MANCHESTER – In the first grade, 6-year-old Nicholas stood up one day and told his teacher he had something important to say.
Not just to her. But to the whole class.
“My name is Nicholas, but I want to be called Nikki because I’m really a girl,” he told his classmates at Parker-Varney School in Manchester.
News of the incident did not come as a surprise to his mother, Diana. By the time Nicholas reached preschool, it had become obvious her foster son was never going to be “one of the boys.”
One early clue came the winter before kindergarten, when Nicholas relayed an unusual Christmas list to Santa Claus at the mall.
“I would like an Easy Bake Oven, some dresses, a wig, and a purple bra for me and my mother,” Diana said, recalling her son’s words. “I wanted to crawl over and die.”
And then there was the issue of the “two hearts” – a pink one and a blue one. A young Nicholas insisted he had both, and then woke up one night and said he dreamed a monster took the blue one away, Diana said.
When counselors and therapists asked if he was a boy or girl, Nicholas said a girl. When they asked about his body parts, he said he didn’t like them.
Eventually, after it became clear to her this was not a phase, Diana decided to let her child live the way he was happiest – as a girl. Now, at age 11, it’s been two years since Nicholas legally became Nikki.
But the road hasn’t been easy, nor is it going to be. Diana said she went back and forth with the Manchester School District for more than a year before Nikki was allowed to wear girls’ clothes to school.
Some of Diana’s family can’t stomach the decision.
And soon comes the biggest hurdle for a little girl who never wants to grow up to be a man: puberty.
Transgender children are perhaps a bigger mystery to society than transgender adults. No one knows what causes a child to insist he or she was born in the wrong body, but there are theories.
Some believe transgender children are proof that gender identity is decided in the womb and that it’s possible to be born with a physical gender that does not match the brain’s gender.
Others believe something in a child’s environment triggers a desire to mimic the opposite sex and say the behavior can be changed with therapy and encouragement from parents.
Diana had never heard the word transgender until a counselor that young Nicholas was seeing referred her to gender specialist Anne Boedecker, of Bow.
She had long wondered if wanting to dress as a girl was just an extremely persistent phase or if Nicholas would grow up to be gay.
“She’s always had that feminine way to her,” Diana said. “I thought maybe she was just more going to be on the feminine side.”
But the behavior only grew stronger as the years passed. Nicholas continued to insist he was a girl and wasn’t happy unless he was allowed to dress and act that way. Diana started to wonder if there was something more to this she didn’t quite understand.
Now, she is convinced Nikki was born with a female brain and a male body.
A 2000 Johns Hopkins Hospital study suggests that’s possible.
The study followed 27 genetically male infants who were born without penises and raised as girls, according to an Associated Press report. As the kids grew up, all of them displayed male characteristics and 14 insisted they were boys.
“These studies indicate that with time and age, children may well know what their gender is, regardless of any and all information and child-rearing to the contrary,” Dr. William G. Reiner, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and urologist at the Hopkins Children’s Center, told The Associated Press. “They seem to be quite capable of telling us who they are.”
However, one of John Hopkins’ own professors has made no secret over the years of his disdain for physical treatment of gender identity disorder, particularly in children. In several published reports, Dr. Paul McHugh, distinguished service professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, has argued it violates the laws of nature to treat gender identity disorder with hormones or surgery.
He argues mental therapy is the answer.
McHugh recently called gender reassignment for children “barbaric” in an interview with Fox News about a new clinic in Boston that provides hormone blockers to transgender kids. He likened it to the Dark Ages when choir boys were castrated to preserve their high-pitched voices.
The clinic was launched by Dr. Norman Spack, a controversial pediatric endocrinologist in Boston who believes transgender children are much happier and less likely to harm themselves when allowed to grow up as the gender they prefer, according to a Boston Globe report.
Diana said Nikki’s attitude and grades improved when she was allowed to dress as a girl full time. She still offers Nikki the option of transitioning back to Nicholas if she ever changes her mind.
“I’ve told Nikki from the start, if she wanted to change back to being a boy, that’s OK with me,” Diana said. “But I don’t see that happening.”
The transition from boys’ to girls’ clothes was gradual and rocky.
In the first grade, Boedecker gave Nikki a wig.
By third grade, Diana decided to let Nikki start wearing girls’ clothes to school. The school said no at first, but agreed after lawyers from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders got involved, Diana said.
