Why this 11-year-old transgender activist is fighting for the right to medical care in Texas: 'I have to speak up'

In the U.S. there are currently 238 proposed anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures. More than half target transgender people and, in states like Texas, they specifically target gender-affirming care for trans youth.

But fighting for equality has become a mission for Kai Shappley, an 11-year-old transgender activist who says her identity is not up for debate.

“I was always a girl,” the Texas native tells Yahoo Life. “I was about 3 when I realized my mom and some of the people around me didn't know who I was. It took a little bit, obviously, but at about 4 and a half, my family and I came out publicly.”

While her family has always loved and supported Kai, others in their Texas community did not. In 2016, her mother Kimberly fought back when an elementary school in Pearland, Texas refused to let Kai use the girl's restroom. That same year, when Kai was 5 years old, Kimberly testified before Texas lawmakers to oppose bills that would limit the rights of her child and other trans youth. With her daughter sitting on her lap, Kimberly declared that she was a "Republican, a Christian and the mother of a transgender child."

"I was really proud of her, honestly. Just seeing how she went up there and she started talking, I was like, 'That is my mom. That is a very powerful woman,'" says Shappley. "If it weren't for her, I probably wouldn't have found my own voice. That moment happened and I was like, you know what? I have to speak up. I have to start talking too."

In 2018, Kimberly and her children moved out of Pearland to a different city, where the school is more inclusive.

Since that moment, Shappley has become an outspoken activist for trans rights. Along with her mother, she has traveled around the country sharing her story at LGBTQ rallies, and has pushed for lawmakers to reject bills that target the transgender community.

At 8, Shappley got an opportunity to use her voice in front of lawmakers. That's when she went to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and shared her story with several representatives. Then, in April 2021, Shappley confidently sat in front of the Texas Senate Committee to share her experiences as a transgender child. She was there to protest Senate Bill 1646, which would have banned doctors from providing gender-affirming care to transgender children in the state. The bill failed, and Shappley’s testimony went viral.

“To the people that can't get the treatment that they need, and they have no way to work around it, it can be very harmful. It can make harmful changes to their body that can never be erased,” says Shappley, recalling the experience. “I knew that I had to do something to stop that.”

“I have a pretty loud mouth,” she adds. “My story is important, and it's my mom's job to worry. It's my job to tell my story. I'm not supposed to worry,” says Shappley.

While Bill 1646 was struck down, the fight for trans rights in Texas continues to make national headlines. In February, Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton classified gender-affirming surgery for trans youth as "child abuse" that required an investigation from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Families of trans youth filed lawsuits, and a Texas judge declared the directive to be unconstitutional. There is currently a halt on any parental investigations until at least July, when a trial will be held.

Kai Shappley protesting in front of the Texas capitol in 2021 (photo via Instagram @kai_shappley)
Kai Shappley protesting in front of the Texas capitol in 2021. (Photo: Instagram @kai_shappley)

Outside of her activism, Kai is just like every other 11-year-old kid. She likes to sew, ride her bike and listen to music. She loves fashion and cats and wants to meet Dolly Parton one day. She’s also pursuing a career as an actress. In 2020, she earned a role on the Babysitter’s Club reboot, and hopes that opportunity will be the first of many in the entertainment industry.

“I hope that she [Kai] is a successful, rich, famous actress, and that she got her mom that little ranch in the middle of nowhere that she wanted. And I hope that she's able to spread peace to everybody around her,” says Kai of her hopes and dreams.

In the meantime, the fourth grader encourages everyone to educate themselves on trans issues and use their own gifts and talents to protect trans children. She’s moved by the community of support surrounding her, and feels motivated to make lasting change for other kids.

“Knowing that I'm inspiring other people is inspiring me to keep on inspiring people,” says Shappley. “No matter what anybody tells you, there are more people for you than against you, and who aren't trans."

—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove