In July 1984, three high school kids tossed Charlie Howard off a Bangor, Maine, bridge, to his death, for being gay. The boys spent some time in juvenile detention; one later wrote a book called Penitence and spoke about accepting diversity to ease his remorse. (When I started dating the woman who is now my wife, she found that book on my shelves and turned ghostly white. In her history class at Bangor High, she told me, she sat behind one of the killers. She was out at the time. You can imagine how she felt when, as she recalls, the town rallied around the killers.) The national news media didn't notice homos at the time, but the news of Charlie Howard's death scorched the lesbian and gay community. It was the Matthew Shepard story of its day.
Charlie was what we then called a "flamer"; now we'd probably call him transgendered. I thought of Charlie as I read Bella English's Boston Globe story this weekend about twin boys in Orono, Maine—just a few miles up from Bangor, about two hours west of the Bay of Fundy—who turned out to be one boy and one girl. The story follows the family's struggles to come to terms with Nicole's (née Wyatt's) insistence that she wasn't a boy, but a girl:
When Wyatt and Jonas were born, their father was thrilled. Wayne looked forward to the day when he could hunt deer with his boys in the Maine woods. The family lived in Orono, near the University of Maine campus, where Wayne is the director of safety and environmental management.
They had no preparation for what would come next.
When Wyatt was 4, he asked his mother: “When do I get to be a girl?’’ He told his father that he hated his penis and asked when he could be rid of it. Both father and son cried. When first grade started, Wyatt carried a pink backpack and a Kim Possible lunchbox.
Please do click over to read the very moving story and look at the pictures. It focuses on the family's struggles to accept and help her—and their ultimate success. When Wyatt is in first grade, the mother finds a Boston doctor who soon after founded GeMS at Children's Hospital, a first-in-the-country pediatric gender clinic. With that doctor's diagnosis and support, the family lets Wyatt begin to go to school as Nicole, which was hard on the deer-hunting father:
An Air Force veteran and former Republican, he realizes now he was grieving the loss of a son. “But once you get past that, I realize I never had a son,’’ he says.
When fifth grade started, Wyatt was gone. Nicole showed up for school, sometimes wearing a dress and sporting shoulder-length hair. She began using the girls’ bathroom. Nikki’s friends didn’t have a problem with the transformation; there were playdates and sleepovers.
“They said, ‘It was about time!’’’ Nicole says. She was elected vice president of her class and excelled academically.
But one day a boy called her a “faggot,’’ objected to her using the girls’ bathroom, and reported the matter to his grandfather, who is his legal guardian. The grandfather complained to the Orono School Committee, with the Christian Civic League of Maine backing him. The superintendent of schools then decided Nicole should use a staff bathroom.
Bathrooms are the ground zero of transgender battles, the equivalent of shared showers in the military debates, that red herring. Imagine never knowing whether you will be able to pee without harassment, or being assigned just one unisex bathroom in a large complex. Who in the world could it possibly hurt to allow the very few transgender folks in our midst to go potty when and where they need to? Honestly, do people think Nicole is going to get down on her knees and peer up at the girls? Like anyone, she just wants to be able to perform a basic human function safely without being shadowed, harassed, or segregated.
Finally, the family found GLAD, the New England legal advocacy group that has been behind the region's winning same-sex marriage lawsuits. GLAD helped the family file a lawsuit against the school for siding with the bullies. The Maines—yes, that's their real last name—have left Orono for their daughter's safety and their own peace of mind. The Bangor Daily News, here, reports both the family's and the school's points of view on whether or not the school appropriately protected Nicole. Check out Nicole's brief, wonderful remarks at a GLAD dinner this year—and check out her father's heartwenching and funny comments as well.
I'm in awe of this family, which has been both brave and lucky. They courageously put their child's well-being in front of anyone's gender ideology or religious beliefs, saving her years of misery. And they happened to live in New England in the 21st century, where we have both a groundbreaking pediatric gender-identity clinic and a groundbreaking legal advocacy project dedicated to transgender issues. It makes me weak with gratitude to think that Nicole will be spared Charlie Howard's fate.
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