Kimberly Shappley calls herself an “accidental activist.”
The Pearland, Texas mom says she was “born a Republican.” Most of her life, she never really thought about politics and just assumed it was her duty as a Christian Southern woman to show up and vote straight ticket for the conservative party. She also bought wholesale into the church’s ideas about LGBTQ people: that their “lifestyle” was a choice and that Satan “had ahold of them.”
And then, everything changed.
“When you’re the parent of a transgender kid, it’s not just the kid who comes out. Your whole family comes out of the closet together,” Shappley told The Huffington Post.
Shappley’s 6-year-old transgender daughter Kai was denied use of the girl’s bathroom by the Texas school district last May, marking the first time Shappley truly felt what it was like to be a member of a marginalized group. The family is still fighting for this right almost a year later.
According to district policy, children must use the bathroom for the sex indicated on their birth certificate. (School leaders have also offered Kai the use of the nurse’s bathroom.)
Later that May, President Obama issued a directive for schools to let transgender children use the bathrooms that match their gender identity ― what should have been a hopeful development.
But then, the district superintendent, Dr. John Kelly, gave a statement to the Pearland Journal calling the directive an “unconstitutional interference and social engineering by the federal government.” He compared transgender people to pedophiles and polygamists. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told district superintendents, in no uncertain measures, not to enact the policy.
“I can’t use the bathroom with you, because you’re still being a discriminatory person, but I’m here.”
After realizing they wouldn’t be able to handle the issue quietly, the family decided to come out of the closet. It was three days later that Shappley did her first press conference, an appeal to the school board on the bathroom issue. During a local new broadcast, an overwhelmed Shappley made a tearful apology to the LGBTQ community she had “hurt with the Bible.”
“It was sincere, and I got a lot of feedback. At that moment, coming out of the closet and apologizing to the LGBTQ community, that’s when I started being attacked by the church and embraced by the LGBTQ community.”
“It’s Been A Long Few Years For Me”
The same community Shappley had once viewed so negatively now helps her family weather the immense pressure of ongoing discrimination from her daughter’s school, the rejection from their friends and family and the constant fear of violence. Shappley has formed friendships with grown-up transgender women whom Kai calls her “aunties.” The risk of suicide among transgender individuals is high, and the mom hopes good trans role models will help ease that risk for her daughter.
But Shappley’s heart and mind didn’t change overnight.
“I’m a really strict southern mom. It was a process. It took me three or four trips to Walmart to buy girl panties. I would go pick them up, and I would leave them in the store. I would leave crying. I would be so upset, and then I’d feel bad about not getting them,” she said.
Kai was just a toddler when she started to present as a girl. By 2, Kai was gravitating toward the toys that she saw other girls playing with. Her two best friends were girls ― she didn’t like to play with boys, whom she found “gross.” Family members began to make comments.
“It took me three or four trips to Walmart to buy girl panties. I would go pick them up and I would leave them in the store.”
“I was very concerned, because at the time I was leading a small ministry at my church and teaching Bible study, and here I have this kid who people in my family were flat asking me if this kid was gay.”
The family tried to redirect Kai to more “masculine” pursuits ― hunting, fishing, sports ― and Shappley punished her when she did anything “feminine.” By 3, Kai was pulling T-shirts down around her waist to make skirts and tying long-sleeve shirts around her head to make long hair.
By 3-and-a-half, Kai was verbalizing that she was a girl six times a day or more, which would lead to time-outs, spankings and yelling matches.
“It got to the point where Kai would wait until your hands were full, or you were busy, and she knew that you couldn’t come after her and she would march into the room and say, ‘You know I’m a girl!’ just so that she could get her point across.”
”As Christians, I don’t know how we’ve gotten separated from compassion”
Kimberly’s decision to let Kai transition was spread out over months. She spoke to child psychiatrists, one of whom asked her, “If you and Kai were alone on a deserted island, would you let Kai wear ‘girl clothes’?” When Kimberly responded that she probably would, the psychiatrist told her that it wasn’t God she had a problem with, but what other people would think of her.
She overheard her child praying to God to take “Joseph,” Kai’s birth name, away to be with Jesus, and realized she was essentially overhearing a prayer for death.
And then she was connected to a secret Facebook group of over 1,000 moms like her ― Christians who are raising transgender children. The women call themselves “mama bears” and refer to each other as a “tribe,” because so many of them lose their family and friends when they decide to accept their children.
“She knows who she is and she has no problem making sure that everyone knows who she is.”
She began to study scripture with different eyes. Always a daily Bible reader, she’d felt before as if the words were condemning her. She began to focus on the New Testament, on the teachings of Jesus and his interaction with the Pharisees. She noticed that when the Pharisees would use scripture to justify attacking or judging people, Jesus would ask them to look at the words through a different lens. She ultimately found her way to a new kind of Christianity, one that centered around love and the idea that her child was “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
“Having a transgender child, and loving her, has made me a much better Christian,” she said. “I am less judgmental, and I am more empathetic. As Christians, I don’t know how we’ve gotten separated from compassion. Where did we lose that?”
“I Think About Leaving All The Time”
Shappley, who prefers to keep the rest of her family life private, says they are working on rebuilding their community after relatives and longtime friends removed themselves just when they needed them the most. They still attend the same church, no matter who glares at them in their pew. They’re still fighting for Kai to be able to use the girl’s bathroom at school, an issue that only looks less hopeful since President Donald Trump rescinded Barack Obama’s mandate that attempted to provide protections for transgender students. (Not that Kai was able to benefit much from the order in the first place.)
Kimberly pays the family’s utility bills in someone else’s name, and doesn’t receive mail at her home address because she fears harassment or worse. She thinks about moving somewhere else, somewhere where people won’t “hate her child just for being born.”
“Having a transgender child, and loving her, has made me a much better Christian.”
“I think about moving somewhere more accepting all the time, but what I will tell you is if marginalized people continue to move to places that are safe and welcoming, then this country is going to continue to win elections based on gerrymandering. The majority will never be represented again,” she said.
And she and Kai, she says, can make a difference just by refusing to hide.
“We change more people’s opinions of what it means to be transgender just by being visible. We’re saying, ‘Look here I am, I’m sitting right next to you at church.’ And, ‘Look, here I am I’m in the cubicle next to you at work.’ ‘Here I am. I’m at school. I can’t use the bathroom with you, because you’re still being a discriminatory person, but I’m here.”
She hopes that by standing up and speaking out, no matter how uncomfortable, they’ll reach at least one person. Maybe two.
Despite all the setbacks and controversy, Kai is exceedingly resilient.
“She is just a loud, happy, joyful Pollyanna,” said Shappley. “She just expects that everybody’s gonna be kind and good. It’s the persistent spirit that she has that is the reason that she was able to transition so young. Because she knows who she is and she has no problem making sure that everyone knows who she is.”