Growing up transgender: US family confronts stigma

For months in the Lemay home, the same phrase was repeated over and over by their troubled young child, barely more than a toddler, who showed growing signs of depression.

"It is a mistake. I am not a girl. I am a boy."

That convinced the Lemay family that Mia should become Jacob.

Mimi and Joe Lemay live in a large home similar to hundreds of others in the fashionable, family-oriented suburb of Melrose, north of Boston.

They are parents of two daughters, ages eight and four, and now a seven-year-old boy, born Mia in 2010 but who officially changed his name to Jacob at age four.

At a time of vigorous debate in the United States about transgender students, reignited by President Donald Trump when he repealed federal protections about bathroom use, the Lemays are determined to share their story, how it convulsed their family and how it can offer comfort and help to others who going through the same experience.

While there are no official statistics, child gender transition affects hundreds of American families, if a Facebook support page is anything to go by.

Nearly three years have passed since the Lemays accepted Mia would transition. Their circle largely accepts Jacob, but Mimi admits there were "some tough moments" and "days of genuine grief" along the way.

"It is bittersweet: There is a great joy in seeing your child being fulfilled, and also great concern about the hostility of the world," she tells AFP.

"There is also a sense of loss -- the person may not have been the person you thought they were, but they still existed in your mind."

The family doesn't regret anything. 

Jacob, sporting a crew cut, says he loves soccer and sewing -- with the toothless grin of a child who has lost his first baby teeth.

"Seeing that happiness that the transition brought was the best therapy that I could have asked for," says Mimi.

- 'Right decision' -

Within a couple of weeks, "he just brightened and turned into a different kid. He started laughing again," says Joe.

"Before he was a depressed person, not wanting to wake up," recalls his father. "In hindsight, it is obvious to us we made the right decision."

Jacob's 40-year-old mother, who was raised in a ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that she left as an adult, says her own rebellion helped her navigate her son's transition.

"Having already been through that process, I feel it was easier for me to say to my kid, whatever the social norms of the world, 'I see you, I see the person you are inside and that's far more important to me and I don't need to follow conventions'," Mimi said.

Joe, who is 39 and the co-founder of a start-up that makes electronic notebooks, says he's also happy with their decision.

"No one really wishes your child to be different in any big way, and in a way that could create challenges in their life," he said. "You can imagine how I felt."

"I used to call Mia my 'Buddha baby' because she was so happy and bright and always smiling," he said. "Then I watched that child turn into a very sullen, dark child."

- Life line -

After going to see specialists and support groups for transgender children, the choice crystallized, Joe says.

If they refused to let Mia live as a boy, it was at the risk of making him live another year of "shame and growing toward having real mental health issues," that can include increased risk of suicide, he explained.

If they agreed, then the danger of embarrassment or perhaps having to move out of town seemed less of a risk to the entrepreneur.

"I thought the conservative thing was to transition, and the real risky thing was to say 'no, not yet or not at all'," he said.

The Lemays don't know what will happen when Jacob reaches puberty and if he will want to start hormone therapy with a view to having surgery.

But in the meantime, the couple has become a lifeline to other parents confronted with young children rejecting the sexual identity dictated by their bodies.

On social networks as in seminars on transgender issues, or in the bosom of LGBT rights groups, they speak frequently about Jacob's return to happiness.

"We saw how much hostility there was towards the idea that a child may be transgender," says Mimi. "That was a mental bridge that people were not able to cross."

The Lemays recognize that thanks to their education and surroundings, they are "privileged." They live in Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the United States and the first to legalize gay marriage.

After his transition in June 2014, Jacob changed schools and is now accepted as a boy by classmates who have no idea about his previous identity.

With the help of the school district, principal Mary Beth Maranto organized training about transgender students and gave teachers an opportunity to ask questions "and become more familiar with this new part of our culture."

"Society will eventually accept it," says Joe. 

"There is social media where people can educate each other, families can get together -- no one can pretend it is not happening."

Topics: US , society , children , gender
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