hormones and the chemicals that go into the development of a fetus. And so there are many things that can happen between the time that a fetus' sexual identity is set and their gender identity is set.

On how gender identity is in the brain

Nutt: Identical twins obviously have the exact same DNA. What they don't have is the exact same epigenome, which means not all of the genetic switches are turned off and on in identical ways. ... The explanation for that, scientists give, is that in the womb identical twins have separate amniotic sac[s] and umbilical cord[s] and therefore they get various and different amounts of hormones and nourishment. And they've discovered that even your placement in the womb — where you are located in the womb — for identical twins can affect the ratio of hormones and nutrients that you get, and, therefore, it is a different environment. The environment affects who we are, our gender identity, and the environment of the womb, even the top of the womb, the lower part of the womb, can affect how the brain is set, even in identical twins.

On the fluidity of gender

Nutt: Gender isn't something that's necessarily fixed, that it's dynamic, that it's fluid. ... There are very few people that are 100 percent totally masculine or 100 percent totally feminine. We have traits of both, and so, ordinarily, it's something in between. I think, people are feeling more comfortable now saying, "Yeah, I've never felt 100 percent masculine, but I'm mostly masculine." And, I think, it has become a more comfortable society to say that in. But I think it's also because the science is now supporting that.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When my guests, Kelly and Wayne Maines, adopted two identical twin boys at birth in 1997, they were thrilled at the idea of having two sons. For a while, it was virtually impossible to tell the boys apart until one of them, Wyatt, started to play with Barbies, wanted to dress in a skirt and insisted he was a girl. Neither of the Maines knew what to do, but they eventually found the resources to help them understand what it means to be transgender. Wyatt's name was changed to Nicole, and Kelly and Wayne accepted Nicole as their daughter. But this was a difficult process that played out over several years. Last year the Maines won on appeal a discrimination lawsuit they'd filed against Nicole's school district after the school banned Nicole from the girls' restroom and told her she needed to use a staff restroom. This stemmed from an incident in 2007 when a male student followed Nicole into the girl's restroom and bullied her, insisting if Nicole could be there, so could he. The boy was backed up by his grandfather who complained to the school. This year, Nicole and her twin brother, Jonas, graduated high school, and Nicole had gender reassignment surgery. The twins are now in college. There's a new book about the Maines family called "Becoming Nicole." The author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, is joining us along with Wayne and Kelly Maines. Kelly and Wayne Maines, Amy Nutt welcome to FRESH AIR. Amy, I want to start with you. Why did you want to write this book?

AMY ELLIS NUTT: Well, when I first sat down with the Maines family - this was nearly four years ago - my first thought was, wow, a book about a transgender child, I wonder what the audience is for that. And frankly, within a couple of minutes I realized that this was an ordinary family in an extraordinary situation and that there was nothing off-putting, nothing odd, nothing secretive or furtive about this family, that they were incredibly warm and thoughtful, and they had a child that they knew they needed to nurture and protect. And I realized that it was going to be a biography not so much of Nicole as much as of the family. Families have identities, and, well, at the heart of this story is a little child who recognizes that who they feel they are is different from what they look like. I knew that it was going to be about how everyone in the family deals with identity - with their own, with their children, with their identity as a family.

GROSS: So Kelly and Wayne, what were the earliest signs that your daughter, who you thought was your son when your child was born - what were the early signs that she identified as female?

KELLY MAINES: She was always wearing - she always wanted to be the girl characters when she was playing. She always wanted to wear girls' clothes. She would put a shirt on her head that would make her feel like she had long hair, mostly those kinds of things. Then she actually started voicing it - that she was a girl.

GROSS: And Wayne, she told you at one point - your daughter told you, daddy, I hate my penis. How did you respond to that?

WAYNE MAINES: Probably - I was scared. And I just, you know, I picked Nicole up and put her in my arms, and I said everything's going to be OK. And I knew in my mind, everything's not OK.

GROSS: My impression from the book, Wayne, was that at first you were just very understandably upset at this confusion that you thought your daughter was having about who she was because she was born with male anatomy. You thought of your daughter as your son at first, but she was telling you, no, I'm a girl. And it's clear in the book you wanted sons who you could go hunting with and play baseball with and show how to shoot. And this was not something that your daughter was going to be interested in. So did you try to talk Nicole out of being Nicole - to try to say you're a boy, you're Wyatt. You have to act like a boy. You can't walk around in a tutu. You can't play with Barbies.

