“I Believe the Proverbial Arc is Bending Towards Justice; It’s Just Going to Need a Lot of Support”—Mimi Lemay on her Memoir
From the time he was two-and-a-half, Mimi Lemay’s son, Jacob, born “Em,” asserted that he was a boy. As Lemay listened to her middle child reckon with his gender identity, it called to mind how as a young woman she struggled against the expectations of the ultra-Orthodox community in which she was raised. In her extraordinary memoir, What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation, Lemay skillfully interweaves how her own experience breaking away from her religious community helped inform how she was able to support Jacob’s recognition of his authentic gender identity. The result is a compassionate memoir about family and faith. Library Journal hailed it as “a vital and engrossing book about how to live an authentic life” and Publisher’s Weekly called it “a fascinating, heart-wrenching memoir [that] offers invaluable insights into issues of gender identity.” Brendan Dowling spoke with Lemay via telephone on November 21st, 2019.
A lot of people first learned about you and Jacob when you published your birthday letter to him on Medium.1 What prompted you to share your and Jacob’s story at that time?
There were two reasons primarily. The first was that there hadn’t been a lot out there for us when we were considering a transition for Jacob. We were very frightened by that; we felt very alone. There had been one family who had shared their story online through a slide show of beautiful pictures and words. That had been so helpful for us that I felt a sense of “we need to pay this forward.” We needed to contribute to the very small—at the time—pool of resources for parents as we had been.
The second reason was the realization that my son’s rights were not guaranteed. His ability to grow up unimpeded and appreciated and valued in our society was far from settled. That was really brought home to me in December 2014, shortly after the transition, when a young Ohioan girl, Leelah Alcorn, took her own life. The response and the resulting media attention made me realize that a lot of people were not accepting of transgender people, and particularly not accepting that children could be trans and needed support from their families and communities. For the first time I became aware of conversion therapy efforts to try to shame and force children to renege or go back on their gender identity and how harmful it was. It really brought home what I knew about the risks for transgender and non-binary youth. It felt to me that our story needed to be told. People needed to have an awareness that there were transgender children and affirming them was absolutely the right course of action.
The book bounces between Jacob’s story and your own experience leaving your ultra-Orthodox faith. How did the component of you deciding to leave your ultra Orthodox community make its way into the book?
As I got down to writing the proposal and trying to map out the story I would tell with Jacob, I increasingly felt that this other story, this background story, needed to be told in conjunction. There were so many parallels between the two. One was about living authentically in your gender identity, and the other was about how does a girl find her calling and purpose in a highly gendered society. Does she listen to what people tell her she should supposed to be like because of her gender or does she cut her own path through life? I thought both stories strongly supported the other in the narrative and that they could each shed light on the other.
For example, growing up in a religious community, I was frequently told that as a girl I was assigned a certain role in life. The Hebrew world for it is tachlis. It was my purpose, and that dictated everything I would do from birth to death. There was one purpose for me because God designed me this way. Well, people tell transgender children all the time that God made them to be the sex they were assigned at birth and that somehow they are almost blaspheming against the purpose they were created for by saying, “No, I am a different gender. I know who I am, and to live an authentic life I need to be allowed to live this way.”
I felt like if people can understand the story of a highly gendered society and a girl who needed to break free and find her authentic adulthood, then perhaps they can understand what it is to have a transgender child and to need to affirm them despite what our traditional texts tell us is the right thing.
What was Jacob’s involvement in writing the book?
We talked about the book extensively before I decided to publish. He was open to sharing his story. For a while he was a little anxious about what kids at his school would say. After I had already finished the book and sent it to the editor, we put a six month hold on it, kind of like, “Lets slow down this process and make sure he’s genuinely comfortable.”
I’m really glad we put a pause on it, because he’s actually grown into his own advocacy and his own pride in the community that he belongs to. He’s now genuinely excited about the book coming out and happy to participate in the advocacy we do. I think as a mother, I needed to give him that space to grow and feel comfortable with not only who he was, but also in sharing his story to make a difference to other kids.
He has very much enjoyed the earlier stories about him doing silly things and these moments that are so charming for a toddler that we have in the book. We’ve actually had some pretty giggly evenings together reminiscing. I know that there are still parts that are painful for him—the memories are painful. I credit him with having the courage to still want to go forward and put this book out there, knowing that sharing his story has made such a huge impact on the narrative we have about trans kids.
In the preface, you write how your oldest daughter Ella says the main characters in the book are “love and kindness.” Can you talk about what she meant by that?
First and foremost the important message was, “It’s not only about you Jacob.” (laughs) It was in response to him saying, “I’m the main character of the book,” wiggling around with a lot of bravado. She was like, “No, the main characters are love and kindness, because that is at the heart of the message this book.” Love and kindness pervades the way she dealt with her brother and, I hope, the way as a family we have come together to support Jacob. I love that she was so perspicacious to grab onto the fact that the message and the theme of the book was love and kindness.
