The Lemays are a Massachusetts family with three young children, ages 6, 5 and 3 years old. Their middle child was born female, but shortly after the age of 2 it became clear that he felt more comfortable presenting a male gender identity. That’s when the Lemays began the journey that led them to socially transition their (then) daughter Mia to live an affirmed life as their son, Jacob.
“When he was two, I assumed we had a tomboy on our hands,” confides Joe, Jacob’s dad. “But he never wavered in the insistence that he was a boy. By the time he was three I couldn’t ignore that something bigger was going on. He was visibly angry and started to withdraw from others at the same time that his self-expression as a boy became stronger.”
With each passing day, Jacob seemed more certain that he was male, and increasingly distressed that everyone told him otherwise. “However, even then,” admits Joe, “ I hoped it was a phase.”
Joe Lemay is not alone in assuming or hoping that gender nonconforming behavior in a young child is “just a phase.” That is a common parental reaction to something about which there has been little information available in the past. It’s only recently—thanks in part to the successful campaign to pass #TransLawMA—that the lives of transgender children have started to make headlines and seep into the public consciousness. The Lemays have shared their story publicly hoping to make make others’ paths easier.
Leading up to their son’s transition, Joe and his wife Mimi read everything that was available on the subject. This included some pretty frightening information such as the negative outcomes of transgender individuals who are not supported by their families and communities. Most alarming was the 41% attempted suicide rate, 25 times that of the national average.
When transgender people are supported in their communities, both informally and through non-discrimination legislation like #TransLawMA, the effect is life-changing—and life-saving. Opponents of transgender equality, however, want to take away laws that allow kids like Jacob to live safe, full lives. And unfortunately, they’ve succeeded in placing an initiative on the ballot that would do just that.
If #TransLawMA is repealed this November, transgender children like Jacob—who already face social stigma and confusion—could also face discrimination in public places. And that could have a severe impact on their health.
Before Jacob transitioned, the gender dysphoria and anxiety that frequently accompanies being a transgender child was becoming increasingly evident to the Lemays. Their concern grew as their previously playful child showed signs of severe emotional distress.
“I watched as he started to dread social interactions,” Joe says. “He clearly didn’t fit in with the boys or the girls. We’d wake up at 2 a.m. to soothe him as he dealt with intense episodes of acute anxiety.”
The Lemays first consulted with their pediatrician, then the Gender Management Services Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, who finally put them in touch with an expert in the field. Joe described the experience: “Even with everything we read, and the experts we spoke to, there was no clear prescription on what to do for our child. We had to think deeply and talk openly as a family about what would be best for Jacob’s health and well-being.”
That process culminated with the Lemays choosing to offer their child, at the age of 4 ¼, the choice to socially transition. Says Joe, “I couldn’t shake the feeling that the so-called ‘conservative choice,’—to wait—was actually reckless. I sensed far less danger in giving him the chance to try living as a boy with a new name. Compared with forcing him to enter another year playing the ‘wrong’ gender, giving him the chance to be the boy he felt he was seemed like the more reversible choice.”
There was no hesitation from Jacob. A conversation that the Lemays had with him ended with these authoritative words, “I want to be a boy always. I want to be a boy named Jacob.”
Since that moment over a year ago, the change in Jacob has been remarkable and gratifying for the Lemays and for those who know and love Jacob. Today, looking forward to Kindergarten in the fall, Jacob is a happy, active, social boy who loves his karate lessons, swimming, collecting dead bugs and working on inventions with any scraps of materials he can find.
In honor of Jacob’s 5th birthday and all those families struggling to do best by their transgender children, Jacob’s mom wrote a moving letter to Jacob which was eventually republished in the Boston Globe and went viral on social media.
Since then, the Lemays have spoken on NPR and taken part in a series that NBC aired on transgender children. They want to share their experience to help others in similar situations and increase public understanding of the transgender community.
The Lemays feel blessed that they are living in a state that offers protections to children like Jacob in school and in public places—which wasn’t the case before #TransLawMA’s passage. The Lemays were very concerned about what Jacob would face as he grew up in a place that offered no nondiscrimination protections for him outside of school.
If #TransLawMA is repealed this year, the Lemays will face those fears and doubts all over again. And Jacob would face the prospect of growing up in a state that doesn’t fully protect him from discrimination.
“I was born and raised here,” Joe says, “And the Massachusetts that I know and love is a place that takes care of all its people. But 18 other states had already signed a public accommodations law while our state fell behind on this issue. Some Massachusetts lawmakers were hesitant to give Jacob the protections that others take for granted. So long as it remained legal for a Massachusetts hospital to refuse to treat Jacob, our state’s reputation as a leader on civil rights was in question.”
And according to Joe Lemay, protecting people from discrimination was not just the right thing to do – it’s also good for business and our economy. Before #TransLawMA passed in 2016, he considered moving his technology business to another state so his employees—and his son—could be safe and protected in public spaces.
“As the CEO of a technology startup, I’m also responsible for looking out for my employees. We were growing fast this year, and I needed to decide where we’d establish our permanent headquarters. I wanted to grow our company here, but I needed Massachusetts to step up. Otherwise, I would have needed to grow employee headcount and pay corporate taxes in one of the 18 other states that will protect all our current and future employees.“
“I’m not the first CEO to pledge to focus investment in those states who stand up against discrimination.” Just last year, the CEO of Salesforce.com reduced investment and closed down programs in Indiana because of its failure to protect gay and transgender employees from discrimination in public spaces. And just this year, neighboring New Hampshire became the 19th state to protect transgender people in employment, housing and public spaces.
We’re grateful to the Lemay family for sharing their story and hope they can continue to call Massachusetts their home without fear that their son can lawfully be the target of discrimination in this state. If you want to join the fight to help protected Jacob and all transgender Bay Staters from discrimination, pledge to uphold #TransLawMA at the ballot box this November.