Nicole Maines, subject of Arcadia’s First-Year Common Read selection Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, visited campus on Oct. 5 to discuss her courageous efforts to embrace life, expand her family’s understanding of gender identity, and secure transgender rights for students. Before speaking to a packed Kuch Center Alumni Gymnasium, which included students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends, Maines met with a group of students to address the importance of LGBTQ activism and safe spaces on college campuses. She was joined by her father, Wayne, who stressed that acceptance is a key to maintaining students’ love for learning and who led a workshop with faculty, staff, and local K-12 educators to advance support for LGBTQ students.
Before her address, Maines sat down with Olivia Armacost ’21 for an interview, portions of which are excerpted below.
Q. You’ve said, “If you are on this earth, you are part of the trans story.” What does that mean?
A. I think there are a couple different facets. First, is recognizing privilege, and using it in a way that benefits those who don’t have it. There are so many resources today, especially compared to when I started my journey. I started to express to my mother what I was feeling, and there wasn’t nearly as much information out there as there is today. Now, information for the LGBTQ community is at the tips of our fingers. We need to find a way to shed light on the fact that, even while we have made progress, this is a community that is still oppressed. And there are ways we can move forward, especially in education. There are so many people working to better the lives of LGBTQ people and I think it’s an administrator’s responsibility to work with those groups to form a trans-inclusive, LGBTQ inclusive policy, before a student has to come out to fight for that. It’s not fair to make trans students or LGBTQ students wait for universities to catch up to where they are. It’s 2017; we should all already be there. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be educating ourselves.
Q. What can college students and campuses do to create an inclusive community?
A. At the college I go to now, I was asked, “Do you want a roommate, or do you want a single room? Do you want to use the same bathroom as other female students? Do you feel safe doing that?” They really worked with me to ask personal questions because I think they recognized that “trans students go here” doesn’t work, because that’s far too close to the whole concept of separate-but-equal. It doesn’t work. Trans-inclusive culture should be constructed around working directly with the students and their families to see what works for that particular student, because no one has the same needs. Colleges can create safe spaces by keeping open that channel of dialogue with LGBTQ families and finding places where students feel safe to have conversations with administrators that are receptive to their worries or complaints. Students live on campus—they should be able to feel safe there.
Q. Becoming Nicole touches on the mental health of you and your family, especially when times got difficult. How can colleges help with mental health necessities?
A. Faculty and staff should be trained on a variety of mental health issues. They should know that students in general are under immense amounts of stress and pressure. It’s important to recognize that everyone has limit, and that everyone’s course load is different. There should be services on campuses where students can unload some of their stress and the pressure they are under, in terms of course loads, issues with other students, whatever their problems may be.
Q. When you see celebrities like Lady Gaga advocating for trans rights, how does that make you feel?
A. When “Born This Way” came out, [one of] the first songs to mention transgender people, it was so empowering. I was at Camp Aru’nutic, and we were awestruck that a mainstream pop singer was giving us visibility. And that is exactly what I was talking about when I was saying we need to make use of privilege. As a cisgender woman, Lady Gaga recognized the visibility issues and granted that visibility to us. It was amazing to think, “Oh my god, people are hearing a song about me on the radio. People who would never have heard about me, people in areas of the country and world where others struggle with these issues….” All we have are our stories. And you can’t get it wrong if it’s the truth.
Q. What do you think about celebrities, public figures, or politicians that speak out against trans rights?
A. Politicians need to recognize that they represent an entire population of people. Whether or not they agree with that population, they have a responsibility to protect this country. Celebrities who speak out against these issues should recognize that these are issues that affect kids. We should not be targeting hate toward children. As an adult, having dealt with this since I was a child, I can understand somebody wanting to come at me and question who I was. Now I have the life experience to not let that utterly destroy me. But as a young person, hearing adults say that you don’t matter, that your rights are not equally important as your siblings’ rights—that hurts. And we need to recognize exactly who this affects.
Q. When you look back at videos of baby Wyatt dancing around in his tutu, what would you tell him?
A. First I would say, “Girl, that outfit is—it’s okay, mommy’s gonna get you dressed up.” Second, I would say, “You’re about to dive head first into some really, really deep stuff. And you just have to remember that people do not know you as well as you know you. Your parents are not going to understand what’s going on unless you let them know. Lean on them as much as possible. Your brother Jonas…don’t hit him so much. Don’t be such a brat to him.” Because he helped me so much. My entire family did. And I would just tell Wyatt to let other people know what’s going on in his head, because people aren’t psychic.
Q. Would you say the same to people going through this experience of finding themselves later in life?
A. The strongest asset we have is storytelling. We communicate through stories and by telling people our experiences. We invoke change by letting people know where we have been, what we have seen; by communicating that, people can empathize and say, “I wouldn’t want my child to go through what she went through.” I wouldn’t as a parent want to go through what my parents went through. I wouldn’t want to have to move away because somebody else wasn’t on board with it, or because someone decided my child wasn’t okay. All we have are our stories. And you can’t get it wrong if it’s the truth. Tell your truth, and progress will be made.