W. MAINES: I didn't say that. I just, you know - I tried to influence it in other ways. You know, you meet Nicole - even at that age, extremely strong personality. I would say to her, you know, you don't want to be a girl, and she'd say, yes, I do. And, you know, I'm having this - I'm a 40-year-old guy having this debate with this little kid, and I'm losing. You know, so it was hard. I mean, I had these dreams absolutely, and so many - you know, you have this vision of what you think the American dream is and your family. And, you know, that's not what it is. I've learned more from my two children and Kelly than I ever thought possible. And I learned that, you know, everybody needs to be who they need to be. And I learned that people and little children know who they are at that age, you know.

GROSS: Well, let me just ask you, did you fear that somehow this reflected badly on your masculinity? That somehow it was a statement about who you were?

W. MAINES: Absolutely because I have - I struggle with my own confidence, too. And, you know, what are the neighbors going to think? You know, I'd be lying if I didn't say that. And, you know, I really struggled with that. And then, you know what? When people start coming after your kid, you get your head right. This is my baby. Don't mess with my kids, and, you know, that's probably when I turned the corner.

GROSS: Kelly, it sounds like you took the lead in the family in saying our daughter knows she's a daughter and not a son, that she's a girl and not a boy, and we have to honor that. We have to respect that. And so you took the lead, and at some point you decided she wants to dress in girls' clothes. I'm going to go to the girls' department of Target and buy some clothes for her. What was the turning point for you that got you to decide you're going to the girls' department of Target?

K. MAINES: Yeah, it wasn't, you know - it didn't go quite that quickly. And it wasn't that easy.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. Yeah, sure.

K. MAINES: It definitely wasn't, but I - you know, it never bothered me in the beginning when, you know, she was so young. And I'm like, I've got twins, but one's not like the other. They're very different. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on and, you know - is she gay? Is she transvestite? Is she transgender? I honestly had no experience in understanding what any of that meant, so I spent a lot of time figuring that out and ended up surrounding us with professionals who could help us make sure that we were doing the right thing by her. So back then, you know, the popular way of proceeding was gender-neutral - try to keep her gender-neutral. But Nicole did not like that at all, so it took a while. I think it was about when she was 7, I finally said, you know - we had a birthday party for her and Jonas. And we gave her all the boy's toys that Jonas would like to have have and gave Jonas all the boy's toys that Jonas would like to have, and she was very unhappy. And I looked at Wayne, and I said, that's it. I'm not doing this anymore. It's not working. She's angry. She's doubting herself. This is not healthy. She has to have a safe place here. So we took the toys back and we got her some - I won't say names - but some mermaid things and she was very, very happy with that. And that's kind of - after - about then, that's when I was like this is crazy. I just got to do what's going to make this kid the best person she can be, so.

GROSS: But you describe how when you were at Target at first, you didn't want neighbors to see you there because they thought of you as having two sons.

K. MAINES: Well, no. I mean, I always kind of explained, for instance when we first moved up to Orono, I said, OK, we have these kids, and Wyatt's a little different. Wyatt really likes girl stuff, but that's OK. Wyatt's a great kid. You're going to like Wyatt. And it always seemed to go pretty well. I mean, I think in Orono, we had a really good run for a long time there. And people wanted to be supportive, and the kids were amazing. I think as a parent of a kid like this, and back then when it was still not OK or didn't seem to be - I'd be in those aisles in Target with girls' clothes and like, I wish I could get this for her - for Wyatt. I know Wyatt would love this. I can't, I can't, you know - or sometimes I would and it would be like these are your home clothes. These are your school clothes. And it was just got so much better when we didn't - when we finally said enough. You know, you can like it or leave it. This kid is who they are. But I mean for a parent, too, when you do finally make that turn, the biggest fears are she's going to get hurt. Somebody's not going to like it, and when we ended up having our problems, the anger was the thing that was so shocking. They were so mad that people existed...

GROSS: Who, the anti-transgender people?

K. MAINES: Yes, angry - not just, oh, what's wrong? You know, are you hurting that kid? No, it was anger that that person exists. It's scary, yeah.

