Nicole Maines: "How I went from activist to actress—and why it matters that I did"
When she was just 17, Nicole Maines was the anonymous plaintiff in a landmark Maine Supreme Judicial Court case that won young transgender students the right to use the bathroom of their choice at school.
Now, Nicole is a successful actress, playing Dreamer, TV's first trans superhero, on the CW's Supergirl, and her career has taken her activism to a whole new level. Here, she shares her story in her own words.
MAYBE SOME PEOPLE PLAN on becoming activists, but I definitely didn't. I wasn't trying to change the world or make a statement...I was literally just trying to use the bathroom.
I transitioned early in elementary school. I was really lucky that my school had always been really supportive of me—until I was in the fifth grade, that is.
That year, the grandparent of another kid at my school learned I was trans and set out to stop me from using the girls bathroom. He got his way and the school blocked me from using the girls bathroom, gave me a bodyguard, forced me to use the staff bathroom and isolated me from the rest of the students. Suddenly, they were treating me like I shouldn't even be allowed to exist in the same public spaces as everyone else.
The situation got so bad that my family decided to take two serious steps. First, we filed a lawsuit against the school on the grounds of unlawful discrimination. As difficult as that was, it was nothing compared to the second step we knew we had to take: My mother, my twin brother Jonas and I packed up our lives and moved two hours south to start over at a new school. Sadly, the nature of my dad's job meant he couldn't come with us. We ended up having to live apart from my dad for six years.
Life at my new school wasn't perfect, either. I *was* allowed to use the girls bathroom, but I was forced into the closet. My parents warned me and my brother that we could never tell anyone I was trans or we might have to move again.
I'd never had to actively hide such a big part of my life. I didn't know how to handle living with such a huge secret. I withdrew and avoided social situations. I didn't do normal stuff like sleepovers. I didn't have any friends over.
The secrecy even extended to my legal fight against the discrimination I had faced at my old school. In my court case, I was known as "Susan Doe" and all of the activism I did at that time was anonymous.
But, when the Maine State Legislature introduced a bill when I was in eighth grade that would force trans people to use the bathroom of their biological sex, I know I had to speak out.
I took two days off of school, and my dad and I joined several LGBTQIA+ rights groups to lobby against the bill. I walked up to every representative I could and said, "Hi, my name is Nicole, and I'm 12. I'm trans and this is why this bill would hurt me." It was so validating to be able to tell my story, especially after two years of having to pretend to be "good old cisgender Nicole."
And then something amazing happened: We managed to defeat that bill. A lot of people who had initially supported the bill actually voted against it after meeting me. It was really the first time that I realized just how powerful my voice could be—and that sharing my story could actually make a difference.
As good as that felt, though, I didn't really do more activism until high school. People started asking me and my family to speak at events and share our story. It didn't feel like a big deal at first, but it snowballed when my court case was back in the news.
After five years, our case had gone to the Maine State Supreme Judicial Court...and won. It was the highest court that had ever ruled in favor of a transgender family—so it was a groundbreaking precedent for other cases like ours. After that, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the documentary The Trans List, along with major activists like Miss Major and Laverne Cox. I was like, Whoa, I just wanted to go to the bathroom. How did I get here?
At the same moment I was getting more involved in activism, I was also doing theater. It wasn't long before I realized I wanted to be an actress. Acting has always been an escape for me.
Before I transitioned, playing dress-up was the one chance I had to wear the clothes I felt comfortable in. That love of playing dress-up just naturally developed into a love of acting. After all, actors are just grown-ups playing dress-up, running around pretending we can fly and shoot lasers out of our eyes. Our job is so stupid in all the best ways—and I can't imagine doing anything else.
It wasn't an easy road, though. After my first role, on a TV show called Royal Pains, I didn't book anything for three whole years. I almost gave up on acting altogether just before I was cast as Dreamer in Supergirl, which has grown my platform to incredible new heights.
Playing Dreamer, I meet other trans people and we share these sobbing, ugly-crying, hugging moments over how amazing it is to finally have a trans superhero. But I also get to meet so many people who aren't trans, but love Dreamer because she has so much appeal. Her trans-ness is not the most important thing about her—but it does exist, and it's talked about sometimes.
Now, telling my story, I can reach so many more people that I couldn't before. When I was just doing my activism, I was invited to speak to different groups but, to a certain extent, I was preaching to the choir.
With Supergirl, I can reach people everywhere and show them, every week, what my version of trans looks like. I get to show them a trans person as a superhero, fighting for what's right. Hopefully that can help change the perception of how trans people are sometimes viewed.
My acting and activism are intrinsically linked. I know the best thing I can do in both of those roles is to keep portraying different characters. I'm in a unique position: I have enough of a platform that I can amplify to a pretty significant degree the experiences of people who otherwise wouldn't be heard...and make sure people know their stories.
Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this story originally ran in our October/November 2020 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.