A Pulitzer Prize-winning author who chronicled what she called an "eye-opening story" of a transgender child addressed Illinois Wesleyan University students on Wednesday at the president's convocation.
Amy Ellis Nutt wrote the book "Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family," about the real-life story of a transgender twin.
Nicole began idenfitying as a female when she was a toddler. Nutt's story follows the family's journey in a time before "transgender" was commonly known and accepted.
"It's about a mother who wanted to understand what was going on with her child and do everything she could so that her child was safe and happy," Nutt said. "And about a father who was very traditional, conservative, loved his family and loved his kids, but had trouble getting his mind around what was going on."
As explained in the book, Nicole's father later filed a civil rights claim for the daughter, and she was one of the first to be granted legal use of the girl's bathroom.
Nutt said "Becoming Nicole" essentially came to her. The parents of Nicole, Kelly and Wayne Maines wanted to tell their story in the form of a book. At the time, Nutt had recently published her first book and won a Pulitzer that same year.
"I was familiar with the story, I thought it was fascinating," Nutt said.
Initially, she had concerns about authoring the book. She thought the public may not want to read a story about a transgender child.
"Luckily, my agent had better foresight than I did," she said.
Nutt said she approached the story using her background as a health and science journalist at the Washington Post and in the process confronted misperceptions about gender identity.
“The more I can bring that to life for readers I hope the more it becomes something they can accept as a biological process, a biological phenomenon,” Nutt said. “That’s what gender is.”
The timing of "Becoming Nicole" lined up with Caitlyn Jenner's gender transformation and the rise of Laverne Cox as an openly transgender actress.
"It was all sort of serendipitous," Nutt said. "It was perfect timing, but I must tell you, it was entirely accidental."
Nutt admitted she didn't understand much about what it was like to be transgender before writing the book.
"Part of the beauty of being a journalist and certainly writing this book was that I was learning about it as well," she said. "And I felt that that was really important for readers, especially (because) the majority of readers were coming to this subject really not knowing much about it."
Nutt said the science is still developing, but it was important to her in the book to make the distinction that being transgender is not psychological, but neurological.
"I think, I hope, that for some people that helps them understand more that this is not a disorder, it's not an illness," Nutt said. "Human beings and everything about us is a spectrum, but sexuality is a spectrum and gender certainly is as well."
She said this understanding is a big reason why "Becoming Nicole" fit into IWU's summer 2018 reading theme of "Changing Climates."
“I do think these are just – or at least up until recently, these are different times in which social movement toward more acceptance of variation and differences are happening much more rapidly,” Nutt said.
"Becoming Nicole" became Nutt's second New York Times bestseller. Nutt is also the author of the best-selling book "The Teenaged Brain."
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in Central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.