GROSS: What was it like as a couple, as a married couple, when you were starting to understand that the child who you thought was a son was actually a daughter identified as female, and that it was a real thing? And it sounds, Kelly, like you were a little ahead of Wayne in accepting that. So during the period when Wayne was more resistant and Kelly, you were more she-is-what-she-is, what kind of tension did that create between the two of you?

W. MAINES: I checked out, Terry. I didn't know how to handle it, so I went to work. I cut a lot of trees. I road a lot of bike miles, and I did what guys do. You know, and that's really one of the things that I'm willing to talk about it because so many other people, men in general - we check out. I mean, I know I'm being a - generalizing a little bit, but, you know, again, I say I love my children. I said, OK, I'm going to go to work and make the money so she has everything she needs to do, and I don't want to deal with this. And, you know, I put it all on Kelly's shoulders, and it was hard.

GROSS: Kelly, did you feel a little abandoned during that period?

K. MAINES: Well, I was so busy and so worried that I did not spend a lot of time worrying about whether, you know, he was going to get on board or not. I think my biggest fear then was that Wayne was going to be like a lot of men do and try to divorce me and take the kids away. And then Nicole wouldn't get the things that she needed. That was the scariest part for me 'cause I didn't know what he was thinking. He never told me. We had very few conversations then. It was just - that was the biggest fear. What is Wayne's next plan? I mean, he's not telling me. He's gone all the time. I can't stop. I've got to help this kid, so that's what I was thinking.

W. MAINES: And there was - you know, when we got involved with the specialist, it was hard, too. To be fair, they were trying to tell us to stay gender-neutral, and I tried to follow their rules because I liked their rules, you know, and...

K. MAINES: Well, and I have to say, I kind of like those rules too because you really - I mean, Wayne, you said it so clearly with - once you send the son to school in a dress, that's always the boy that went to school in a dress. And what if they were right? I mean, the statistics back then said that 70 percent of kids who were gender nonconforming ended up being gay. What if that's true? You know, how could I know? I just - I have no experience in this, and I think - and I always said I think that those statistics were skewed. And so, yeah, I wasn't so bent against gender-neutral, but at the same time I had to watch the cues from Nicole and figure out where the balance was going to be because she went through a huge anxiety, self-hating kind of period back when she was about 6 or 7 years old. And so I decided we needed to do what was going to work best to get her where she needed to be.

GROSS: So when Nicole started school in a boy's body but with a female identity, how did you decide to dress her? And what did you decide to tell her teacher and the principal?

K. MAINES: We made our fatal mistake the first year of school in kindergarten by putting both kids in the same class. That poor teacher, I don't know how she survived it. But it was still pretty easy then because Nicole wasn't bucking too much about what to wear. You know, she would wear whatever, but all her friends were the girls. And she would paint her nails, and, you know, she still played the girls' roles and stuff like that. And you could tell it was OK, but it wasn't really where she wanted to be. And when we ended up moving to Orono, I went in before school started, and I said to the teacher - I said, OK, Wyatt's a really great kid, but he really likes girl stuff. And she's going to come to school with a Kim Possible lunchbox, so be ready for that. So she did and, again, the teachers at the school were great. They really supported us and the counselor there ended up being like my best friend because we could bounce ideas off of each other, and it was great. So my whole angle was I'm going to educate people as much as I can on as much as I know and try to - and make them see that this child is not some sort of a freak or someone to be afraid of. This is just a kid just being a kid, and it seemed to work pretty well.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Kelly and Wayne Maines. They're the parents of two identical twins, except one of the twins identified as female even though she was born with a male anatomy. And it took the Maines a little while to figure that out, but they did. And they really fought for her. The new book "Becoming Nicole" is about this family. Nicole is the child who was born and then named Wyatt but became Nicole. Also with me is Amy Ellis Nutt who wrote the book, "Becoming Nicole: The Transformation Of An American Family." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Kelly and Wayne Maines. And they're the parents of two identical twins who were born as boys. One of them identified as a boy, but the other identified as a girl. She was named Wyatt when she was born, but she became Nicole. And there's a new book about this family. It's by Amy Ellis Nutt, and it's called "Becoming Nicole: The Transformation Of An American Family." Kelly and Wayne Maines, let me get back to your story and the story of your twins, Jonas and Nicole - Nicole, who you first named Wyatt because Nicole was born with male anatomy but identified as female right from the start. Once you started sending Nicole to school, was she bullied? Was she physically attacked?

