CONWAY — Transgender activist and actor Nicole Maines knew she was a girl around the age of 3 or 4.
“My case is kind of unique because I have a twin brother (Jonas),” she told Ellen Degeneres during an appearance on “Ellen” in 2018. “So, growing up with him, he was identifying with all these male things and feeling very comfortable in his body, and I wasn’t.”
Maines, the subject of this month’s One Book One Valley community read “Becoming Nicole,” slowing began publicly transitioning in the first grade, and officially presented herself as female in the fifth grade, when she changed her name from Wyatt to Nicole.
Maines, who is turning 22 on Oct. 7, became the center of the precedent-setting Maine Supreme Judicial Court case Doe v. Regional School Unit 26 regarding gender identity and bathroom use in schools. Maines had been barred from using the female bathroom after a complaint, but the court ruled that denying a transgender student access to the bathroom consistent with their gender identity is unlawful.
In 2018, Maines debuted as Nia Nal/Dreamer, television’s first transgender superhero, on “Supergirl.” She is returning as a series regular for season five which premieres Sunday, Oct. 6, at 9 p.m. on The CW.
One Book One Valley has a series of events throughout October culminating in an evening with “Becoming Nicole” author Amy Ellis Nutt on Thursday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. at Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High School in North Conway. In addition to Nutt, the plan is to have the Maines family be part of the discussion through a Skype connection.
Sun entertainment editor Alec Kerr recently talked with Maines about growing up transgender, activism, privilege and the upcoming season of “Supergirl.”
“Becoming Nicole” is beautifully written, but it is very journalistic and academic in its approach. Is there anything you would’ve done differently or included in telling that story?
I don’t know. I think, of course, Amy did a phenomenal job, and I am so happy with how the book came out because I think it really does have something for everyone, whether or not you’re just starting to learn about transitioning and you’re looking for something new. But there was so much that had to be cut out in the final editing process and, unfortunately, a lot of what did get cut out was original writing from Jonas’ perspective. I don’t know if it was something I would’ve done differently, I think it is more of a shame that it couldn’t make it into the final cut. It was just so long before it was cut. So, I do hope at some point people do get to see that because it is really, really beautiful.
In “Becoming Nicole,” a therapist told your parents that you weren’t transgender because you were peeing standing up. What are some other examples you’ve encountered of misinformation about what transgender is?
Where do I even begin? So many people think that it is one of those things that you can kind of slap a label on and say, “This is what this is,” and with something as expansive as gender it is really impossible to paint it as very black and white. So many people have tried to say “Oh, all trans people look like this. This is how you spot a trans person.” And that’s 1) offensive, and 2) not true or realistic.
I think a lot of that has to do with how historically we are represented in the media: men in dresses and this and that. It is so much more expansive than that. No one group of people looks a certain way, and it is dangerous to try to categorize people like that. So, I think besides the peeing standing up, which is ridiculous, what is equally ridiculous is the idea that some people think that they can spot a trans person, and that’s sort of the whole basis of their argument.
You know how sometimes you read certain blogs or you read certain Twitter accounts just to make yourself mad? I stumbled across one, it was a really popular TERF account — which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminists, which is pretty much feminists who believe trans women aren’t women, and they use recycled rhetoric from the ’70s saying that trans women are just men trying to invade women’s spaces and stupid shit like that. It was this person going on and on about, like, “Oh, none of you pass. None of you look like women. Yada yada yada.” And I was like, 1) no room to talk because her haircut was atrocious, and 2) come say it to my face. It really made me mad. It is atrocious that people think they can spot something like that. It is ridiculous.
It is kind of like the back-handed compliment that I receive a lot, that is “Oh, you don’t look trans,” or “Oh, never really would’ve guessed.” A lot of the time, I try not to jump on people for that because I know it is coming from a place where they’re trying to give me a compliment, but what does trans look like? What did you think I was going to look like?
And, of course, everyone thinks that we are supposed to look like men in dresses, which — even if we did — is rude as hell to say something like that because, not only is that stupid, but it is also reinforcing negative beauty standards among women, not just trans women, but women. Because you hear about the bathroom bills and they are like, “Oh, we are going to enforce no trans people in bathrooms.” Well, how are you going to enforce that? And then you get cases of cis women getting kicked out of the bathrooms because they look more masculine than others. Even for cisgender women that is not a black and white line. People look different, and it is totally unfair and unreasonable to say just because someone has harder features than somebody else that this is what is going on in your pants. That feels like a wild, crazy assumption to me.
So, obviously your father always loved you, but he struggled with your identity. Was there a specific moment when you finally felt truly seen by him?
I know a lot of moments where he really started having light bulb moments. I think for me, one of the first moments where I felt like I started being seen was when I started wearing girl’s clothes to school. My transition started going there slowly, but between second and third grade I had gone from wearing longer hair to wearing girl’s clothes all the time. I don’t know if it was even just my father, but by everyone, but that is when I started feeling like I was being seen. Then in fifth grade was when I had fully transitioned. I was allowed to pierce my ears and I was allowed to wear skirts and dresses. That really felt like I am seen. And then, of course, when my father finally started fighting for me. Because I knew, at that point, he still didn’t fully understand, but when he started defending me and defending my transition and my using the girl’s bathroom, I felt like I had him on my side.
I love last season of “Supergirl.” One of my favorite moments was when Nia Nal/Dreamer publicly announced herself as both an alien and a transgender woman because it put a positive face on a group who were being demonized in the show. How important do you think it is to give a face to marginalized people?
It is incredibly important. The best way to fight against marginalization and the most effective way that we fight back against people who are trying to erase us is with visibility. When you have an administration who, for incidents in a crazy hypothetical, removed me from the 2020 census, then the best way to combat that is to be more visible than ever. By saying, OK, you’re trying to make people think that we are not valid, you’re trying to make people think we don’t exist and that we are not solid and valid in our identities and our existence. Well, then we are going to show you that we are. We are going to show you: no, you cannot ignore us because we are here and it doesn’t really matter what you believe. It doesn’t really matter if you say, “Well, I don’t really believe in transgender.” Well, it isn’t really something for you to believe in because whether you like it or not, we are here. We exist and that’s not a matter of opinion. You do not get to choose whether or not my identity is valid because I am not doing it for you and we are not going to let you erase that. So, I think visibility is the number one method of defense against erasure.
Based on the trailer, the new season of “Supergirl” partially deals with the betrayal and anger Lena Luthor feels toward Carol Danvers hiding her identity of Supergirl from her. This seems like an apt metaphor for the similar sense of betrayal, hurt and confusion some people feel when a loved one comes out as trans or gay. Do you think that is intentional?
I don’t know if it was intentional. I think because there are so many different layers with Carol and Lena’s relationship, and especially with the Kryptonian-Luthor relationship. I think it is hard to boil it down to just that, because I get why Lena is upset and I get why those feelings are floating around, but personally, I’m kind of like nobody owes any facet of their identity to anybody but themselves. If they did not feel that they wanted to share a part of their identity with you, you don’t get to be mad about that. That is something that belongs entirely to them and if they did not choose, for whatever reason to disclose that part of themselves, that’s not because you necessarily did anything wrong, that’s because they had a choice and that’s not necessarily on them either. But, like I said, it is different between being trans and being a superhero. It is hard because, at the same time, it is like, “Oh, you were treating me like Lex, and I’m not Lex. You can trust me.” So, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff floating around, but I don’t know if it was a 100 percent intentional, but there are definitely connections.
That’s the great thing about sci-fi is that it can always be used as a metaphor for exploring social issues.
How will Nia Nal be challenged in the new season?
