“I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices,” ten-year-old Kai Shappley told a roomful of Texas legislators on Monday. “It makes me sad that some politicians use trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist,” she told the Senate Committee on State Affairs. A video clip of her testimony promptly went viral.
The young trans activist and actor, who lived in Pearland before moving to Austin in 2018, was speaking out against two Senate bills, 1311 and 1646, that would prevent her from receiving gender-affirming health care by criminalizing it. SB 1311 aims to prohibit medical professionals from providing affirming or transition-related health care to those younger than eighteen. It would also prohibit a doctor’s liability insurance from covering gender-affirming treatment or transition-related procedures. Meanwhile, SB 1646 goes as far as defining a parent’s support for his or her trans child as “child abuse.” A parent who secures gender-affirming care for a child—which, for minors, can include puberty-delaying drugs—would now be classified as an abuser. The bill could potentially allow Child Protective Services to remove trans children from their parents’ custody.
The bills are only two examples from a handful of measures targeting trans youth. SB 29 would ban trans youth from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity. The bill passed the Texas Senate on Thursday and now heads to the House. House Bill 1399, the companion to SB 1311 that would criminalize gender-affirming health care, has passed in the House Committee on Public Health.
On Monday, after a few hours of discussion and testimony, Kai was the first trans child to testify in front of the committee. Her statement was met with silence from the committee, whose members did not follow up with questions. “Seriously, none of you want to know more about me?” she asked before leaving the stand.
Later in the week, I asked Kai what she wished the senators had asked her. Without skipping a beat, she said: “What’s it like living in Texas as a trans kid?”
As soon as we meet via video call, Kai makes a silly face. She’s as bright and bubbly as the yellow blouse she wore as she testified. She already has professional acting experience under her belt, having appeared on an episode of Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club as Bailey, a trans child Mary Anne sticks up for at the hospital. But Kai is especially animated when she talks about her absolute favorite beings: her cats and Dolly Parton.
“One day Mom was playing [Dolly] and I was like, ‘Oh, who is this dramatic-sounding woman?’” Kai says about the country music legend. “I learned more about her and then I was like, she’s just a taller me. She’s nice and kind and has one sassy attitude.”
Kai’s favorite Dolly Parton songs—emphasis on the “s”—are “Jolene,” “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” and “Coat of Many Colors.” As Kai is telling me the plot of an influential film for her, the 2015 NBC movie Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, she suddenly exclaims, “Oh my gosh!” and looks up from the screen and off in the distance. “Sorry, my cat’s rolling her eyes in unholy ways.” She was referring to Jake, her very fat English tabby. Her other cat, Serenity, named after a character in Sailor Moon, is very “floofy” and perfect for cuddles.
Kai’s favorite school subjects are math and science. The “infinite possibilities” of science appeal to the fourth-grader. “I’m so ready to dissect a frog!” she says.
Kai has been advocating for herself as a trans person since she was three years old, says Kimberly Shappley, Kai’s mom and a registered nurse. As a toddler, Kai was feminine and persistently told her mom that she was a girl.
“I came out of my mother’s womb fabulous and I knew who I was already,” Kai explains. “And then I realized my mother [did] not know that I’m me. I was like, ‘Mother, you know, I am a female,’” dramatically emphasizing the last sentence.
Coming from a conservative, religious background, Kimberly first tried to “fix” Kai and would punish her for “acting girly.” But Kimberly’s attitude toward her daughter changed when Kai started “praying to go live with Jesus forever.” This was around the time that Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen-year-old trans girl from Ohio, died by suicide, bringing international attention to obstacles facing trans youth. Alcorn’s death was the deciding factor for Kimberly to change her views. She wanted her daughter to live.
Kimberly began bracing for anti-trans legislation in Texas this year, as legislatures in Alabama, Arkansas, and South Dakota began hearing bills. After 26 years of living near the Gulf Coast in Brazoria County, Kimberly equates this year’s Texas Legislature session with hurricane season. She wondered how big the storm was going to be.
“Can we survive this and just kind of batten down the hatches? Or is this going to be a category five, where everything gets devastated and you lose your home? I feel like I’m in a cat. five,” she says.
Arguably, they’ve been in one for years. In 2017, Kai and her mom were at the center of the so-called bathroom bills, which would have banned transgender people from accessing restrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identity. When Kai was in kindergarten in Pearland, her school prohibited her from using the girl’s bathroom and offered as an option only the nurse’s bathroom, which was too far away for Kai to access; sometimes she would have accidents in the hallway. Kimberly testified in the Senate, while Kai sat on her lap, and their story was featured in an Emmy-award winning documentary.
“I didn’t start understanding her as a trans person until the State of Texas made me have to fight for her,” Kimberly recalls.
The situation at her school was so unbearable that the family moved to Austin, where more affirming local laws and school policies made Kai feel safer. It wasn’t an easy transition. “We had to start over. We lost all of our friends. We lost our community. We lost our church home. I wish people could understand the whole big picture,” Kimberly says.
With these new anti-trans bills being considered, Kimberly is worried her family’s life will be upended again. Even though Texas is all that Kai knows and the place where Kimberly has spent most of her life, if the bills pass and become law, the Shappleys plan to leave the state. “I spent all the time, the energy, and the money to move to Austin. I could have used that same time and money and resources to move to an affirming state that would protect us. And we wouldn’t have wasted these last few years trying to put down roots and rebuild. I feel like we’re just in limbo.”
When I ask Kai what trans kids in Texas need, she shouts, “Laws that protect us, not go against us!”