W. MAINES: I don't think she was physically attacked, or at least didn't tell us - but definitely bullied and harassed. And, you know, bullies come in all different forms, in - verbally, facially, looks and glances. And she didn't always see it, but Kelly and I had our radar on all the time.

K. MAINES: Well, if I can add to that. I think in the beginning, there really wasn't a lot of bullying going on because I think, again, the school was very, very supportive. And they really set up a system where if kids had questions, they could come and ask questions to someone that - like their counselor or their teachers or - you know, they weren't necessarily always going up to Nicole and Jonas and asking them questions. And it was a really great environment. The kids were great. The teachers were great. The administrators at that point were great. It's after the incident in fifth grade is when everything fell apart. And people who were on the fence fell the other way. Some of them actually fell our way and were so supportive. It was amazing. But that's when kids who maybe wanted to in the beginning but didn't started bullying Nicole and Jonas. So yeah, it was a progression of things. I think had they still been able to support her through all of that, I don't think that bullying would've ended up happening at that school. But I think it - yeah, so it did happen. And that's certainly when Wayne and I really started getting that radar up. I mean, I always was. I was always there watching. I was always a hovering mother - hovered all the time. I'm sorry, kids. But, you know, it was scary because I really, honest to God, had no idea how to move forward with this. I just knew I had to.

GROSS: What was the incident that you referred to?

K. MAINES: When - the bathroom incident - when she went into the girls' bathroom and was followed in by a boy - when Nicole went into the girls' bathroom and was followed in by a boy...

GROSS: And that became a big thing because the boy's grandfather, I think it was, supported him. And it led to lawsuits and a court case that you finally won 'cause you were asking the school to protect your daughter and ensure your daughter's safety in the girls' bathroom. And the school said it couldn't do that. And...

K. MAINES: Right.

GROSS: ...Told Nicole that she'd have to use a special - what? - teachers' bathroom, was it?

K. MAINES: Right.

W. MAINES: And I think there's a lot of people that still think that's the right way to go. And it's - but it isolates a child. And it really puts a big target on their back and says you're different. And they just want to go to the bathroom. They just want to, you know - and that's not just the bathroom. It's to have the same rights as everybody in the school to do the things that you want to do. That was hard.

NUTT: Can I jump in for a second? I just want to say that...

GROSS: This is Amy, the author of the book, "Becoming Nicole."

NUTT: Thank you. This was the fifth grade when Nicole was basically harassed. It was the beginning of fifth grade. What's important is that the summer before was when she legally changed her name. Now, she had been going to school with all of these kids all along. And I think it's important to recognize that 99 percent of these kids were - you know, when Nicole finally came to school and, you know, she was going to be known as Nicole, no longer as Wyatt - the kids were like, well, finally, OK, you know. You know, they had accepted Nicole for who she was. She was a girl to them in the same way that Nicole was always a sister, not a brother, to Jonas. So this was, you know - except for a few people, you know, here and there, mostly parents occasionally - this was a situation in school where Nicole was always, you know, very happy and very accepted. So this was a very, very, new and scary time when, you know, in - was it September or October of fifth grade? All of a sudden, a young boy follows Nicole into the bathroom and insists, well, if, you know, she's really a boy, if she can be in the girls' room, then I can be here, too. And it was that that was, you know, ended up being kind of like a bomb that went off in the middle of the family and in the middle of this community.

GROSS: My guests are Amy Nutt Ellis, the author of "Becoming Nicole," about the Maines family and how it was transformed when my other guests, Kelly and Wayne Maines, realized that one of their identical twin sons was a transgender daughter. After a break, we'll hear how science is starting to explain how gender identity and anatomy can develop on separate tracks. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our conversation about raising a transgender girl. My guests, Kelly and Wayne Maines, adopted identical twin boys at birth and were baffled when one of the twins later started playing with Barbies, wanting to dress in girl's clothes and insisted she was a girl. After a period of resistance and confusion, Kelly and Wayne accepted that twin as their daughter and legally changed her name from Wyatt to Nicole. Also with us is Amy Ellis Nutt, who has written a new book about the Maines called "Becoming Nicole: The Transformation Of An American Family."

Amy, I want to ask you about a medical and science question. You've written about how the medical profession came to change their view of gender, and in 2013, the Psychological Diagnostic Manuel changed Gender Identity Disorder to Gender Dysphoria. What's the importance of that change from Gender Identity Disorder to Gender Dysphoria?

