Nicole: “I realized my gender at the same time my brother did. Yet everyone assumed that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I couldn’t possibly be old enough to make the distinction between whether I was a boy or a girl. Yet my twin brother was.”
Jonas: “Hate isn’t instinctual, it is learned. We teach our children to share the same ignorance and prejudices as us, and this is how they live on. Teaching a younger generation to love and understand will allow bigotry and hate to pass out of our lives.”
Nicole Maines was thrust into a spotlight she did not seek by merely trying to live her life. And as a result, she has helped to shape the lives of transgender children generally, and in the state of Maine, particularly.
The 21st century has witnessed remarkable strides in the equality movement for the LGBTQ community. The repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the overturning of the “Defense of Marriage” Act, and the granting of marriage equality to same sex couples are advances that seemed like distant dreams as the 20th century drew to a close. As millions of Americans feel safe enough to come out to family and friends as members of the LGBTQ community, they build bridges of acceptance and coalitions of support. Yet, even with these remarkable legal and cultural victories, a long road remains ahead to affirm a sense of full equality for individual LGBTQ community members. One of the least understood of the LGBTQ allies is the “T”, or transgender community. Recently, however, there have been solid advances in transgender visibility and policy victories by transgender activists.
When Nicole and her twin brother Jonas were born October 7, 1997 in Gloversville, NY, her parents named her Wyatt Benjamin Maines. From a very early age, however, Wyatt preferred toys made for little girls and identified with female cartoon characters and female protagonists in stories. Wyatt’s parents Kelly and Wayne Maines, to varying degrees, provided the space and freedom necessary for Wyatt to be who he — or she — was. “I’m a boy-girl,” Wyatt self-identified. Jonas seemed to understand almost from the beginning that he had a sister. That Wyatt was his sister and not his brother was, to him, “…very natural…it just [made] sense.” Jonas, while still in elementary school, stood up for his sister, even to his father Wayne, by saying “[f]ace it, Dad, you have a son and a daughter.”
The twins’ classmates at Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono, Maine accepted the twins as they were, and the Maines made sure that school officials were made aware of Wyatt’s complex identity.
As the twins were about to matriculate to the fifth grade, the family decided that Wyatt should be allowed to move beyond the “boy-girl” identity and just be the girl she was. Not only would she be allowed to wear the girl’s clothing she wished to, but she legally changed her name from Wyatt Benjamin to Nicole Amber. “Being a girl just felt right. It felt like that’s what I was supposed to be, and I’ve never looked back,” said Nicole. Unfortunately, just as Nicole was finally in a position to live her life as she wished, a classmate, at the urging of his grandfather (who was affiliated with a conservative religious organization with strong views against the LGBTQ community), began harassing her and challenged her right to use of the girls’ lavatory at school. The school’s attempt at compromise — assigning a staff person to monitor Nicole’s movements and require that she use a faculty bathroom — made Nicole feel as though she were a prisoner.
The Maines family filed a complaint against the Orono school system with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which found that the school district had discriminated against Nicole. However, the school district refused to remedy the situation, so the Maines family filed a lawsuit against the district claiming that Nicole had been discriminated against in her education because she was not allowed to use the public facility that corresponded with her gender identity.
Recent scientific studies have shed some light on “gender dsyphoria”, the term that refers to a person who is born one biological gender but identifies psychologically and emotionally with another. Spanish research published in Scientific American showed that the brains of transgender individuals are different from both male and female brains, but may more closely resembled the brains of those who share their “experienced gender” than those who share their biology at birth. What is clear is that being transgender is not a choice, but is rooted in biology.
To avoid the stress of the lawsuit (legal assistance was provided by the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, GLAD) and the continued harassment of the classmate, Kelly and the twins moved from Orono to Portland, Maine (Wayne, who worked at the University of Maine at Orono, stayed behind to keep his job). Seeking an uncomplicated start in the new place, the family decided to hide the fact that Nicole was a transgender girl.
Jonas also was affected by what was going on. He got into a physical altercation defending his sister from the bullying classmate. And when the family moved from Orono to Portland, as the family waited for the outcome of the discrimination lawsuit filed against the Orono school district, he had to help keep his sister’s secret. “There was a lot of attention and focus on her growing up. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t instances where I thought, ‘what about me?’ But I never felt forgotten.”
Jonas’s common sense approach to his sister’s identity offers a humanitarian counterpoint to punitive legislation like that passed in North Carolina, in March of 2016, that prohibit transgender individuals from using the public restrooms and locker room facilities that match their gender identity. Says Jonas, “If someone feels that they are a girl or a boy or whatever, they should be able to use the facilities that make them feel most comfortable with themselves. And to this day, I still don’t understand the complications behind that, and why that’s such a hard thing for people to grasp.”
It was with the 2011 effort to pass LD 1046 that forced Nicole and her family to take a public stand. The law would have amended the State of Maine’s existing Human Rights Act to allow business owners sole discretion to say who could use their bathrooms, as well as denying those who experienced discrimination on the basis of gender identity to claim a violation under the Human Rights Act. “[W]hen you’re presented an opportunity to represent a group of people who need representation, it’s not so much an obligation but I feel like it’s a calling. And if you have that opportunity, you should take it,” said Nicole. Nicole joined her father Wayne in Augusta to lobby members of the Maine legislature to defeat LD 1046. In the halls of the State Capitol, legislators could not avoid the human cost of the proposed legislation when they met an articulate, teenage, transgender girl, a citizen of their state, quick to explain to everyone who would listen exactly who she was. The direct lobbying paid off. Nicole and her allies defeated LD 1046 with bipartisan support in both houses of the Maine legislature.
The district judge presiding over the lawsuit filed by the Maines family against the Orono school district found that the school district had not violated the Human Rights Act of Maine when it forced Nicole to use the faculty bathroom. But the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state, interpreted the law differently. On January 30, 2014, that court overturned the lower court’s ruling and found that the school district had violated Nicole’s human rights as a transgender student. This marked the first time in U.S. history that a state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a transgender plaintiff in a case involving the use of a bathroom based on gender identity.
Nicole and Jonas both graduated from the Waynflete School in Portland, Maine in June 2015. Before beginning her undergraduate studies at the University of Maine at Orono, Nicole completed her gender reassignment surgery in Philadelphia. Before her surgery, Nicole wrote the following in her diary: “I feel like I need to do this for Wyatt. I need to do this to make up for everything that he had to put up with. I need to do this to apologize to him. I need to do this to show him that it was all worth it. I need to do this to thank him for not giving up and for giving me a chance.”
At the 2015 Matthew Shepard Foundation Honors Gala, the Maines family members were honorees for their support of Nicole. Jonas said the following: “I’m given confidence by all of the people…who continue to stand up against injustice and tragedy, and live as examples of compassion, and kindness, and hope.”
Trailblazers rarely plan to do the remarkable things that they do. Fate or circumstance, however, will intervene and put a trailblazer on his or her path. Nicole Maines was living her life as the girl she knew herself to be. And even though she was forced, with her family right by her side, to fight for her rights, Maines was able to show the world that transgender children have rights that deserve our respect.
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