But the peace wouldn’t last. Concerned that Nikki was humiliating herself and causing a distraction, school officials went back and forth about Nikki’s wardrobe over the next year, Diana said.
The school allowed the girls’ clothes at times, but drew the line on certain days. During the Christmas party in third grade, Nikki was sent home for wearing a jumper.
“I would often get calls from school: ‘Today he has excessive barrettes, excessive jewelry,’ ” Diana said. “What about the girls wearing flannel shirts, jeans and work boots? Is that traditional girls’ attire?”
The New Hampshire Disability Rights Center also got involved, but it turned out there were no laws to protect a child as young as Nikki.
The Manchester School District did not return a phone call for this story.
Then one day in February 2006, Nikki came home quiet but clearly upset. After some prodding, she pulled out the source of the problem: the Valentine’s Day list for her third-grade class. She was listed on the boys’ side, under the name Nicholas.
“Look what they did!” Nikki said in hysterics, according to Diana. “I don’t want to live anymore. . . . Nobody loves me.”
Diana said she tried to console Nikki, and then urged her to go upstairs and relax, to
listen to some music.
But moments later, prompted by screams from the children playing outside, one of Diana’s sons ran upstairs to find Nikki threatening to jump out of her bedroom window.
“She tried to commit suicide,” Diana said.
Spack has documented staged suicide attempts in transgender children as young as 9, he told the Boston Globe.
The doctor did not respond to an e-mail request to be interviewed for this article. He has declined interviews with other media outlets since the Boston Globe article was published.
Nikki spent the next 21 days at the Anna Philbrook Center for Children, a mental-health hospital in Concord. After she was released, a doctor from the hospital made the trip down to Manchester to speak with school district official about Nikki and urge them to let her dress as a girl, Diana said.
Since then, they have.
‘Don’t hurt a child’
Diana’s family is torn over her decision.
“She should’ve stayed a boy,” her 28-year-old son, Chris, said of Nikki during a visit last winter to his mom’s house.
Diana, a single mom, has raised more than 30 children. She has four biological children in their 20s and 30s, and has housed more than two dozen foster kids. She has adopted all four of the children living in her home now, including Nikki and her 12-year-old brother. Both were born addicted to drugs.
Nikki’s biological grandparents also believe she should still be dressing as a boy. But Diana says she can handle that kind of criticism as long as it doesn’t happen in front of Nikki.
“They’re entitled to their opinion, but you don’t hurt a child,” Diana said.
Nikki was not interviewed for the article, and based on the advice of a lawyer, Diana asked The Telegraph not to use the family’s last name.
But pictures decorating the family’s old red farmhouse tell at least part of the story. There is a studio picture of young Nicholas, perhaps 3 years old, with dark, short hair and a big smile. Those are the pictures Nikki has asked her mom to throw away.
There is a snapshot of Nicholas, also around age 3, wearing a nightgown and a pink hat.
The most recent family photos show the same face, now approaching teenage years, with hair that has grown past the shoulders.
If adults have been judgmental, kids have been surprisingly accepting.
Nikki has male and female friends, although she prefers to be one of the girls. She takes classes at Girls Inc. and has developed an interest in science, art and poetry, Diana said.
“At school, most of the kids know. When people ask, I explain,” Diana said. “When you hide it and shame it, that’s worse.”
Diana said she always tells the parents when Nikki is invited to a friend’s house.
And Nikki is not shy about explaining her identity.
“If we go to the grocery store and she feels someone is staring at her, she will tell them she’s transgender,” Diana said.
But Nikki is approaching the age when the differences between girls and boys become pronounced and gender roles are increasingly tied to identity. She’ll start middle school in the fall.
Middle school staff already know Nikki is transgender and took her on a tour of the school last month.
But Nikki is starting to ask when her breasts will develop. And, at a recent doctor’s appointment, Diana found out Nikki is already in the early stages of puberty – the male kind, of course.
It’s possible that someday soon Nikki will visit Spack for a hormone blocker that will prevent her from developing male characteristics such as facial hair, an Adam’s apple or a deep voice.
Nikki has already visited Spack once, and Diana agreed to bring her back at the onset of puberty.
But at this point, there’s no way to tell how the future will pan out for Nikki, or if she will eventually complete her transition with sex-reassignment surgery. That’s just one of the many unknowns for Diana.
“What will be, will be,” she said. “I’ll do my best as a parent, and that’s it.”