Your mother is a big character in this book, and is such a loving, prickly figure throughout the story. What went into capturing this very complex relationship?
I wanted to make sure it was balanced. I didn’t want her to come off as a straw figure: the ultra-religious person, the fundamentalist who doesn’t have compassion because they’re blinded by a certain faith’s narrative, or whatever. I wanted her to come off as real and as human as she actually is: a very complicated person with a complicated past and a set of passions and beliefs that have unfortunately at times blinded her to her child’s needs, but also made her in some ways an extraordinary mother. She has always taught me that nothing is beyond my capability. She’s always been really proud of me. She’s actually really proud of the work I do as well.
Living with that contradiction—belonging to a faith group that denies the existence of trans people but at the same time being proud that I’m stepping up for her grandson—it’s a complicated life. I think her character was essential because I think a lot of people struggle—maybe in a lesser way—of the dictates of their faith and what their conscience is telling them about the transgender and lesbian and gay community that lives among them: that these people are who they say they are, that they deserve equal rights, that they deserve to be valued, and not driven into the shadows by faith. They should be embraced! I think people struggle with these conflicting messages. I hope they see her blindnesses as a warning or a lesson. “Maybe I don’t need to focus on the age old interpretation of my holy texts. Maybe I can make a decision based on the live people I see in front of me who need my help and my commitment and acceptance.” I hope they can see her as someone who grows. She can model that change in folks who need that extra push to reconcile their faith and their love for their fellow man.
Jacob got to ask a question of Senator Warren during CNN’s Equality Town Hall.2 What was that experience like?
That was a remarkable moment for him because it was him coming out on national television and doing something for kids like himself. I think it was really empowering for him. He was so excited and nervous beforehand. He wanted to do a good job, and I think by all measures he did. For me as a parent, it was so affirming and so validating that he can come out with such poise and speak to someone who may very well be the next President of the United States and say, “This is what we need from you.” For me, I know what a journey it’s been for him to grow into his own skin and feel confident that way. That was so gratifying and such a moment of joy and pride for me as well.
A recurring theme in the book is this idea that you’re in for the marathon, not the sprint. Can you talk about how that mentality has been helpful to you?
In my advocacy, it would unfortunately be very easy for me to give up or become bitter because we thought we were having so much progress during 2015. 2017 was such a big setback with the rollback of rights that we’re getting in this current administration and the divisiveness that we see in our society over the topic of transgender people. It’s very unfortunate that they’ve been caught in the crosshairs. This shouldn’t be an issue of politics; it should be an issue of human rights. It would be easy to get discouraged if I didn’t believe that we will achieve justice and equality for transgender and nonbinary people. I believe it. I believe we are moving the needle. I believe the proverbial arc is bending towards justice. It’s just going to need a lot of support and effort. We’re in this for the long haul. My kid doesn’t just need support today. He needs support when he’s in high school. He’s going to need support in his twenties and his thirties and throughout his life. He’s going to need me to keep pushing so that he and others like him will achieve full equality. I have to be able to take the punches and get up the next morning and keep fighting.
To that end, can you talk about your work with the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council?
We’re a collection of advocate parents who have all done national or really big local advocacy campaigns. We work together with different departments in HRC to make sure that a parent’s voice is heard, and that we spread the message to other parents and provide resources for parents across the country. We’re kind of a clearinghouse for parents. We direct parents to the right resources and we work with the organizations that HRC reaches out to for assistance.
How can libraries best serve transgender and gender expansive kids?
First off, I think it’s wonderful that they’re beginning to stock books that represent transgender and non-binary students. I think they need to celebrate Pride Month the whole year round, to have books on display that spreads the message that transgender kids are healthy, they’re meant to be, and they’re normal. To destigmatize the topic by having kids books and picture books related to the topics as well as junior and adult books. To have speakers come in that can speak to gender identity, being on a spectrum, and to be repositories of knowledge for communities and places where communities can gather to educate. To become that space so we can teach our communities to support and affirm their transgender or non-binary members from the earliest stage.
I think libraries can become social justice organizations, and they often have, when you think of the I am Jazz reading from Mt. Horeb. I don’t know if you know that story, but a school had gotten threats from parents when a mother of a transgender child wanted to read the picture book I Am Jazz when her daughter came out to the class. The school cancelled the reading of the book so the local library opened its doors. The community came out; people came in droves. They filled that space and they supported that family. Libraries have the unique ability to be those social justice spaces, where no matter what’s going on in the outside world, they’re there to spread the light and make a change in society that needs to happen.
1 Mimi Lemay. “A Letter to My Son Jacob on His 5th Birthday,” accessed December 5th , 2019.
2. Nik DeCosta-Klipa, “A local transgender boy asked Elizabeth
Warren a question during CNN’s LGBTQ town hall,” accessed December 5th, 2019.
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