There were no questions from the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs when Kai Shappley, then 10, testified against a bill that would charge parents who affirm their transgender children’s gender identity with child abuse.
“Seriously, none of y’all want to know more about me?” she asked as she rose from her chair.
The bill failed, but Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order accomplishing the same goal.
Plenty of people have learned about Kai, now 12, whose story as a trans girl went viral, including a story in Vogue magazine.
A year ago, Kai, her mother, Kimberly, and 10-year-old brother Kaleb, two of seven siblings, moved to Connecticut as “political refugees” to escape the death threats and anti-transgender attitudes in Texas, where they were subjected to abuse and the loss of family and friends.
Now, Kai has “an army of crabs,” discovering the horseshoe crabs and hermit crabs in Long Island Sound near their home on the coast.
“When Kai tells her story, she says that she was about 3 years old when she realized that we didn’t know she was a girl,” her mother said. “She’s always known that she’s a girl. Until she was old enough to realize that we didn’t know she was a girl, that’s when she began to tell us that she’s a girl.”
As an evangelical minister, Shappley did not react well, which she said weighs heavily on her now.
“I tried to fix her,” she said. “With the help of the church, just trying basic techniques of conversion therapy, like punishing her for saying that she’s a girl and just trying to reinforce that she’s wrong and we’re right.”
As a nurse, Shappley knew about transgender people, “but I was so brainwashed by the church that I couldn’t use my intelligent brain. But then at 4½, Kai began consistently praying to be with Jesus and never come back, because she would rather live as the girl that she is for eternity with Jesus than have to live here and pretend to be a boy anymore.”
So Shappley allowed her daughter to socially transition.
“That only means that we let her begin to wear her hair in ways that she wanted to wear her hair. For her that was growing it out,” Shappley said. “We let her choose the clothes that she was comfortable wearing, and for her that meant traditionally feminine clothes. And we just made a simple switch in pronouns to pronouns that fit how she presented herself and who she knew herself to be.”
What pronouns does she prefer? “Her/she, like the candy bar,” Kai said.
Shappley said that did not include hormone therapy or surgery. “That’s not happening” at 4 years old, she said.
It was not good timing politically. The North Carolina Legislature passed a “bathroom bill,” banning trans people from using their preferred public restroom. Caitlyn Jenner had come out as trans.
“And then Texas immediately filed a bathroom bill when she was going to be starting kindergarten,” Shappley said. “And that’s how we ended up in the media. … Friends disappeared, family disowned us, and we eventually had to move from our hometown in Pearland, Texas, because I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without problems.”
People told Shappley she was going to hell, screamed and spit at her. The family moved to Austin, which was a better fit.
Shappley, with Kai at her side, testified against every anti-trans bill that came up, “and then the session came when they filed the bill to make it a felony child-abuse charge for parents like me to even affirm our children,” she said. “And that was when Kai decided, instead of her just being at the Capitol with me and sitting with me while I testified, that this was her time to testify on her own and she did.”
At the committee hearing, Kai said, “When it comes to bills that target trans youth, I immediately feel angry. It’s been very scary and overwhelming. It just makes me sad that some politicians use trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist. God made me, God loves me for who I am, and God does not make mistakes.”
The bill failed, and Kai “felt very encouraged and proud of herself,” her mother said. “And then the governor of Texas filed an executive order to do exactly what the bill that failed was trying to do.”
Shappley said she heard that child protective services was showing up at people’s doors. She couldn’t sleep. She started losing her hair. She feared losing her children.
A safe haven
“I felt like it was time to cut bait and just leave. It was time for us to go,” she said. They arrived in Connecticut a year ago, but left their first home, which was in a city, because “we’re country folks” and Kai was subjected to abuse at her urban school.
Life is better by the beach. “If you look on her Instagram page, you’ll see the horseshoe crabs literally just come up to the beach,” Shappley said. “They let her pick them up and she’s real gentle with them. And then the hermit crabs that she lets crawl all over her and then the moon jellies …”
“I taught the hermit crabs tricks,” Kai interrupted. She teases them to poke out of their shells.
Kai has been in an Emmy-winning documentary, “Trans in America: Texas Strong,” and she’s written a book, with co-author Lisa Bunker, “Joy, To the World.”
When Kai was asked how she knew she was a girl, she said, “I’m not really quite sure how to put it. I mean, I’ve always known I was a girl, right? There’s nothing really more to it.”
She has gotten through the difficult times well, she said. “I guess the way I’m surviving all of this is by knowing that people look up to me and are like, ‘Oh my gosh, you see her? She’s doing this for us.’ And that’s kind of keeping me hopeful to keep going on.”
Shappley said it hasn’t been easy for any member of her family. “She had to advocate for herself from the beginning,” she said. “So for her this is kind of the norm, but for me, being the mother of a transgender child, I guess the thing I always think of is, what other medical diagnosis can a child get that would make so many people hate me and hate my child and hate her doctors and hate her therapists?”
She continued, “What other medical diagnosis can a child get where politicians and political leaders want to step in and tell me that we’re not allowed to give her evidence-based medical care? We’re not allowed to treat her with best-practice policies?”