NUTT: I think the most important thing is that it changes the view of gender identity or of an anomalous gender identity as being somehow abnormal. It's not a disorder. The problem for kids - for transgender people - isn't their - isn't within, it's without. In other words, their trouble with their gender identity comes essentially because others view them one way, when they view themselves another. Nicole, for instance, even as Wyatt, always described herself as a boy-girl or a girl-boy. She was completely confident in who she was.

She knew that she was a girl, but she also knew that people referred to her as a boy, and that she had a boy anatomy so this was a child who was never unsure of who she was, but she knew there was a problem with how other people and the rest of the world viewed her. And that's where the dysphoria comes in - when there's a mismatch between what we expect and what perhaps the sexual anatomy says and what the brain is telling us.

GROSS: You report in your book that scientists are finding that 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. How are they different?

NUTT: Well, in the first six weeks, our gender anatomy - our sexual anatomy is set. Essentially, we all begin in life asexual and then certain genes and hormones kick in and our sexual anatomy is determined to either be - have male genitalia and male reproductive organs, or female. However, scientists are learning that while that happens at six weeks, it's not until six months that the brain masculinizes or feminizes - that is, that the hormones in the brain determine is this the brain of a girl, or is this the brain of a boy? And sexual orientation, they're also discovering, is a third process.

But what they're really focusing on now is trying to understand that they're not all congruent. Normally, prenatally, we develop along the same lines - that our sexual anatomy matches up with our gender identity. And - but what they've discovered is that there's a space in between. There are weeks in between in prenatal development when many things can happen. We know that many things can influence the environment of the womb and the environment of the womb influences the level of hormones and the chemicals that go into the development of a fetus. And so there are many things that can happen between the time that a fetus' sexual identity is set and their gender identity is set.

GROSS: And so gender identity, you say, rests not in anatomy but in the brain.

NUTT: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: So Nicole and Jonas are identical twins. They were both born with male anatomy, but Nicole immediately identified as female and has subsequently had gender reassignment surgery. How does the science explain that identical twins would have different gender identification?

NUTT: It's a good question. Identical twins obviously have the exact same DNA. What they don't have is the exact same epigenome, which means not all of the genetic switches are turned off and on in identical ways. And what - the explanation for that, scientists give, is that in the womb, identical twins have a separate amniotic sac and umbilical cord. And therefore, they get various and different amounts of hormones and nourishment. And they've discovered that even your placement in the womb - where you are located in the womb, for identical twins - can affect the - sort of the ratio of hormones and nutrients that you get. And therefore, it is a different environment. The environment affects who we are, our gender identity. And the environment of the womb - even the top of the womb, the lower part of the womb - can affect how the brain is set, even in identical twins.

GROSS: Did you choose to write about this family in part because of the fact that the children were identical twins?

NUTT: I think that was an important factor because I think it's important to understand how gender identity is set in the brain. And if you have the case of identical twins with the the exact same DNA, the question does, you know, arise - well, how is it that they are different, that one can be different? And I think that's what we're learning in the science of it - that everything affects the brain during development. And even if you have the exact same DNA, there are different parts of the environment that can affect what parts of the DNA are turned on and what parts are turned off. And that, as a result of that, can affect how gender identity is set.

GROSS: So do you think and do scientists think that this is happening more frequently now to people, or is it just that more people are feeling comfortable expressing the true nature of their identity?

NUTT: To some extent, I think that's, you know, impossible to know. Certainly, the degree to which it's become more accepted to talk about has encouraged people to come out. But I think the science of it is also moving this discussion along very significantly. And what scientists are sort of now telling us is that gender isn't something that's necessarily fixed - that it's dynamic, that it's fluid. I remember Dr. Norman Spack, who's the wonderful doctor at the gender clinic at Children's Hospital in Boston, who was Nicole's, you know, first doctor to help her make her transition, said to me, there are very few people that are 100 percent totally masculine or 100 percent totally feminine. We have traits of both. And so ordinarily, it's something in between. And I think people are feel more comfortable now saying, yeah, I've never - you know, I've never felt 100 percent masculine, but I'm mostly masculine. And I think it's become a more comfortable society to say that in. But I think it's also because the science is now supporting that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have three guests. Kelly and Wayne Maines are the parents of two identical twins. But one of them - they were born as boys. One of them identified as female and has subsequently had gender reassignment surgery. My third guest Amy Ellis Nutt has written a book about the family called, "Becoming Nicole: The Transformation Of An American Family." Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview about raising a transgender child. Kelly and Wayne Maines adopted identical twin boys at birth, but one of the twins always identified as a girl. Kelly and Wayne eventually understood and accepted that they had a transgender daughter. Also with us is Amy Ellis Nutt, the author of a new book about the Maines family called "Becoming Nicole." So, Kelly and Wayne, explaining the so-called facts of life to children is always a difficult turning point for parents. It's always awkward for all parties involved - or often awkward, maybe it's not always awkward - but how did you handle that with Nicole?

