Editor’s Note: A transgender child and her parents, who have sued the Orono School District, sat down recently for an interview with the Bangor Daily News. The family asked that only first names be used and the town where the girl lives and the school she attends not be identified.
When his twin sons were born, Wayne figured he had nearly half a basketball team. Like many first-time fathers, he was ready to buy deer rifles and baseball mitts for his sons before they could crawl.
It wasn’t long before Wayne and his wife, Kelly, realized that despite the twins’ genetic makeup, Wyatt was different from his identical brother.
“By the time he was 3, I knew something was going on,” Kelly said. “He always liked girl toys and girl stuff. He’d always identify as a girl if whatever they were playing had a girl character.”
Kelly sought help for dealing with what eventually was diagnosed as gender identity disorder, also known as gender dysphoria. She wasn’t interested in changing her son, just in supporting Wyatt and helping him navigate society.
A transgender person is born one biological sex but identifies himself or herself as belonging to the opposite gender.
“My attitude has always been — this is my kid, this is what my kid likes, how can we get some help,” she said.
Helping Wyatt, who now is named Nicole, has brought the family to the halls of the State House and to the courts. The family has witnessed both acceptance and prejudice. They recently moved more than 100 miles away from their home in Orono to give their daughter a fresh start.
A warm welcome to Maine
Wayne and Kelly’s start came nearly 20 years ago at an occupational safety conference. He worked in the safety field and she was in marketing. Kelly grew up in Indianapolis, and Wayne hailed from a small town in upstate New York.
When the twins were 5 and about to enter first grade, Wayne took a job at the University of Maine and the family moved from upstate New York to Orono. Kelly went to work for the University of Maine Police Department.
“We made it our business to educate everyone about transgender kids,” Kelly said. “We had get-to-know-you parties for neighborhood kids and classmates and their parents.”
Some of those families remain friends.
Nicole also was very open about how she felt, Wayne said.
“When she was in third grade,” her father said, “she’d go around saying, ‘I’m a boy-girl.’ It made perfect sense to her. The next year, she told people she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. It always was easy for her to talk about.”
The family also tried to answer questions honestly from the parents of their children’s friends who had never known a transgender adult or child.
“This dad, an Ohio State grad who’s 6 foot 6 and whose daughter is friends with Nicole, was standing at the end of my driveway talking to me,” Wayne said. “He shook my hand and said, ‘You guys are good people. She’s a good kid.’ And that was the end of it. The town climate was supportive of our daughter.”
So was the school district. Or so it seemed.
Exit Wyatt, enter Nicole
“The first few years were like a utopia,” Kelly said. “Everyone on the staff [at Orono’s Asa Adams School] was very supportive. The school counselor spent a lot of time doing lots of research.”
That atmosphere changed abruptly in the fall of 2007 when the twins were in the fifth grade. That was the year Wyatt made the transition to to Nicole. She legally changed her name, let her hair grow and began wearing girl’s clothes to school.
She also began using the girls bathroom at Asa Adams with, what her parents said, was the support of school administrators and staff. Shortly thereafter, a male student and his grandfather objected to Nicole’s use of the bathroom.
“This kid came into the bathroom [in October 2007] and said, ‘My grandfather says we don’t have to have any faggots in our school,’” Wayne recalled. “What do you do with that? It was quite a change.”
On Oct. 9, 2007, then-Superintendent Kelly Clenchy decided Nicole should use a staff bathroom rather than the girls bathroom, according to the lawsuit Wayne and Nicole have filed in Penobscot County Superior Court against Clenchy and the department.
Paul Melanson, who is the legal guardian for his grandson, complained in December 2007 to the Orono School Committee that a boy was being allowed to use the girls bathroom. Melanson said he had spoken with Clenchy, who denied the situation was happening, according to a Dec. 19, 2007, story published in the Bangor Daily News.
He maintained that the same anti-discrimination laws being used to justify a transgender child’s use of certain restrooms also could be used to justify his grandson’s use of the same bathroom. Melanson sought out and received support from the Christian Civic League of Maine and its then-director Michael Heath.
“Things changed as if a light switch had been hit,” Wayne said of the effect of Melanson’s complaints.
Nicole spent the 2007-2008 school year in sixth grade at the Orono Middle School. The school’s solution to Nicole being bullied by other students, Kelly said, was to institute what administrators called the “eyes-on policy.”
Portland attorney Melissa Hewey, who represents the Orono School District in the lawsuit, said the “eyes-on” practice was the result of a meeting with Kelly and Wayne before their daughter entered middle school.
“The family was concerned about how things would go,” Hewey said. “They basically said, ‘Can we have someone keep an eye on her at those unstructured times between classes?’ This is something the family asked for.”
The practice is common and endorsed by the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, according to Hewey.
Nicole, however, found it stressful.
“An adult would stand 15 feet away from me wherever I went,” she said. “When I would go to the bathroom, they would follow me. When I would go to the lunchroom, they’d follow me. It was like I had an invisible string attached to me and they were on the other end. It was ridiculous.”
