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“I knew in my soul that you had always been my son, Jacob,” Lemay wrote in an open letter. /Credit: TDM Photography

Climbing Jacob’s ladder: formerly Orthodox woman tells the story of her transgender son

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Climbing Jacob’s ladder: formerly Orthodox woman tells the story of her transgender son

“I knew in my soul that you had always been my son, Jacob,” Lemay wrote in an open letter. /Credit: TDM Photography

After a mysterious dream, Mimi Lemay woke up and decided to pick up a tattered pocket Torah from her time at a seminary in Britain. Looking for some kind of guidance from a God she hadn’t spoken to in years, Lemay opened to a random page.

She landed on the story of Jacob, who studied the Torah, and Esau, the hunter, in Genesis. Jacob – guided by his mother, Rebekah – wrapped himself in goatskin to disguise himself as his rugged, hairy brother in order to trick their blind father, Isaac, into giving him the birthright due the firstborn. Isaac sent Esau out to hunt game, while Rebekah prepared goat meat for Jacob to bring Isaac.

When Jacob presented the meal, his father was surprised that he’d returned so fast.

“How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son?” Isaac asks Jacob, assuming he was Esau.
“Because the Lord thy God brought it to me,” Jacob answered.

It was a revelation for Lemay, a transgender rights advocate living north of Boston. “Indeed it is God Himself who has engineered this moment, because sometimes parents are blind to the true nature of their children,” Lemay writes in “What We Will Become,” a recently published memoir about raising her transgender son, also named Jacob. “With the gift of a son dressed in the skin of another, I am suddenly aware of the truth of it all … that for my path in life, there was never a need for me to ask forgiveness, only, perhaps, to give thanks, because every step was meant to be just as it was.”

In stumbling upon this evocative Bible story, Lemay realized two things at a time of intense doubt: that her Jacob was brought to her just as God wanted, and that she was right to leave her Ultra-Orthodox community, which would not have accepted her son. At the same time, it reaffirmed her belief in a loving, benevolent God.

“What We Will Become” is the story of two wrenching, intertwined journeys to break free of prescribed roles and identities. The first story is Lemay’s own.

Born in Jerusalem, she spent much of her childhood in Monsey, an Ultra-Orthodox enclave northwest of New York City. By the time she reached adolescence, she realized that she wanted to be able to study Torah in the same way as boys.

“When I got to seminary, [I realized] there was no place for a woman who wanted to have her own intellectual life and not be in service of a husband,” she said. Lemay was torn: she wanted to do the right thing by her Orthodox community, but she began to realize that she could not live in a world where she was not treated as the intellectual and emotional equal of men. She grew depressed, and eventually decided that she would leave the fold.

Her mother, who had grown up secular and obtained a doctorate, accepted her decision, she became estranged from much of her step-family.

Lemay left seminary in the UK to attend Boston University, got a master’s degree at Tufts, met and married a nice man named Joe, and settled down to raise her children in the suburbs. When Jacob was born, she felt she was living the dream.

“Three healthy, bright, beautiful girls; we had spun the wheel of fortune and won the jackpot,” Lemay would write years later in an open letter to Jacob. When Jacob started preschool, he began declaring himself a boy. Lemay and her husband thought it might just be a phase, and decided to treat it lightly – they let him wear boys’ clothing and called him different boys’ names on request, accompanied by the caveat that this was all “pretend.”

Then a preschool teacher suggested that this may not be pretend in their child’s mind. Lemay had grown up in a homophobic environment and had only a vague, uncomfortable awareness of what it meant to be transgender. “It was weird, it was beyond the pale … I truly did not believe it applied to my beautiful, round-faced, bright-eyed, innocent preschooler,” Lemay said of her initial feelings.

The Lemays consulted a behavioral health specialist, who told them of a study that was then cited widely – and has since been debunked – that a significant number of gender nonconforming children revert to their assigned gender identity as they get older.

The Lemays decided to try out what specialists deemed “watchful waiting,” where Jacob straddled two worlds. At home, he was a boy named Mica, and at school, a girl named Em. He was clearly unhappy: markedly withdrawn at school, and often angry at home.

“I would see that this purgatory in which he was living, where he was half himself, and half a role he was playing for everybody else, was damaging his psyche,” said Mimi. “At some point, we said, ‘Do we really want him to live this life where he is divided and not whole?’”

A near accident while driving with Jacob in the car reinforced Mimi’s view that life is too short and precious not to live authentically. “I thought to myself, if something had happened to him, what would I have wanted to have done? What would I have wanted his last days to be like? And it was clear that it was not this,” she said, noting that 40 percent of transgender people who are not affirmed attempt suicide at least once in their lives. They asked their son how he wanted to move forward, and he told them he wanted to be a “boy named Jacob” – the source of that name remains unclear – “for always.”

Jacob is now a happy, thriving 9-year-old boy accepted by his school, family, and community.

Jacob Lemay became more joyful and outgoing after he was allowed to live as a boy.

Nine months after Jacob chose his name, Lemay heard about a transgender woman named Leelah Alcorn who committed suicide when she was 17 and wrote a note to be posted online detailing the hatred she’d endured and pleading with her readers to “fix society.” Lemay decided that she wanted to take action, and chose to write an open letter detailing her family’s journey. She had written Jacob letters every year for his birthday and the form felt natural to her. Her deeply personal 20-page missive, “A Letter to My Son Jacob on His 5th Birthday,” was published on Boston.com in February 2015. It quickly went viral, and within days, agents and editors were reaching out to her to turn it into a full-length book.

Lemay decided that she wanted to use the book, which came out last month, to tell both her story and Jacob’s. “I hope that people do read this book and realize that all these journeys towards self-actualization, impeded perhaps by society’s boundaries, they’re a kind of heroism,” she said.

“[Transgender people] need to be applauded for these journeys toward authenticity, and they need the support of their wider community, and I hope the Jewish community rises up to support them.”

One Response

  1. Hi. I was the other day seeing a book on my shelf as I spoke to my husband called UnOrthodox and wondered why. I did not say anything. Then he calls later and says he saw the article Climbing Jacob’sLadder and thought I would be interested. Yes. I t was a profound coincidence and meaningful to me because Orthodox Judaism is intransigent on the subject of trans of all kinds and I feel this is totally wrong and hurtful.

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