W. MAINES: This is - my first thing as far as - with dating was, you're not dating anybody till you're 16. So I tried - that was my avoidance tool. And that didn't work very well. But Kelly's always - since our children were little, you know, my family would just say everything's going to be OK. Kelly's family would tell them the truth. And she would always talk to them and have the right way to tell them about whatever our challenges were and including the facts of life. So I truly admire her for that. And she just - she - they - it was simple for them. She was just very plain and simple, and they got it. So I'm going to let her tell you what she probably told them.

K. MAINES: With facts of life, I always went with the rule of thumb of if you can ask me the question, then you're probably ready for the answer. But not - I mean, I wouldn't go into serious detail (laughter). But we could - you know, usually at the younger ages it would be like, well, how do babies come and where do you get those from? But for Nicole - and interestingly, the school that she was going to at the time in Orono would not allow their class to have sex education because they did not know how to answer questions that might come up about Nicole, which is pretty sad. So - but Nicole went through a mourning period when she realized that she would not be able to have children. But it wasn't because she wouldn't - like, we like, well we can freeze sperm, we can - you know, there's things we can do - that's not what she wanted to do. It was that feeling, like any woman who was not able to have children, that you got cheated out of something. Like this is - I'm supposed to be able to have children. I may not do it. I may not want to do it. But for Nicole, we spent a lot of time talking about that. And luckily for us, we adopted the twins. So it's easy for me to say, I'm not less of a person because I didn't have children. I'm more of a person because I got to adopt you. So it worked out pretty well, but she went through some - a hard time about that. But because of her sexuality or her gender identity, we have - you know, we talked about it a lot. They taught me a lot, too (laughter). Like, Mom, here's a questions for you. How do I deal with this? Think, think, think, think, think.

GROSS: Nicole knew that she wanted gender reassignment surgery, but as she got close to actually having it, she, you write, started - Amy, you write this - that she started to be afraid that, well, the gender reassignment surgery wasn't going to solve all her problems. And she also started to worry maybe she'd have a different kind of gender dysmorphia when her body was physically transformed. Kelly, can you talk about that a little bit and the concerns that you heard her express?

K. MAINES: Well, I think it's like with anything you wait for your whole life. She's like finally I'm going on that trip to Paris, and then you get there and it rains the whole time. You're like Paris isn't that great, you know? And I think she kind of looked at it like that. I'm going to go through all of this, finally I've reached this milepost - big deal. You know, I'm still the same person. So I think - she says it so well when she says, this isn't what - I mean, if this never happened to me, I would still be fine, but I do want it to happen to me because it's that final piece of the puzzle. So she was worried. And then once the surgery did happen, she - I don't think it was like, yay. But it was like, yeah, this is right. This is where I need to be.

GROSS: And she has not had second thoughts about it since she had the surgery.

K. MAINES: No, not at all. I mean, there's a huge recovery period that I wasn't prepared for. But now that that has passed, it is great. She - I mean, she's doing very well with - there's some follow up that she has to do, and she's doing very well with it. And it's - everything's great. I don't think - I don't - not even once do I think she was like, oh, my God, I shouldn't have done this. She seems very happy with what she's done.

GROSS: Because our time together is limited, I'm focusing on your relationship with Nicole as opposed to her identical twin, Jonas. But I want to talk a little bit about Jonas 'cause this story's had a huge impact on his life. And, you know, I know there was a period when he was feeling like his main identity was being the identical twin brother of a transgender girl. And he took it upon himself to be her protector. This identity was limiting, in a way, for him because I think it was maybe harder for him to figure out who he was independent of being the brother of his sister. But it sounds like he's done really well.

