What, we can only wonder, does Paul Melanson have to say now?
Melanson’s name doesn’t appear in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s decision, handed down Thursday, affirming the right of a transgender student to use the girls’ restroom at her public school.
But he’s right there in the court’s narrative about how Nicole Maines, then a vulnerable fifth-grader, careened from the way life should be to a living hell.
“Her use of the girls’ bathroom went smoothly, with no complaints from other students’ parents, until a male student followed her into the restroom on two separate occasions, claiming that he, too, was entitled to use the girls’ bathroom,” the court found. “The student was acting on instructions from his grandfather, who was his guardian and was strongly opposed to the school’s decision to allow (Nicole) to use the girls’ bathroom.”
Melanson was that grandfather. And while the court’s landmark decision was technically against Regional School Unit 26 in Orono, which did the right thing by Nicole only to wilt when the spotlight shone too brightly on its neck of the woods, it’s also a long-overdue repudiation of the man who used his own grandson to target another innocent child.
A little history:
Born one of twin males, Nicole showed signs of identifying as a girl as young as age 2. Her neutral clothing kept everything under wraps until third grade, when her parents, Wayne and Kelly Maines, informed the school principal that Nicole was transgender.
It was, at least for the time being, no big deal.
Nicole presented fully as a girl by fourth grade. Just before fifth grade, she was diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” – the American Psychiatric Association’s newly minted term (changed last year from the more pejorative “gender disorder”) for those with a gender identity different from their sex at birth.
“School officials recognized that it was important to (Nicole’s) psychological health that she live socially as a female,” wrote Justice Warren Silver in the court’s 5-1 majority decision. “In third grade, teachers and students began referring to (Nicole) as ‘she.’ By fourth grade, (Nicole) was dressing and appearing exclusively as a girl.”
Thus it only made sense that as it developed a specialized education plan for Nicole in 2007, the school’s staff deemed it appropriate that she use the communal girls’ room (with separate stalls for each user) when she entered fifth grade at Orono’s Asa Adams School.
That’s when Melanson – who, in addition to serving as his grandson’s legal guardian, became the boy’s grand puppeteer – took matters into his own hands.
Following Grandpa’s orders, the boy began stalking Nicole and calling her homophobic names. Twice, he followed her into the girls’ room, claiming that if Nicole was allowed in there, he should be, too.
The lowest of the low points: When his grandson was suspended for misbehavior, Melanson actually filed a complaint in 2008 with the Maine Human Rights Commission. He claimed (unsuccessfully, of course) that the boy’s rights had been violated and even stood by proudly at a news conference as the boy parroted to the assembled media: “I got discriminated against.”
Cue the hysteria. Nicole was no longer allowed to use the communal girls’ room. And, upon her advancement to sixth grade at Orono Middle School, administrators turned their backs on years of careful, compassionate planning and relegated her – and her alone – to the staff bathroom.
Her family filed its own complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. And won.
The family then sued RSU 26 in Superior Court in Bangor. Justice William Anderson ruled in favor of the school district.
Finally, the Maineses appealed to the state’s highest court. And this week, at long last, Nicole found the equal treatment – embedded in the Maine Human Rights Act – that she so richly deserves.
Noting that the school district came under “intense public scrutiny, which caused it … ultimately to reverse course,” the court clearly grasped what can happen when compassionate and thoughtful planning gets steamrolled by a fear-fueled juggernaut.
“We appreciate the difficulty of the situation in which the school found itself,” Silver wrote. “Nevertheless, we must assess the school’s obligations pursuant to the Legislature’s amendments to the (Maine Human Rights Act) without regard to the public’s potential discomfort with the result.”
Translation: Melanson and his ilk can howl all they want that Nicole falls outside their comfort zone. The Maine Human Rights Act, with its guarantee of equal access to public accommodation regardless of “gender identity or expression,” exists first and foremost as a shield against such self-absorbed oppression.
Back when Nicole Maines received the full backing of the Maine Human Rights Commission in 2009, Melanson fumed to the media: “It ticks me off that (the commission) is letting a kid run the whole system.”
(This from a man who used his own grandson as an ideological prop – and in the process dragged Nicole Maines and her family into a protracted battle they had no choice but to fight. Far from running “the system,” Nicole simply turned to it for refuge.)
So what say Melanson, now that justice has prevailed?
Maybe it was a good thing that repeated calls late Thursday to an Orono telephone listed under Melanson’s name went unanswered. Maybe he’s finally tired of going after Nicole, now 16, and has come to appreciate the peace and quiet that comes with minding one’s own business.
Still, there’s a lesson to be learned here for Melanson and anyone else who thinks the law is the law – until it makes them squirm. Just ask Nicole’s father, who proudly spoke for his daughter Thursday – as opposed to vice versa.
“I like to think that most people are good, honest people and they just fear things they don’t understand,” he said. “And I think it’s all of our responsibilities to help provide them with the education to know that these are just kids (and) just like every other kid in school that’s perceived as different, they need education. Beyond that, I don’t know what else I can do.”
A role model if ever there was one, that Wayne Maines.
If only he could have a heart-to-heart with Paul Melanson’s grandson.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: