From confusion and denial to advocacy, Wayne Maines made an emotional transition to support his transgender daughter

By Mary Pols
Updated October 16, 2015 03:30 PM
Eric Ogden

Wayne Maines was an Air Force veteran, an avid hunter and an all-around conservative Republican. He was renovating a bathroom in his house with the “help” of Wyatt, when his toddler, not yet 3, looked up at him and said, “Daddy, I hate my penis.” Tears came to Wayne’s eyes as he sank to the floor to comfort Wyatt. Identical twin Jonas joined in the group hug.

The father of two knew nothing about transgender children – yet. The new book about his family, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family (out October 20), chronicles Wyatt’s journey to Nicole.

Always certain she was a girl, she began treatment to suppress male puberty at 12, took female hormones as a young teen and had gender reassignment surgery this summer. She is now a funny, charming, whip-smart 18 year-old trans college student.

But it was Nicole’s dad who went from a fearful, confused man in denial to an advocate for trans children. He led the way in the legal battle that ultimately set a groundbreaking precedent for transgender rights. Everyone – his wife Kelly, Jonas, Nicole and even Wayne himself – agreed that he made the family’s biggest transition.

“And the hardest,” Wayne Maines told PEOPLE. It wasn’t easy, admitting to himself that his embarrassment over his transgender child was wrong. “I’ve always loved my children and wanted to do the right thing and I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Like the time when Wyatt, just about to enter first grade, came downstairs in their new home in Maine for a neighborhood party wearing his favorite pink princess dress and carrying a glittery wand.

“Wyatt, you can’t wear that!” Wayne barked. There was a stunned hush from their guests. Wyatt stood frozen, terrified by his father’s harsh tone.

Wayne felt alone and confused. With time, and with his wife’s conviction that Wyatt was meant to be female never wavering, Wayne moved towards acceptance and became one of his daughter’s fiercest supporters.

“There were no rules,” he said. “One of the things I try to tell people is, I had to live it to learn it. These kids all over the nation can’t wait for other people to live it to learn it. They need help right now. They really do. And that is what I hope the book does. I hope it helps them get there.”

For more on the Maines family’s incredible journey – and an excerpt from Pulitzer-Prize winner Amy Ellis Nutt’s intimate book – pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday