“It was a frigid New England February day, much like this one, when we were first introduced.”
So begins the letter Mimi Lemay wrote to her son, Jacob, in 2015 for his fifth birthday. In the paragraphs of the essay that followed, and went viral, she chronicled her family’s journey to recognizing and accepting that Jacob, whose gender at birth was assigned as female, identified as a boy and wanted to live as an affirmed boy.
Now, Jacob is 9 years old, and the whole family has become vocal advocates for transgender rights, working with the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality National Council. Lemay is also sharing the family’s story in greater depth with a new memoir, What We Will Become, which publishes Tuesday.
Lemay spoke with Boston.com ahead of the book’s release, sharing that after her letter went viral, she still felt there was a need for a larger story and more detail about how she and her husband, Joe, came to embrace and support Jacob transitioning at the age of 4.
“Frequently people think that it just boils down to,’Oh your child said that they were a boy or a girl, and you jumped on that,'” Lemay said. “Or, ‘You immediately went to thinking that your child was transgender.’ … This is a response that a lot of parents get when they share their stories.”
Before Jacob’s transition, she said, the medical protocol was “watchful waiting” — keeping things gender fluid for the child until he or she could no longer tolerate the status of being pre-transition. That approach is no longer recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Lemay said she and her husband could see the hurt it was causing their son at the time.
“Remembering how in my past, how I had struggled and how I had been denied my own self-actualization, I couldn’t do that to my son,” Lemay said. “Because I could see the harm, and we could see the risks. Because we knew what the risks were from trans kids in terms of self-harm. I did not want to imbue him with that sense of internalized shame any longer.”
Ahead, Lemay on how she approached writing the memoir, which weaves her own childhood growing up in, and ultimately breaking away from, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community with her son’s journey, and what she hopes people continue to learn from her family’s experience.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Read an excerpt of ‘What We Will Become’ here.
Boston.com: Was there a moment, or element of this book, that you were hesitant to share this time around?
Mimi Lemay: Absolutely. Not to give too much away from the story, but [there’s a] chapter toward the end of the book where I am having a moment of great, painful doubt — I’m not sure if I have the courage to fully transition Jacob. He had picked a name for himself that was so masculine and it worried me. Because I was hearing the voices in my head — whether it was from my mom or other people — saying, ‘Well what if this is just a stage and here you go, you’re giving him this most masculine of names?’ And I had this moment — this crisis of doubt. And the way it was resolved felt to me so incredible that I didn’t know if I could write about it. I didn’t know if it would be beyond belief. In the end, I chose to. Writing about faith and about my own beliefs feels like a very private subject, but I think it’s very important to the story because frequently I think people feel they have to choose between faith and acceptance when it comes to the LGBTQ community. And I’m offering a different story — I’m offering a glimpse into a moment of grace for us. A moment that did indeed feel like a miracle — meant to be.
Obviously, Jacob’s older now than when you wrote his 5th birthday letter. In terms of process, how did you go about writing about him now for this book? Was he involved in your process in any way or did you talk through some of what you were writing about with him?
We absolutely did. I talked to him, I kept him updated. He always had access to every chapter I was working on. And sometimes I went to him and asked, ‘Hey do you remember this? How do you remember this?’ And when it came out in the advance copy, I sat down with all three of my kids and [we] read through it together. And he loved it.
How does Jacob feel about his story being told again in a book — is he nervous or excited?
He is. He’s excited, and he’s nervous. As I am. We [picked] the pseudonym of ‘Em’ together. We were trying to find a name that would not be his former name, his dead name, which is considered invalidating and not appropriate to use. … That’s another way that we worked on it together. …
He thinks there are some kids who might not understand, who might think it’s funny or something and make fun of him. He says, ‘I’m not that worried about it. I’m just a little worried about it.’ But for the most part, he’s really excited. And he knows what the book is intended to accomplish — to provide information for parents of kids like him, people who come into contact with trans and nonbinary kids in their lives. To give them a glimpse into our lives so they can understand the process we went through and come to the realization that these kids need to be supported in every way.
He knows that it will make a difference in the way people vote — we hope. It will make a difference in the way teachers teach and schools plan for having transgender and nonbinary kids and how they can best educate them and keep them safe. He knows it will have an impact on people who are in the Legislature, and he is very, very proud of this. … He has taken to becoming more interested in all the advocacy we’re doing even outside the book. He wants to be there, wants to speak up.
There’s a lot about Jacob and his story in the book. But as you said there’s a parallel between your journey and Jacob’s in terms of finding the freedom to be your truest self. Do you hope that Jacob and his sisters might learn more from what you’ve expressed here as they get older?
Oh, absolutely. We have discussed that connection. He wanted to know why I included both stories together. I said I’m hoping people can see this story — about a young woman growing up in a society where certain expectations were made on her, where she was also told God designed you in a certain way and that’s the way you need to be in order to be fulfilled in life. … I hope that people can see your journey through the same eyes — as something that was very courageous. And see that maybe we don’t need to put people in boxes in society.
I hope they also take from this that being authentic — sticking to your innermost voice, listening to yourself — is something that may be challenging in life. … People will sometimes tell you that they know what’s best for you and they know what’s right because, ‘That’s the way it’s always been done.’
But sometimes you just need to listen to that voice that says, ‘This is who I am and this is what I need,’ and follow it.
What do you think has changed — or has not changed — since you wrote your letter when it comes to transgender rights and awareness for the transgender community?
I think the strides have been remarkable. Before stories like ours came out, very few people had heard of transgender children or, in fact, transgender individuals. It was all around the same time in 2015, when our story came out and Caitlyn Jenner and several others, that suddenly there was an explosion of understanding. And with that I think came a backlash.
But overall I do believe that we are making progress. Because people now know that they live and work with and are friends with people who are not gender-conforming. And more and more they are starting to ask, ‘Well, what’s the big deal?’ And some of this anti-trans push legislatively and otherwise is beginning to look increasingly ridiculous. … I believe the tide is turning. I just wish that trans and nonbinary people did not need to suffer the consequences of this becoming such a social battle.
How does it make you feel to be involved in advocacy and hear from people, responding to your story?
I feel grateful every single day that I’m able to do this work. Not only because I have a son who is so precious to me and deserves to have an equal chance at life in every way to his peers, but because I know that there are people out there like him, who, every time we share our story, every time we impact somebody who’s working on legislation, that I can improve their future. And I can give them, at least, comfort that they’re not alone. It’s an honor to work with this community. I have to say I feel like I have a new sense of what it means to live an authentic life, because of my son and because of others like him. This is a community that deserves to live freely and fully among us. And until we’re there, I’m going to be on the front lines with my son. And I’m so proud of him that he’s joining me with this.
Jacob got the chance to participate in a forum with presidential candidates [in October]. Looking back to how you and your family were feeling before Jacob’s transition, how does it feel to now see him get to use his voice as an advocate for LGBTQ rights?
“My name is Jacob and I’m a 9-year-old transgender American. What will you do to make sure kids like me are safe in schools?”@HRC Foundation Parents for Transgender Equality Council member Mimi Lemay & her son Jacob ask @ewarren about protecting trans kids at #EqualityTownHall. pic.twitter.com/wLMQptv0Fn
— Human Rights Campaign (@HRC) October 11, 2019
It’s absolutely remarkable. As a parent of any child, you want to give your child a sense of power and empowerment. That they have a voice, they can use it, they can impact change in their own lives and in others. This, to me, was a culmination of all our efforts to let Jacob and my daughters know that what we’re doing here is to be effective, to affect change, and that we have an obligation to stand up.
The fact that this indicates that he feels empowered and that he’s proud of himself, as a parent, means everything to me.
— MimiLemay (@mimislemay) October 10, 2019
What do you hope people take away from your book?
If you listen to your child and you allow your child to fully express themselves and to live in a way that is right with their heart, the joy and the reward is immeasurable. No matter how frightening this path may seem for parents who are embarking on it, there is always only one right response — which is listen to your child. Tell them that you support them. You can be on this journey with them, or they can go on this journey by themselves. I know as a parent, I’d rather be walking with my child. I hope that people will have a greater sense of understanding and empathy for the journey that families like ours go through and a sense of responsibility toward their transgender and nonbinary community members to realize that each of them has gone through a journey themselves and that we are all better if we support each other.