The theme of this season is communication, and so something Nia is struggling with the first chunk of the season is communicating with how she feels with Brainiac because they’ve been dating and they have been having communication issues. Neither of them are the best at relationships, and so this is kind of a new area for her and she’s trying to work out, “How do I express how I feel without hurting you?” And that’s something she struggles with a lot. It is being open and honest with how she’s feeling and trying not to bottle up what she is feeling for the sake of other people.
What I also really love about Nia Nal is when she puts herself out there — kind of going off the whole thing of passing — she does pass as both a human and a woman, and so she doesn’t need to put herself out there, but by doing so she empowers others. Do you also try to lead by example in your own life?
Absolutely, I recognize 100 percent as Nia and as Nicole that I have an insane amount of privilege. I’m white and, like you said, I pass and I’m on TV. And I mention that I am on TV because when we look at issues like HB2 and we look at bathroom bills and stuff like that, that is not necessarily going to affect me as someone who passes and as someone who is in Vancouver. I’m working in Vancouver, HB2 will not affect me. I am not there. But I recognize that there are issues that are affecting members of my community who don’t have the same significant platform that I do. And so it is my responsibility as a member of that community, as someone with that platform, to lift them up and to start to shine a light on issues that are affecting members of my community, even if I personally will not feel the impact of that harmful legislation.
It is important and that’s what we talk about in feminist circles. We are always talking about how can people with privilege use that privilege to lift others up, to better the situation of others who don’t have those some privileges. We ask that of men, we ask that of white people, we ask that of abled-body people, of trans women who pass. We ask that people use their privilege responsibly. And so that is what I try to do and I hope that I am succeeding. I just try to use my platform and use my voice to talk about issues that I feel matter.
Going back to “Becoming Nicole,” the book discusses “The Little Mermaid” as a metaphor for being transgender because Ariel doesn’t feel she belongs in the ocean and everyone tells her you have to be with your own people blah, blah, blah. Ariel was one of your favorite characters growing up, do you feel even at a young age you were drawn to this character because your struggle paralleled her struggle?
I guess subconsciously, yes, but on a surface level, I liked mermaids. I don’t know why I liked it so much and that’s why I say subconsciously I was drawn to it. I remember loving that more than anything else. I loved everything about her. I remember I was like, “That is what I want for myself.” I was like, “She is so beautiful, and she is so graceful,” which is not a trait that I’ve been able to replicate in my own life. I remember being so drawn to her, and I was like “Mom, Dad, that is what we are going for. That is the look.” Between her and, I’ve said it before, Storm from the X-Men. I remember watching “X-Men: The Animated Series” as as kid and she had that hair and the cape and was like “Oh, that’s drama. I love it.”
And now you have your own cape.
Well, metaphorically speaking. I don’t have a superhero cape. I feel a little cheated.
Well, maybe you can get one.
No, I have the best supersuit. It is shiny and holographic. It is awesome.
One part I really liked in “Becoming Nicole,” I think it was before you were going to enter fifth grade, you were asked what kind of story you’d tell and you said it would be this mystery/comedy/fantasy with a sassy character and a sidekick who was even sassier. If you were to write that story now what do you think it would look like?
Oh my God. Well, it would definitely have the sassy character and the sassier sidekick, because I remember growing up I was always the biggest fan of the sassy comic relief characters, which is why I tried to play that role in my own regular life, which took some getting used to. I remember in middle school people didn’t exactly get the whole me trying-to-be-funny and I think it just came across as annoying. If I was going to write that story now, I think it would absolutely be about murder that would be the mystery. The comedy that would manifest itself in probably macabre, offbeat humor about murder. And then the fantasy ... they are all vampires. I’m just describing “Bit.”
I haven’t been able to find anyway to watch “Bit” (which stars Maines as a transgender teen who falls in with four queer feminist vampires, who try to rid Los Angeles' streets of predatory men), but I am very interested in that film. What was it like making that?
