‘In your denial I would find no sense’
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‘In your denial I would find no sense’

Two mothers of transgender sons talk for JCCs in Tenafly and Rockland

Mimi Lemay advocates for transgender rights in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston as Jacob looks on.
Mimi Lemay advocates for transgender rights in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston as Jacob looks on.

Being a parent is emotionally complex.

How’s that for an understatement?

Being a parent is terrifying. You are entirely responsible for another human being, a tiny, complicated little person who grows and changes and has some needs and desires and habits and yearnings and assumptions that you understand intuitively and intellectually and completely, and others that are as foreign to you as if your child had been dropped in from another planet.

You feel such love! Also, of course, rage and boredom and fear, but overwhelmingly you feel love. You want your child to have a happy life, and you direct your efforts toward making that happen.

All children present challenges to their parents. But if you realize that your child is transgender — no, if your child realizes that they are transgender, and note that part of accepting that your child is trans might mean changing your approach to grammar, as is done here — then you have to figure out how to handle it, although you soon realize that you don’t have a huge number of models to rely on.

Two Jewish mothers who learned that the children they’d thought were daughters knew themselves to be sons wrote memoirs that they will discuss on Zoom for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and the JCC Rockland in West Nyack on Tuesday, November 10. (See box.)

Mimi Lemay is the mother of three children; her middle child, Jacob, lost the joy that had been so evident before when it became clear that the world saw him as a girl, but he knew himself to be a boy.

Ms. Lemay wrote about the way that she and her family helped Jacob, who now is 10, to live the life that makes him spark with happiness again, in “What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation.” But only about half the book — alternating chapters — is about Jacob. The other half is about her own childhood, and how its vicissitudes make her more able to help her child.

Ms. Lemay was born in Jerusalem, the second child and only daughter of a short-tempered secular Israeli academic and his secular American Jewish wife. When her parents separated, Ms. Lemay’s mother, who had become religiously observant, took her children to Brookline, outside Boston, and then to Monsey. Ms. Lemay, whose family by then was not chasidic but what she calls “ultra-Orthodox” — charedi — was sent to Bais Yaakov, a girls’ high school in Monsey, where she was unhappy. She transferred to Bat Torah, a more flexible school that unleashed her passion for text study. She did so well there, and was so consumed by her studies, that she managed to get herself into the Gateshead Seminary for Girls in England. That was a coup, but she was smart and determined. Studying text gave her meaning and purpose, a glimpse of what God had in mind for her.

“But I kept being told that my role, my purpose in life, the way God made me, was to be an auxiliary to my husband, who would go on to learn Torah and have a public-facing role,” she said. “I was to stay home and take care of the mundane, so he could be with the holy.

“It felt like a knife in my heart. I wanted all those spiritual riches that I had been told would emerge with the study of Torah.”

Jo, Jeremy, and Jon Ivester as they lobby in their home state, Texas.

And then, when she was 20, she was told that she’d be married. An engagement was about to be offered to her.

That was it. That propelled her out of the community. Her mother had followed her to England, met a man, married, and stayed there. Ms. Lemay went back to the United States, and eventually graduated from Boston University. She met her husband, Joe, who comes from a Catholic background but hadn’t been deeply engaged enough in it to count as lapsed now, she said, and they got married in 2005. “We had three babies in four years,” she added.

“The first time my middle child told me he was a boy he was 2 1/2,” Ms. Lemay said. “The first few times I didn’t pay any attention. I just thought that he was being a tomboy. It wasn’t until he became persistent and consistent, with the same sadness and anger every time. We didn’t understand it. We talked to him about the parts of his body that made him a girl, and the look on his face — he was thinking, ‘Why did God make me this way? Is God stupid?’ — brought back to me not as much the memories as the sensation of trying to make peace with what my community told me about my function, my role in life, the reason God had made me this way. That devastated me when I was growing up, because I wanted something different.

“The innate sense of who you are, your gender identity, is very different than fighting against cultural expectations, but that sense of sadness, increasing anger, and withdrawal were familiar to me.”

In the last quarter of her book, Ms. Lemay said, her past and the present that she shares with her son merged. “They become one as Jacob ascends to his true self, and says, ‘I want to be myself all the time. I want to be a boy named Jacob.’

