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"Do you know why you're a special girl?" her mother asks.
"Because... I have a girl brain in a boy body," Nicole says, lowering her usual penetrating voice to an almost inaudible sigh.
"What does that feel like? Does it feel good? Or is it hard?"
"Hard," Nicole says.
When her mother asks her if she's happy with the way she looks, she says no.
"What would you change about yourself?"
"Mm... my penis," Nicole murmurs.
"What would you do with it?" her mother asks.
"Um... cut it," Nicole replies, very softly.
"And what would you do with it then?" asks a surprised Lauren, who later says she's never before heard Nicole express dislike for her penis.
"I would hammer it," Nicole says.
"What?" Lauren says.
"Hammer it," Nicole insists more strongly.
Later, Lauren says she constantly feels as if she's flying by the seat of her pants. "There is no protocol," she says. "Nobody knows of anybody. No five-year-olds who go to school fully transitioned. There's no book called How to Raise Your Gender Variant Preschooler."
Nicole "carried like a girl" when Lauren was pregnant, but when Nicholas was born, he was definitely a baby boy.
"So we dressed him all boyish," Lauren says, as she fondly turns the pages of a fat baby album. There are pages and pages of little Nicholaswith his family smiling at his bris, dressed in a tiny football uniform, being hugged by his older siblings. Nicholas looks happy. But Lauren says his desire to be treated like a girl was constant.
"At first, I thought it was cute," she explains. "I don't have a problem putting nail polish on a little boy. I don't have a problem if my son plays with dolls. His older brothers went through a similar period of doll playing and asking for nail polish on their toes. There's no reason to say no to a phase. I never once said 'no.' A phase is a phase."
So baby Nicholas was allowed to wear high heels. To play with Little Mermaid and Barbie dolls. To grow his hair a little longer. But instead of being satisfied with these concessions, Nicholas always asked for more. One day, he asked for something his parents weren't expecting.
Lauren was sitting at her computer working when two-year-old Nicholas, who, like all the Anderson children, had a frank understanding of anatomy, came to her with a request: "I want the fairy princess to come and make my penis into a vagina," he said.
Lauren mentioned Nicholas' strange demand to his pediatrician at the child's three-year birthday checkup, expecting to be told that the behavior was part of the phase. "She got a concerned look on her face," she says. "This was not the reaction I was looking for." The Andersons were advised to look into Nicholas' desires with the help of a therapist.
Frightened, Lauren says she turned to her college copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and looked up something called "Gender Identity Disorder," the clinical term for transsexualism. It seemed to describe Nicole's behaviors exactly.
"Nicholas is a transsexual who wants to be a woman," Schultz says.
Through Schultz, the Andersons met Heather Wright, a jovial and frank male-to-female transsexual with a hearty handshake who lives in Green Acres with her female partner and their three children. They took Nicholas to see her. Wright immediately noticed that little Nicholas seemed uncomfortable in his body.
"He was definitely very quiet," Wright remembers. "He definitely wasn't happy with having to wear the clothes he was wearing. One of the things he was upset about was he wanted to wear girl clothes. All he got away with was getting Little Mermaid flip-flops."
After meeting with Schultz and Wright, the Andersons began allowing Nicholas to act and dress like a girl in the safety of their home or in the anonymity of the grocery store or at Disney World. That summer, Nicholas' camp even allowed him to wear a girl's bathing suit. But at preschool, Nicholas remained a boy and seemed satisfied with relegating his girl time to afterschool hours. Until he turned five.
"Right at the age of five, it was like 'boom,' " Lauren says. "Since he hit five, he totally rebelled and refused to wear boy clothes. Every single day was a fight. By the end of the school year, she looked like a totally different child."
Today, Nicole gets to be all girl at home and is supposed to be "neutral" in public at her preschool, where many of her friends, all girls, call her "she." But every day, Nicole chips away at the vestiges of her boyhood.
"I try to do the neutral thing, and it doesn't work," Lauren says, "Slowly, every day, a new article of clothing will come out of the closet. And we end up looking like a girl."
"Since he hit five, he totally rebelled and refused to wear boy clothes," says Nicole's mom. "Every single day was a fight. By the end of the school year, she looked like a totally different child."
photo: Colby Katz