On an evening in which presidential candidates took the stage in a historic forum on LGBTQ+ rights, it was a nine-year-old transgender boy who stole the show.
Jacob Lemay, an elementary school student from Massachusetts, was given the mic during CNN’s LGBTQ+ Town Hall on Thursday to ask a question of Elizabeth Warren, one of the nine White House hopefuls who participated in the event. Dressed in a blue suit and matching tie, he asked the Massachusetts Senator what she would do if elected president “to make sure that kids like [him] feel safer in schools.”
“And what do you think schools need to do better to make sure that I don't have to worry about anything but my homework?” he added, clutching a white slip of paper with his question written on it in one hand and his microphone in the other.
Warren responded that her administration would begin with making sure Betsy DeVos is out of a job in 2021. Since DeVos, a Republican activist, was tapped to the Department of Education in 2017, the office has rolled back Obama-era guidance advising schools to treat transgender students in accordance with their lived gender when it comes to pronouns use, locker rooms, and bathrooms.
“When I'm president, she'll be gone,” she said.
Warren made one more promise to Jacob. “I want to make sure that the person I think is the right Secretary of Education meets you and hears your story,” she said. “And then I want you to tell me if you think that's the right person, and then we'll make the deal. Does that sound good?”
Jacob didn’t respond but the audience did — with the biggest applause of the night.
His mother, Mimi Lemay, says the moment was a first for her son. After he began transitioning at the age of four, his parents — who live in a Boston suburb with their three children — became increasingly involved with state and local activism, but Jacob remained what his mother calls “semi-stealth” in school for several years.
“I would go out and advocate and he remained low-key at school,” she tells Out. “Parents understood that he didn't want people to know or didn't want it to be discussed.”
Last year, Mimi was extremely vocal in sharing her family’s story as Massachusetts conservative groups unsuccessfully lobbied to repeal protections for transgender people in a statewide ballot initiative. Telling that story has now become second nature: At the age of two and a half, Jacob began telling his parents that the doctors made a “mistake” when they assigned his gender at birth.
“I am not a girl,” he said. “I am a boy.”
Around the same time, Jacob became increasingly morose and despondent, demanding to change clothes dozens of times every day. Mimi says the family had “no idea what was going on.”
“It was probably 2012, 2013 and there wasn't a lot out there about trans kids,” she recalls. “We were confused.”
When a therapist suggested that Jacob may be transgender, Mimi and her husband, Joe, initially reacted with confusion and denial. “I began to grieve, waking up in the early morning hours biting my pillow to silence the sobs, my sheets bathed in the stink of bad dreams,” she recalled in a letter she wrote to her son on his fifth birthday. “I was losing you, my precious daughter.”
But the family did their own research, reached out to a gender clinic, and then began allowing Jacob to express his gender in small steps: first with a haircut and a more masculine name, and then wearing a Prince Charming costume on a trip to Disney World.
Eventually, they reached a moment of decision. They showed him a video of a trans boy who was allowed to transition at an early age and asking Jacob if that was what he wanted.
Jacob never turned back, and neither did his family. Mimi and her husband have spent the past four years talking about their family’s journey as a way to encourage acceptance and understanding of transgender children who don’t have the privilege of affirming parents or communities that support their transition.
“We began learning that the trans community has been beset by just brutal harassment in every area of life, whether it's losing their homes, losing their jobs, losing their families, losing their faith communities, and being pushed into the shadows,” Mimi says. “That wasn't a world that we could allow to continue. This is our son's community, and like any parents, we wanted him to inherit a better world.”
Although Mimi has appeared on NBC Nightly News and in front of the Massachusetts legislature to advocate against conversion therapy on queer and trans youth, Jacob has rarely joined her in this advocacy.
That changed when Mimi was invited to ask a question at the LGBTQ+ Town Hall as a member of the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council. She let Jacob decide what to ask, and to her surprise, he said he wanted to be the one to ask it after their question was selected.
Mimi says that seeing him “so poised and ready to advocate for himself” with millions of people watching around the country “meant the world” to her. Even the following morning — as she waxed about the event over the phone to a reporter — Jacob came out to the patio of their hotel and interrupted the conversation to cheer his mother on. He flashed her a big thumbs up.
“He has struggled with his own identity, with coming out to us and to himself,” she says. “He struggled to find his voice. Now that he has found it, and he can speak for so many kids. As a parent, that's all I want for my child. The evening was so powerful for our whole family and I don't think we'll ever forget it.”
And when it comes to Warren’s vow to let Jacob help pick the next Secretary of Education if she becomes president, Mimi says with a chuckle that she’ll hold Warren to that. “Absolutely,” she says.