“That becomes a moment of transition — and of redemption. I had always carried the anguish of feeling that I had excommunicated myself from my community. That’s because I believed that’s how the world functions — that there is a God, and that I was outside the circle of God’s grace. When Jacob transitioned, I realized that he would never have survived in the community I was born in. So many transgender youth attempt suicide.

“So I felt that my leaving it was blessed. For the first time in close to 15, maybe even 20 years, I felt that God had been with me the whole time.”

Jacob now is thriving, his mother said, and she has started to work on transgender advocacy issues. She is on the Human Rights Campaign’s council for transgender equality; in that capacity, she and Jacob were invited to one of CNN’s town halls. “Jacob wanted to submit a question, and he was chosen to ask it,” Ms. Lemay said. “He was able to ask our senator Elizabeth Warren what she would do as president to protect transgender rights.

“I was shepping huge amounts of naches.”

Ms. Lemay feels closer to the Jewish community than she has for some time. “I have spoken at synagogues and JCCs. I am affiliated with the Jewish community in so many ways. I celebrate Passover with a seder; on Chanukah we light candles every night and talk about the holiday’s fundamental values, freedom and emancipation; about lighting the darkness through education and advocacy. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we talk about resolving to make the world a better place in the next year.

“These values are strong within me, and I love to pass them onto my kids. Tikkun olam is a big factor in my advocacy.”

Mimi and Jacob Lemay in a selfie taken at the town hall where Jacob was able to question Elizabeth Warren.

In “Once a Girl, Always a Boy: A Family Memoir of a Transgender Journey,” Jo Ivester tells the story of her son Jeremy. “Thirty years ago, we welcomed our son into the world as what we thought was our daughter,” she said.

It took many years for that assumption to change.

“As he grew through his early years, he showed a preference for the toys, games, and activities that our society thinks of as male,” Ms. Ivester said. “We didn’t really worry about it. We didn’t believe that kids should have binary choices — girls have to play with this, boys have to play with that. So when he chose to play with trucks, and all his friends were boys, we thought he was a tomboy. That’s what he called himself.

“We didn’t realize that tomboy meant different things to us and to him.”

Ms. Ivester and her husband gave the word its traditional meaning, a girl who likes to play with boys’ toys, and in general acts as if she were a boy. But Jeremy thought of tomboys as a third gender, somewhere in between boys and girls. That’s a space where he felt comfortable.

Ms. Ivester, like Ms. Lemay, came to adulthood with a profound understanding of what it feels like when you just don’t fit it. As she described in her first book, “The Outskirts of Hope,” her father, a doctor, and her mother, a teacher, took their family to Mississippi in the 1960s. They lived there for two years, driven by their understanding of the need to help the abstractions of the civil rights movement become reality. They were the only Jews in the town. They were deeply, profoundly different.

“The courage of my parents was inside me, making me who I am,” she said. “Service and political advocacy is in my blood. So it’s been easy for me to speak out and join fellow advocates in fighting for transgender rights.

Ms. Ivester has a wide-ranging background. She met her husband, Jon, at MIT, when they both auditioned there for a Shakespeare play; they both got their undergraduate degrees there. Hers is in civil engineering and urban planning. Next, she got an MBA at Stanford. During the pandemic, she and her husband reunited with some MIT friends and began to read a play a week on Zoom; now they’re polishing “Twelfth Night” and plan to perform it. Naturally, Ms. Ivester is Viola.

She’s most taken with one of Viola’s lines. “In your denial I would find no sense.”

“In your denial I would find no sense,” she repeated, trying to find some logic in the need to reject her son’s sense of himself.

Like Ms. Lemay, Ms. Ivester has found that her book has brought her closer to the Jewish community. She pitched her book at the Jewish Book Council, back before the pandemic, and as a result she has been at “so many JCCs and services, where I spoke on Friday nights or Saturday mornings, and at Jewish book clubs and the Jewish book festival, and I have felt so embraced.

“That made me realize that yes, this is my community. Even though I stepped away from it, even though I am not religious, the community has become important to me. And the whole concept of tikkun olam — that’s what my parents’ lives were about, and now that is what my life is about too.”

Both Mimi Lemay and Jo Ivester advocate for their sons, propelled by love, fueled by a sense of justice. They are making the world safer for the children who are not yet born, and whose questions will be met with less confusion and more clarity. And always with love.

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