You wouldn’t guess Wayne Maines’ story by looking at him. The brewpub we’re sitting in has just opened and there aren’t many lunch customers even though it’s tourist season in Portland, ME. Dressed in a button-up shirt, Maines eyes me and my voice recorder cautiously as we chat.
He tells me about trying to get his kids into hunting and sports when they were younger, to varying degrees of success. We wonder together about the legality of my father still using a hunting permit in my birth name. He seems like any other Maine father I’ve met.
But Maines is a pioneer of sorts: In 2009, his family filed suit against their school district for the right for their then-nine-year-old trans daughter, Nicole, to use the girl’s bathroom. They were the first family to successfully sue in a state court for such a right. But along with the lawsuit—and their subsequent advocacy against a bathroom bill proposed in the Maine legislature—came a lot of media attention.
Maines says the bathroom bill kickstarted his activism, and since then he has risen to the forefront of advocacy for families with trans kids, getting involved with GLAAD and serving on the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality National Council. He’s written numerous op-eds, writing of his decision to leave the GOP for TIME and getting involved in public speaking on trans rights with his daughter.
“When you get pushed into a corner you start to do things that you really should be doing, anyway,” he says. “It’s a release to finally say in public, ‘Yes this is my daughter, and we need to protect her, and everybody else like her.’”
For many parents of trans children, the impulse towards self-advocacy pulls the whole family into the media spotlight. And with trans people targeted by conservative politicians and radical feminists alike who seek to exclude them from public life, it’s getting harder to separate trans identity from activism. Often a trans person’s mere existence is a political act.
I started this piece by trying to track down trans people who’ve had their childhood transitions publicized in the press. Looking back on archived articles from the late 90s and early 2000s, I found that most articles featuring children who transitioned withheld the family’s last name, using initials or pseudonyms. It’s easy to see why: Back then it was far less socially acceptable to exist as a trans person, much less a trans child.
Slowly, as social acceptance began to grow, so did the openness of the families featured. As trans rights stand on knife’s edge, more families are feeling compelled to step forward with their stories, but we’re not in the clear yet: Trans people are still mocked and demonized and there’s no guarantee that employment or public accommodations protections will persist into the distant future.
When your very public existence is political, there are risks to openness, as Maines and others have found. The stories trans families tell are dissected and micro-analyzed. Parents can still be punished by the state for publicly supporting their child’s transition. With visibility comes the potential for internet abuse—once something is online, it’s very difficult to erase.
And while children may have a clear sense of their own gender identity from an early age, they often lack a sense for how large the rest of the world really is. It’s a difficult enough balance for adult trans people, but one that’s nearly impossible for children and adolescents who are thrust into the public eye. The families that choose to become public symbols for the right of a child to transition must put a lot of trust in the press.
“I really do want to think the best in readers if I do write a LGBTQ story. But, specifically with a trans family, I can totally see a voyeuristic dynamic,” says James Russell, a freelance writer. He covers the LGBTQ news beat for mainstream publications in Texas and has been following the stories of trans families who have stepped into advocacy roles in the wake of the state’s failed push for a bathroom bill. The media can sometimes overly focus on what makes trans people different, rather than what makes them human, farming controversy for clicks. And no trans topic these days generates more attention than whether trans children should be allowed to transition.
Child transitioning is so contentious a topic, in fact, that going to the media can present a tremendous risk to the privacy and wellbeing of the entire family unit. Writer and parent Jamie Bruesehoff recently recounted her horrific experience with New Jersey Child Protective Services for The Huffington Post when someone reported her for child abuse for supporting her trans daughter’s transition.
“There was so much pain, anger, stress, fear and waiting in this process, and then I went numb,” Bruesehoff wrote. The risk of visits from CPS is a common fear. In the UK, a dispute between divorced parents last year resulted in a trans child forcibly taken from their mother, who supported their transition, and given to the father, who objected to it.
For Laura Cohen-Gordon and her trans son, Elijah, welcoming media coverage was an easy decision. With the Massachusetts legislature debating a controversial bill that would protect trans people from discrimination in public accommodations (like bathrooms and locker rooms), Laura didn’t hesitate to speak with a local reporter at the family’s first rally for trans rights. At events like that, participants often have the option to put a “no-media sticker” on their name tag, but Cohen-Gordon opted to speak: “I felt like we had a compelling story to tell,” she says. “I always feel that sharing my story with Eli helps other parents help their children transition sooner.”
Since that first rally, 16-year-old Elijah has been featured not only in his local paper in Worcester, but also in the more widely read Boston Globe. He points out that geography is a major factor in his relative physical safety, despite the media attention he’s already received.
“I live in pretty much the most liberal area of the East Coast. I’ve never run into issues with friends,” he says. “All of my issues happen online.” He tells me about harassment from trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) who tell him that he’s “ruining his lovely womanly body.”
While Elijah and his mother, as well as the Maines family, agree that it’s easier to transition and be in the public eye in New England than in an ultra-conservative state, the risks associated with online harassment of trans families in any geographic area are real. It’s become impossible to separate online life from life off the internet, and the effects of online abuse on mental health are well-documented.