Now that they’re settling in to Connecticut, Kai said, “there’s not as much to worry about. That’s helpful, but there’s still some bad things and there’s probably always going to be bad things.”
“I guess our plans now are to figure out how to grow our root system here,” Shappley said. “We have no roots or foundation, and that’s not healthy, long term. So the plan now is to get ourselves rooted and grounded here and connect with our local LGBTQ groups that are doing the work.”
She worries that anti-trans legislation could pass at the national level if Donald Trump is reelected president and Republicans rule Congress.
“We just have to see if the American people are going to tolerate that or if they’re going to step in and help us,” she said. “That’s very real, so it’s hard when I’m sitting here saying that we’re wanting to put down roots. But in the next breath I’m saying, in the next couple of years we may have to move again out of the country and start the whole process again.”
Shappley said she would like supporters of LGBTQ+ rights to come out publicly and for the General Assembly to “start considering putting out pro-trans legislation to specifically protect trans people and trans families that are fleeing to Connecticut. I would like to see them consider giving refugee status to families coming here.”
That would help families to establish themselves and build their financial safety net, she said.
Attorney General William Tong affirmed that, legally, Connecticut is a safe haven for transgender children.
“In Connecticut, we protect and defend the rights of everybody, including trans kids,” he said. “And as far as I’m concerned, and as far as the law is concerned, trans kids are kids. Trans girls are girls and trans boys are boys and that’s the end of it.”
‘A medical decision’
Medical providers are beginning to see transgender youth and adults migrating to Connecticut from other states.
“In our institution, we’re definitely seeing families with kids coming, particularly from Florida and Texas,” as well as adults, said Katy Tierney, an endocrinology nurse practitioner and medical director of Middlesex Health’s Center for Gender Medicine and Wellness.
“The difficulty is that we can’t do telehealth outside of Connecticut, so patients and families are having to move to Connecticut or come here,” she said. “So we have some adults who are planning just to essentially buy here to come see us at regular intervals to get their care because they can’t get it in Florida. And we have a couple of families who are moving here from other states to access care.”
There are two young people who arrived from Florida who were on puberty blockers but who “were forced to stop their therapy because of the Florida law and are moving here to make sure that they can continue their therapy,” Tierney said.
In general, trans adolescents are not offered surgery, she said.
“Puberty blockers and hormone therapy can be lifesaving for adolescents,” she said. “So when you take that away … then a couple of things happen. One, hormonally they’re not going to do well because they’re coming off their medications. … But also it gives these kids that sense of hopelessness that some agency bigger than themselves can control their medical care.”
Suicidal ideation also increases for trans youth who are barred from medications or have it forcibly ended.
Britta Shute, a nurse practitioner with the center, said, “We have a standard of care and because gender identity is developmentally fluid in youth and younger people, I think mental health is incredibly helpful in terms of helping … young people themselves decide for themselves what’s appropriate to affirm their gender.
“Our center and also the other groups around the state that do this kind of care, all of us have waiting lists,” Tierney said. “We’re very busy and we have lots of patients coming just from Connecticut. But I think all of us have made special time and effort for any patients coming from a state where this care is being blocked, so that we can make sure that they’re taken care of well.”
Derek Fenwick, assistant director of Hartford HealthCare’s year-old Center for Gender Health, said he’s heard college students who are seeking referrals to the center have come from other states.
“What we’ve seen is that more and more of these individuals are 18- to 22-year-olds. College students are seeking places to go to college where the states have more progressive options,” he said.
“For Connecticut, we don’t have any gender-affirming bans, as other states, Texas, Florida, and so more students are seeking out going to school here in states like Connecticut,” Fenwick said. “That’s what we’re seeing. Once they’re here in Connecticut, in college, they’re then looking for resources to obtain gender-affirming care while they’re here.”
He said he expects more trans people will arrive from restrictive states like Florida, Texas and Louisiana.
“My fear is that we know there’s already a large amount of mental health concerns and suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts in the LGBTQ population,” he said. “And so when these bans come into place, it fuels more distress, more feeling that these individuals are invalid in their identity, and it leads to negative consequences on health, physical health and mental health as well.”
Dr. Pooja Luthra, director of Transgender Medicine Services at UConn Health, sees trans adults.
“As an endocrinologist, my role is one to assess them if they need gender-affirming hormone therapy,” she said. “And then I also collaborate with other sub-specialties at UConn, including in setting them up if they are candidates for surgical intervention or they need voice coaching or they need to see a gynecologist or urologist.”
She said she’s seen two young adults who have come from Texas for care.
“I think they are scared about what’s going on politically and how that will affect their care,” Luthra said. “And for one of those patients, fortunately, the patient had family here so they can move, although the other person has been living with friends in Connecticut.
“I think it is very distressing for these folks in terms of not knowing how their care will be affected because of the political situation,” she said, adding that the risk of suicide for trans people is near 40%.
“I do think there’s obviously been a lot of politicizing about a medical decision,” she said. “That’s a decision that should just remain between a physician or provider and a patient, and in terms of making it a political weapon it’s obviously quite difficult to hear and see.”
Ed Stannard can be reached at [email protected].
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