By Tobin Levy
Photograph by Minta Maria Smail
Civil Rights Activist
“I’m Princess Little Red Riding Hood,” says 9-year-old Kai Shappley, animated by a new cherry-hued cape, quick to clarify the reference with a sweet, high-pitched flurry of conjunctions. “There’s this book called “Land of Stories” that has all the fairy tales, but the Little Red Riding Hood story is different, and there’s a lot of magic, and she’s so beautiful, and she becomes queen of her people, and …” While deeper affinities go unmentioned, it’s likely not lost on Kai that the book’s author, “Glee” actor Chris Colfer, is a fellow LGBTQ activist or that in his interpretation of the classic fairy tale, Red becomes the chosen leader of an acronymous movement, The C.R.A.W.L. (Citizen Riots Against Wolf Liberty) Revolution. Kai, who is transgender, has become the face of local trans youth and a pint-size, blue-eyed beacon of hope for the ACLU.
Kai and her mother, Kimberly, are still relatively new to Austin. “Even though I was born and my body was like a guy’s, my brain and my heart know I’m a girl,” says Kai, when asked how she explains to people what it means to be transgender. She and Kimberly moved here last year from Pearland for a kinder environment and to be in an LGBTQ-affirming school district that explicitly prohibits harassment of any kind, including based on gender identity. Before that, Kai was the subject of an 18-minute documentary, “Trans in America: Texas Strong,” an Emmy-winning short produced by the ACLU that follows her and Kimberly’s fight for Kai’s right to live without discrimination at school and in her community. It’s a stunning depiction of the burden trans people face and a captivating portrait of resilience. Kai is 6 in the film, all pigtails and wide-eyed positivity, radiating compassion even for her tormentors.
Kai’s fight to be Kai started at home amongst the backdrop of an evangelical Christian upbringing. “When she was born, I was active in the Baptist ministry and a straight-ticket Republican Tea Partier,” says Kimberly, whose initial response to Kai’s early preference for dresses and dolls was punishment. When Kai insisted, “You know I’m a girl,” a common refrain since the age of 3, Kimberly spanked her. “No matter what the consequences, Kai persisted,” Kimberly says. Then, when Kai was 4, Kimberly overheard her praying alone in her room, asking God to let her die. “I realized that I had a 4-year-old who would rather go be with Jesus forever than stay here and have to live as a boy one more day.” When Kai was in kindergarten, Kimberly allowed her to legally change her birth name (Joseph) and to live as a girl.
Kai exhibits a kind of mystical fearlessness and a capacity for opening hearts and minds. To date, the film, which is available on YouTube, has been viewed nearly 3.3 million times. One man in North Carolina was so moved by Kai’s story that he spent months getting people from every single continent to write her letters of support, which he compiled in a “40-pound box of love” and sent with his own note, encouraging Kai to hold onto the letters for future reminders to stay strong, that there are people all over the world supporting her. Kai and her mother have also appeared on the “Today” show, “Vice” on HBO, Fox News and a host of national magazines and news outlets. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., she was like the golden child, engaging the far right, if only temporarily. Kai and Kimberly were there to testify in Congress on behalf of the Equality Act, a federal bill that would update the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to grant LGBTQ people protections. Kai was running through the halls and caught the attention of Texas Representative Pete Olson, who was against the bill. “He saw her and was like, ‘Hey, pretty girl. Where are you from?’” says Kimberly. “Kai said Texas. And he goes, ‘Oh, my gosh, my constituents! Come on in my office.’ He didn’t know who we were, but his staffers did. They were trying to make him stop. But he didn’t pick up on it. He was playing and taking selfies with Kai. I was like, ‘You know what? The Lord set this up.’” It’s a rare spirit that inspires such a gesture.
This year, AISD launched Pride week with a screening of “Trans in America,” after which Kai took the microphone, introduced herself to the audience and thanked the principal for efforts on behalf of the LGBTQ community. “My name is Kai Shappley, and my pronouns are her, she, like the candy bar!” “She’s just fearless,” marvels Amy Bench, the film’s cinematographer. “She knows at her core who she is. Her being her is the strength of Kai’s activism. In general, most people don’t have that same sense of self.”
On the horizon, Kai and Kimberly will be featured in Daresha Kyi’s upcoming feature-length documentary, “Mama Bears,” which follows conservative Christian moms in their acceptance of their LGBTQ children. Kai is also set to appear in a new Netflix series this summer. Most recently, Kai and Kimberly were honored with the Glen Maxey Activism Award from Equality Texas. “Kai is a brave, fierce, and wickedly smart little girl with a vibrant personality,” says Angela Hale, acting CEO at Equality Texas. “She puts a human face on what a transgender child looks like and has been a rock star, helping us communicate to Texans and the American public that there’s nothing to be worried about, that a transgender child is just like any other child, who should be loved and accepted.”