Maines and Cohen-Gordon both belong to a large private Facebook support group for families with trans children. Within the group they share tips on how to navigate the medical and school systems, as well as sharing pictures and milestones. It’s meant to be a safe space where parents can be open and trusting about the struggles they face. Recently, however, that trust has been violated by a malicious anti-trans activist.
Kaeley Thriller-Haver, a writer for The Federalist who’s also associated with the Heritage Foundation and served as director of communications for the “Just Want Privacy” campaign—the main opposition to a trans rights bill passed last year in the state of Washington—recently joined the group using several accounts with pseudonyms. She began sharing posts and even pictures and names of parents who thought they were posting anonymously and privately on her Twitter account.
For Laura Cohen-Gordon, it was a devastating violation of privacy for the families exposed. She mentioned that, though anti-trans advocates genuinely feel as though they are “saving” misguided trans kids, releasing private photos of children puts those kids and their families at extreme risk. If online abuse of families who are just looking for resources and support is this bad, it can only be worse for those who welcome official media coverage.
Fearing a similar backlash, Wayne Maines took a cautious approach to coverage of his family, as reporters began to visit his home. “Now we check everybody out,” he says, “and talk ahead of time [about] what we’re willing to tell people about our family. And what we’re not willing to tell.” To Maines, it was important to get the story right, but his care also came from the knowledge that media outlets frequently sensationalize trans stories.
Maines’ daughter Nicole, now 20, recounted in a phone interview one particularly brutal speculation that came from a photo running alongside a feature in People magazine in 2015. The picture showed Nicole and her brother hugging on a bench. The internet took off with rumors of incest between the two of them. It was a ridiculous and unfounded notion that comes from the common but incorrect belief that trans women are sexual deviants. But to the Maines, it was incredibly painful.
Kids often know themselves enough to insist on transitioning. But are they actually mature enough to consent to sharing very personal information about themselves to the media? Even besides the immediate negative attention, I can’t help but wonder about the long-term implications of the attention on their lives. This makes the parents’ role in gatekeeping absolutely critical.
An historical approach to overcoming the stigma and abuse directed at trans people has been to pursue “stealth,” which effectively means only disclosing their trans status to their doctor and their potential romantic partners. For any trans kid featured in media coverage, stealth is simply not an option later in life, especially when Google searches would result in certain outing. And with a recent Department of Justice memo effectively rescinding employment and housing discrimination protections for trans people, getting outed as transgender can have serious negative, real-life, consequences.
Nicole Maines doesn’t regret having her adult stealth option taken from her by media coverage from her childhood. When she attempted to live stealth for two years in middle school, it was a lonely closet of its own making, she says. “ I didn’t know how to have friendships while actively withholding such important personal information,” she says.
In fact, sometimes her status as public figure can be used to her advantage: “When I didn’t know how to come out to a guy [on Tinder], I would say, ‘You know what, just Google me.’” I could hear her dad in the background telling her he didn’t want to hear that. Nicole and I shared a laugh: Ever the protective father. While it pays for families to take caution and care deciding whether or not to tell their stories in the media, it’s worth considering the ethical responsibilities of the reporters who end up writing those stories.
James Russell, the journalist in Texas, shared an anecdote from earlier in his career, when a gay man asked if his name could be removed from a piece run in the past. The man was applying for a job, and in conservative Texas, without guaranteed employment protections for LGBTQ people, a mention in the local LGBTQ magazine could be enough to not get the job. Russell isn’t sure how, as a reporter, to reconcile that conflict between reporting good stories and protecting his sources from future consequences.
“I realized that was not my responsibility, but it’s absolutely horrifying,” Russell says. And he knows it could still happen with the trans families he’s covering now. “But I don’t know what to do because I’m still taking the assignment.”
When it comes to his process for working with trans kids and their parents, Russell says, “I try to be sensitive with everybody,” but especially with kids. He talks to them about what they’re comfortable divulging. “There are ethics around it,” he says, “and I know I’m not doing anything wrong. But I know that there are unintended consequences.”
The families interviewed for this story say that sensitive media coverage of trans kids takes patience, caution, and knowing the child. That last point was especially critical for Wayne Maines, “[Young kids] don’t really have the ability to make that decision themselves at that age so you have to be very careful and have the right child. They have to be tough enough like Nicole: she’s a pain in the butt, but she’s tough as nails.”
“If that had been her brother we wouldn’t have done it,” he says. “He’s a different kid.”
Balancing privacy with effective advocacy in the media is tough for anyone, but especially the parents of trans kids. Opening yourself up to criticism and potential CPS attention is one thing, but the decision to share their child’s story is a permanent one. Names can’t be scrubbed from online records and it’s impossible to know what the future may bring, especially to a trans community that is just now emerging from the margins of society.
And the decisions isn’t just about one child, Maines says. “You make sure to think about the whole family, and what’s fair.”