“Eyes-on” was the final straw for Kelly and Wayne.
A public debate
“I realized that my kid didn’t have any rights and I didn’t know how to protect her,” Kelly said. “We tried to work with the school for a whole year.”
So Wayne and Kelly hired a lawyer and in April 2008 filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission over Nicole’s access to the girls bathroom at Asa Adams. More than a year later, in June 2009, the rights commission found that the School Department had discriminated against Nicole in what was one of the commission’s first decisions involving schools, gender identity and bathroom use.
In a cross-complaint filed by Melanson, the commission found that the school did not unlawfully discriminate against his grandson “because of his sexual orientation,” which is a heterosexual male. The investigator’s report also found that Nicole had not been harassed, according to Bennett Klein, the family’s attorney. Klein works for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston.
The commission, along with Nicole and her parents, in November 2009 sued the school district in Penobscot County Superior Court over her use of the girls bathroom and the school’s treatment of her. On April 1, Superior Court Justice William Anderson dismissed the claim that administrators at Asa Adams School were obligated under the Maine Human Rights Act to allow her to use the girls bathroom rather than a restroom for staff.
“[T]his ‘accommodation’ claim would impose upon Superintendent Clenchy and the various school entities defending this suit an obligation to accommodate [the child’s] transgender status by allowing her to continue using the girls’ bathrooms consistent with her gender identity,” the judge wrote. “Neither the language of the [Maine Human Rights Act], the language of the [Maine Human Rights Commission’s] own internal regulations, nor prevailing case law interpreting the Civil Rights Act requires this type of accommodation.”
The judge allowed the claim that the school discriminated against Nicole when she was at Asa Adams School and another seeking damages to go forward. That portion of the lawsuit still is pending in Penobscot County Superior Court. The original complaint has been amended to include other alleged incidents, including the “eyes-on” practice during her year at Orono Middle School.
On behalf of the school district, Hewey has denied all the allegations outlined in the amended complaint.
While the first phase of the lawsuit was pending, in December 2010, newly elected Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, introduced a bill addressing the use of public restrooms by transgender individuals. He cited the problem at Asa Adams and an Auburn restaurant’s refusal to allow a transgender woman to use the women’s bathroom as his reasons for sponsoring the bill.
Fredette sought to give school systems and business owners more leeway in making decisions affecting who should use their restrooms after the Maine Human Rights Commission ruled against the school and the restaurant. Opponents believed the legislation would have restricted transgenders from using the restrooms of the sex with which they identify.
Despite the publicity, the family’s name was not printed in the Bangor Daily News. The lawsuit used the names John and Jane Doe for Wayne and Kelly and Susan Doe for Nicole. Her name was not released by the Maine Human Rights Commission either.
The family, however, decided it was time to take a public stand before the Legislature.
A hearing on Fredette’s bill was held before the Judiciary Committee on April 12 at the State House. Wayne gave emotional testimony against the bill. Nicole spoke privately before the hearing to a few members of the committee and the bill’s sponsor.
“Talking to legislators, I wasn’t all that nervous,” she said several weeks later. “It didn’t matter that they were members of the Judiciary Committee or not. I was just trying to persuade more people to our way of thinking. Later, I thought, ‘Oh, my God! What did I just do? I can’t wait to tell the kids at camp about this.’”
The Maine House and Senate defeated the bill in June.
A new, ‘stealth’ start
With the legislative battle settled for now and a new school year beginning, Nicole and her family are settling into a new routine.
Before the 2009 school year began, Kelly and the children moved to southern Maine and the children were enrolled in school there. That put them closer to Boston, where Nicole is undergoing treatment at the Gender Management Service Clinic at Children’s Hospital.
The move meant Wayne would spend the week in Orono alone and head south for weekends with his family.
“We basically had to separate but it is better here,” Kelly said. “The school is more supportive but she’s stealth here.”
“Stealth” means that teachers and administrators know Nicole is transgender but her fellow students do not.
“I’m not a big fan of being stealth,” Nicole said. “I would like my friends here to know. I feel my bond with them would be closer if they know. I don’t have that connection here that I do with my friends in Orono. I know that my friends in Orono truly support me but I’m not sure they would here.”
The family decided to talk about their experiences in an effort to educate the public about children who are transgender.
“I just want people to know that we’re normal people,” Nicole said. “We have a minor setback we were born with. We have our ups and downs but that doesn’t make us that different. Some people are blond. Some people are brunettes. Some people are boys. Some people are girls.”
Having a daughter has become so natural, Wayne said, that he barely thinks of Nicole as Wyatt any more.
“We were going into Walmart one day,” he said. “I got out of the van and I went to hold my son’s hand and he’s like, ‘Get away from me, Dad,’ because he’s in puberty and is not going to hold Dad’s hand in public.
“But Nicole took hold of my hand,” Wayne continued, “and I thought, I have a daughter. So, I’m going to get to do this the rest of my life.”