K. MAINES: Yeah, I think he would've struggled with that either way because she's the alpha twin. She's very strong, very bossy, very - in fact, we - on our trip this weekend, it was like, Jonas didn't tell me he was going to do. But Jonas doesn't have to tell you he's going to do things, Nicole. So she definitely wants to be in control all the times, and he, for a long time, was OK with that. But as he got older and wanted to claim his own space - and on top of that, now she's famous, and we've got all this going on. It was hard for him. So - and I think anytime you have a kid that has a special need that have to do extra things for, it's hard for the other kids because you want to try not to leave them behind, but you still got to put that extra time into the kid that needs the special services.

GROSS: Jonas is quoted in the book as saying, imagine what it's like when kids, teachers, adults ask you about your sister being transgender, and you're trying to explain it all with a sixth grade vocabulary. That really made me feel for him.

K. MAINES: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, that - it's hard to explain with any vocabulary if you're not used to explaining it, but for a sixth grader to explain it - what a lot of pressure on him.

K. MAINES: Yeah, we think so, definitely. Well, that - and again, that's the period of time when the school wasn't helping. So it became - it - we were so - everyone was so focused on it that - I think that was probably the hardest time for both of them was that fifth and sixth grade year because he - people would tease both of them. He was so angry that he even attacked the kid that caused all the issues to begin with. So, I mean, it was a rough time for him. He just - like he said, he was trying to protect her, but how? I'm just a kid. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. So it was hard, definitely.

GROSS: Kelly, did you find yourself asking yourself what it meant to you to be female, watching your daughter define her own sense of gender? And what I'm thinking here is - I don't know how you dress - but Nicole, when she was growing up, she wanted tutus and, you know, really, like, very girlish, feminine things. I don't know if you're into that or not yourself. I mean, I don't think you doubt that you're a woman, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you like, you know, frilly dresses or high heels or some of the things that your daughter probably likes.

K. MAINES: Right. Well, that's true. I don't (laughter). In fact, I can remember when I first started school - this is how old I am. I grew up in Indiana. And we had - the girls had to wear dresses to school. And when I started kindergarten, I was so mad. How am I going to get on those monkey bars with that skirt going over my head? I was so mad about it. So I always, like - I was very active, and I liked to move around, and I liked to wear sneakers, and I liked to wear comfortable clothes. And that's how Nicole and Jonas know me. I mean, I do like to wear heels. I like to dress up sometimes, but mostly I like to be comfortable. So when she got so involved in them, I'm like, where's she learning this stuff?

(LAUGHTER)

K. MAINES: It's not from me. I'm not doing it. So, I mean, it does - it really - and it actually probably made me feel a little bit better about myself because sometimes, you know, I'm like, wow, maybe I'm not woman enough. Maybe I'm not. But really, the gender spectrum is so wide. You can be anywhere on that. That's - if nothing else comes out of this, that has to be the best thing because people don't need to feel bad 'cause they don't want to dress up all the time. So it was really interesting. I can't even begin to tell you how much I've learned from these guys. It's been a great, frightening and wonderful journey. It really has.

GROSS: Amy, having written the book, "Becoming Nicole," about Nicole and her family, when you think of your own identity and your own self as a woman, do you see your own self more on a sliding scale than you did before now that you think of gender as not being binary, just, like, all male, all female, but that, you know, there's a scale?

NUTT: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I'm someone who was the typical tomboy growing up and someone who both, you know, loves sports but, you know, obviously identifies as being female. And there were times in my life when I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I'm not someone who dresses up. I'm someone who's much more comfortable wearing pants. And I, you know, I realized that it may not be so all important that I feel 100-percent female or, you know, that I may be something in between. And it's a kind of sense of relief and relaxation when you realize that the identity part of it, what we call ourselves, is maybe not as important as just, you know, feeling free inside of ourselves.

GROSS: I want to thank you all. Thank you so much for talking with us. Amy Ellis Nutt and Kelly and Wayne Maines, thank you and I wish you all the best.

W. MAINES: Thank you.

K. MAINES: Thank you.

NUTT: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Amy Ellis Nutt is the author of the new book "Becoming Nicole" about Kelly and Wayne Maines and how their family changed when one of their identical twin sons became their transgender daughter. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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