BANGOR, Maine — Although she won her 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her account of the sinking of the fishing vessel Lady Mary off the coast of New Jersey, Amy Ellis Nutt’s talk Thursday night at the Bangor Public Library had a distinctly Maine angle.
Nutt, who covers health and science for The Washington Post, is the writer of “Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family,” the true story of a transgender girl who grew up in Orono, her identical twin brother, her family’s fight against discrimination and their journey to understand, nurture and celebrate the uniqueness in every person.
During her library talk, which kicked off Pulitzer Week in Greater Bangor, Nutt said she knew little about what it meant to be transgender before she began writing the book.
“You should first know that this story came to me. I didn’t find it,” she said. She was approached by a member of the Maines’ legal team from Boston, whom she had met 30 years earlier, with the condition that the book not be released until Nicole and her twin, Jonah, graduated from high school, which they did last June.
Part of her education came through Wayne Maines’ meticulous documentation of family history — including drawings, medical records, report cards, photographs and a host of other things that helped add to Nutt’s understanding of what Nicole and her family had been going through.
In one of the pictures she drew as a child, Nicole, then still called Wyatt, portrayed herself as a princess with long blond hair in the arms of her Prince Charming. She portrayed herself as a redheaded girl with a wide smile in a drawing she made for the “About the Author” page in a book she wrote.
“This is how she saw herself,” Nutt said.
Perhaps most eye-opening for Nutt was the science surrounding transgenderism.
“I loved digging into the science,” she said. “It’s a medical and scientific reality, and we’re still trying to understand it. But, you know, it’s about variation, not aberration, if your realize that there are dozens and dozens of differences in genitalia and chromosomal changes, that there are very few people who are 100 percent male or 100 percent female.”
She noted that research also indicates that gender identity is determined prenatally.
“I think what I want people to take away from the book is that these people are no different from you,” Nutt said after her talk. “No different from you, from your family, from your sons and daughters, from your mother, your father, your wife, your husband.
“And that, therefore, it’s universal. And frankly, this is about love and family coming together to overcome other people’s misunderstandings. It was not a problem in their family; it was a problem with other people. But they weathered it.”
Nicole and her parents, Wayne and Kelly Maines, found themselves at the center of a controversy that ultimately made national headlines after they sued Orono school officials over her access to the girls bathroom and the school’s treatment of her.
The Maines prevailed after a seven-year legal battle that ended with a $75,000 settlement.
Although Nicole’s victory was a victory for other transgender people, the fight against discrimination continues both in Maine and elsewhere in the nation.
Just last month, Maine Gov. Paul LePage came out in opposition of a transgender Virginia student who is challenging his school’s school bathroom use policy.