Walking into the gallery space on the second floor of the Boston Children’s Museum, a faux threshold invites you into a “house” of sorts, a welcome mat placed lovingly in front of the door frame. Step through it and you are transported into the world of Erica Tobias and her family, displayed in photographs taken by Matthew Clowney in the Mimi’s Family exhibit. To your left, a mantle place displays family photos.
Erica’s family is probably a lot like yours — photos show her reading bedtime stories to her grandchildren, getting ready for a meal in the kitchen, and saying goodbye at the end of a visit. But Erica’s family is unique, too, in that Erica — lovingly called ‘Mimi’ by her grandkids –is a transgender woman who transitioned just one and half years ago, at the age of 58.
Through the eyes of her grandchildren, visitors to the museum get to experience what life with a transgender grandparent is like.
Clowney and exhibit designer Margaret Middleton were looking to start a conversation about gender and identity with children. Says Clowney, “This is a conversation many people are having, but most of that conversation is aimed at adults.” The team hoped to find a family with children around the age of the audience at the museum, so that visitors would relate the the storytellers they saw on the walls.
Arts Program Manager for the Boston Children’s Museum, Alice Volger, said that “BCM is all about supporting families and having families learn from each other,” which is why they wanted to bring an exhibit like this to their gallery. For Clowney, “A large part of my mission in life is to honor individuals for who they are.”
Mimi’s Family asks visitors to spend a day with Erica and her family, and to consider the ways in which their family is like Erica’s and the ways in which it is not. The gallery walls are lined with questions for children to ponder, like, “What makes your family special?” “How does your family eat together?” And “What does it feel like to spend time with people you love?” Over the faux mantle is a digital composite image of the entire family. Only Kylie, Erica’s young granddaughter who is in Erica’s arms, looks at the camera.
“That is our entry point,” says Clowney. “That relationship between Erica and her granddaughter is warm, it’s connected. It embodies safety and closeness and comfort and love.” From there, that energy radiates out to the rest of the family in the photo, and to the exhibit itself.
Walking through the space, one is struck by the simply ordinary existence of this extraordinary family. “In one perspective, [the exhibit is] a recognition that we’re all the same, that everyone is normal,” says Clowney. “But another perspective is that we’re all special or unique. Both of those can be true.” And that convergence of the prosaic with the uniqueness of every individual is apparent in the exhibit.
This idea is also reflected in the artwork that children are encouraged to create as they sit in the space. A table with colored pencils asks children to consider what their family looks like, and to draw a family portrait. Those drawings are displayed in a glass case at the end of the room. From afar, each family looks fairly similar. But take a closer look and you’ll see that each one is distinct — one family has two moms, another specifies that they are Vietnamese, and one makes a point to draw “dad’s girlfriend” into the family.
For Erica, there was never a doubt in her mind that she wanted to participate in this project, because she saw it as an opportunity to help others. But she also knew that it wasn’t just up to her. She says that this is not just about her transition, but about her family’s transition, too. She admits that it was “an adjustment,” but that her family has been incredibly supportive of her process.
After the death of Erica’s second wife in 2013, she came to a realization. “It was her illness and subsequent death that made me realize how precious life is and that we all deserve to be happy,” Erica explains over the phone, as she recovers from gender affirming surgery in Arizona. “I needed this to be happy.”
Ultimately, three of her four children who have children — Erica has seven children and eight grandchildren in total — agreed to participate in the project. Her eight-year-old granddaughter, Madison, even gave a speech that she had written herself at the opening of the exhibit.
These incredible children are, as Clowney and Middleton had hoped, “our ambassadors to the family.” They are the ones other kids will relate to, but they’re also giving the parents who visit the museum an entrypoint to consider new issues, too.
In Madison’s speech, she shares the story of helping Erica pick a new name. Grammy sounded “too old,” so they settled on Mimi. She succinctly explains that “even though she looked different on the outside, I knew that she was the same on the inside.”
Kids often have an uncanny ability to accept the things adults tell them to be true. In a way, while this exhibit is for the children who visit the Boston Children’s Museum, it’s for the adults, too. Clowney explains that “it gives them the opportunity to feel like they’re guiding the child through the conversation while they’re learning along the way, too.”
To facilitate that learning, the exhibit has a “book nook,” with a couch and a collection of books about gender and families, along with a glossary of terms. The glossary includes terminology like “gender identity,” with a note that “you can’t always tell a person’s gender identity just by looking at them and it’s okay to not know.” It also clarifies how the term “transgender” should be used — “please refer to a person as transgender, not ‘a transgender’ or ‘transgendered.’” The museum consulted with local organizations like The Network/La Red and Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) to ensure that the language was appropriate and sensitive.
For Erica, the project has been overwhelming, but in a good way. She says, “If we can help even one family because this exhibit existed, then it was well worth it.”
The exhibit is well-suited to a wide range of audiences and, though it occupies a 500-square foot space at the Boston Children’s Museum, is easily adaptable to other spaces, too. Both Clowney and Erica would love to see the exhibit travel so that more families can be exposed to this important conversation, but there are not currently any future shows lined up. It closes at the Boston Children’s Museum on Sunday.
Erica hopes people will see that it’s possible to continue to have a normal family life after transition, “and that doesn’t have to just be a gender transition. There are many other kinds of transitions that families may go through.”
Says Clowney, “My hope is that everybody that sees this show recognizes themselves in this family.” He hopes that this recognition, that we are all the same, will lead to any reservations they might have about transgender people being thrown out the window.
Erica pauses for a moment and reflects on her life. “It’s a new normal, but it’s normal.”
But perhaps the most meaningful reflection comes from Madison, Erica’s granddaughter. In her speech on opening night, she told the audience, “No matter what my Mimi looks like on the outside, one thing will never change — I love her just as much as she loves me.”
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