Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager
A mother’s letter to her five-year-old son, Jacob, on his birthday has gone viral in recent weeks, offering readers an emotional and inspiring look into what it means to have a transgender child and how to do best by them.
In the letter, Mimi Lemay recalls meeting her son for the first time in the delivery room.
“The only ‘real information’ I had was that you appeared to be healthy, and that you were a girl,” she writes.
But, as Lemay writes, Jacob was most definitely not a girl. At around 18 months, the child Lemay thought of as her daughter developed the habit of compulsively changing clothes, sometimes 10 or 12 times a day. By his third birthday, Jacob had declared himself a boy.
Lemay describes her home during this time as a “battleground over gender,” with Jacob continuing to insist that he was a boy, and his parents and sisters trying to pretend that it was Jacob who was really pretending
Lemay consulted a gender therapist who suggested that the family “keep things flexible,” letting the child lead, and she clung to the hope that it was just a phase. The family decided to let him be Mia – his birth name – at school, and Mica at home.
“But I knew in my mother’s heart that you were not truly happy,” Lemay remembers. “Not like your sisters. Not like the unburdened joy that I thought you ought to have felt coming from a warm loving home with plenty of affection, positive experiences and toys galore. There was an un-childlike, persistent sadness that lay about you like a pall in those years which should have been so magical.”
The dilemma Jacob’s parents faced is one that other families of transgender children will find familiar. While research is limited, a recent study of transgender children between the ages of 5 and 12 has confirmed that, “the gender identity of these children is deeply held and is not the result of confusion about gender identity or pretense.”
“Seeing how little scientific information there was, basically nothing for parents, was hard to watch,” explains the study’s author, University of Washington’s Kristina Olson. “Doctors were saying, ‘We just don’t know,’ so the parents have to make these really big decisions: Should I let my kid go to school as a girl, or should I make my kid go to school as a boy? Should my child be in therapy to try to change what she says she is, or should she be supported?”
This growing body of evidence is showing that transgender children should be supported. For Jacob, the status quo became increasingly unbearable, so Lemay and her husband sat down with Jacob and asked him if he wanted to “be a boy all the time.”
“Within days of beginning life anew as Jacob you began to stand up straight and look people in the eye,” Lemay writes. “In allowing your transition, we were only hoping to help your spirit survive. We did not expect the seismic shift in your personality that we experienced.…That summer, the world opened up its treasures to you.”
Lemay’s story is like that of so many parents of transgender youth – parents grasping for answers, just wanting their child to be happy and healthy, weighing those desires against a world where their children are sure to face discrimination, and, ultimately, witnessing their child’s newfound happiness upon being supported as they transition socially.
Organizations like the HRC Foundation, Gender Spectrum, and others are developing resources for the parents and families of transgender and gender nonconforming youth; and programs like the HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools are working to reduce gender-based bullying in schools.
And attitudes are changing as a new generation of transgender youth are finding affirming spaces where they feel safe to come out and live openly. A recent poll showed that younger Americans are much more likely to support the idea that children should be allowed to identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, and that transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.
For more information on supporting and caring for transgender and gender-expansive children and youth, visit hrc.org/trans-youth for resources on topics like talking to your child’s pediatrician, basic tips to support and affirm your transgender child, talking to grandparents about your child’s gender identity, or how to find sources of support for your family.