It was so amazing and I hope you’ll be able to watch soon. Right now, it is making its festival rounds, and hoping someone will choose to distribute it, and we’re like, “Pay us, please!” It was so incredible. Everyone on set was amazing and our writer/director Brad Michael Elmore is the coolest dude on the planet. I was talking about using our privilege to tell stories that matter and to raise up minority voices, and that’s absolutely what he did in this situation. I know a lot of the festivals we have gone to have been feminist festivals and gay festivals, and we’ve had a significant amount of people kind of be like, “Oh, you were written by a straight cis white guy,” and we’re like,“Yeah, and he’s doing exactly what we want him to be doing, which is using his privilege to create this super awesome movie featuring queer and interracial talent, this intersectional group of feminists.” We had a female DP which how awesome is that? We had this super awesome kaleidoscope of different identities in this film and I feel like some folks are very quick to write it off because it was written by a straight cis white guy. 1) I don’t feel that is fair to Brad, and 2) I don’t think that is fair to the movie. The movie is so cool and the movie deals with such cool issues and it approaches them all in such a f------ awesome way. To write it off because of who our director is feels very shortsighted.
And obviously you wouldn’t say or do anything that felt disingenuous to your own experience.
Yes, absolutely. I was like, “Ye of little faith.”
When you were 13 years old you went to the Maine statehouse and spoke to dozens of representatives to convince them to vote against a bill that would make it legal to discriminate against trans people. Do you have any interest in getting into politics either working for a campaign or as a candidate yourself?
I think I would be willing to support someone else’s campaign. Politics are not for me. I do not have the stomach for that. I do not have the patience for that. I know where my lane is and it is absolutely not going for an elected position. I am more the person who shows up when the politicians are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. That’s when I get involved.
The big thing I took away from “Becoming Nicole” was that prejudice and hate is something that is taught, because the boy who started harassing you the most was told by his grandfather that you were wrong and that he should go after you. And so I guess the question is, what do you do to undo these wrongheaded lessons that are passed down by parents or grandparents?
I think the first step comes from within. You cannot make anybody do anything. You cannot make somebody unlearn hate and prejudice. That journey has to start with themselves. With my father — and, of course, he was never outwardly hateful or anything, I always knew he loved me — but his journey to acceptance started with him deciding to pick up Jennifer Finney Boylan’s book (about being a transgender woman) and read it. He had to ask himself what he was so afraid of if his son was his daughter. He had to ask himself what about that terrified him so much. And that’s what every person has to do.
Every person has to be aware of their own prejudices and their own biases. We all have them. We have to be aware of them. We have to actively work to undo them because it is something we are taught, not even just by our parents or caretakers, but through television and society. We are pumped full of biases and prejudices that we are not even aware of, and so we have to pay extra care and extra caution to do undo those. And when we catch ourselves, we have to recognize, “No, that’s not right” and go from there.
It has to be a conscious choice, and so that is hard. It is a hard thing to do. It is a really gross feeling to try to unlearn stuff like that, and so a lot of people won’t do that because a lot of people are more comfortable being like, “No, I don’t get it, that’s gross, I don’t like it and I’m going to hate it.” That is much easier and much more comfortable then asking yourself what you are afraid of. As socially responsible participants in the community, we have a responsibility to ask that question anyway. All of us have to ask that question and not just about trans issues, because if we don’t do that, if we are looking for what is easy and what is comfortable at the expense of other people, then stay inside.
And I feel like the biggest thing is if you’re afraid of a gay person or trans person or black, Hispanic, whatever social issue, if you actually talk to these people that you are afraid of, that you’d see that they are just human beings.
That is the number one thing. It is so much easier to marginalize a group of people when you are not putting names to faces, when we are not putting faces to groups, when you are dehumanizing them. It is so much easier to sweep their plights under the rug and be like, “Oh, they don’t matter,” because you are not talking to them, you’re not seeing them as people. That’s why I always say, “Come say it to my face.” It is so much harder to be an asshole to someone’s face because you have to look them in the eye and tell them their rights don’t matter.