By DAWN ENNIS
At the age of five, when most children learn their ABCs and how to play games of sport and of imagination, Kai Shappley of Texas took on the harsh reality of political oppression and became a champion for what our critics call “the alphabet people:” our LGBTQ+ population. Attending kindergarten as the girl she is, Kai began advocating for herself and so many others are brave enough to live as their authentic selves.
Even at such a young age, Kai said she knew she had to be a voice for transgender kids like herself. Since then, she has testified against dozens of anti-trans bills in her home state, including a policy from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that equated gender-affirming care with “child abuse.”
“I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices,” Kai told Texas legislators in April 2021. She was 10 at that time. “It makes me sad that some politicians use trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist.”
Four months later, with the threat that those “child abuse” investigations could endanger the family, the girl’s mother, Kimberly Shappley, made a drastic decision to protect both Kai and her 10-year-old brother Kaleb: She sold their Austin home and most of the family’s belongings and hit the road for what she called an “epic” adventure, to relocate to safety.
“We are only taking the belongings that fit in the car,” Kimberly wrote on a GoFundMe account she created in July, “including three cats and a 50-pound dog, on a road trip that doesn’t have a destination yet. What we have in mind so far is an epic road trip the kids will remember forever and my goal as a mom is to help ensure the memories from this season of our life are the ones that bring them joy later in life.”
Kimberly considered her options and consulted with this reporter, among others, in her search for the best possible option.
“I’m looking for a new state where my daughter will be allowed to be a kid, and my youngest son will no longer have to worry about being taken from me or his sister,” she wrote.
Kimberly, who works as a Telehealth nurse licensed in both Texas and Connecticut, had moved her family before, across Texas, after encountering anti-LGBTQ+ haters. She said she decided to move out of Texas to protect Kaleb, as well as Kai; Kimberly said she worried the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services might take him away, too.
“It’s not just trans kids Texas is harming by scapegoating them for political purposes,” wrote Kimberly. “Kaleb, who is cisgender, regularly expresses fear that he would be taken from me by state agents and fear for the irreparable damage he knows would be caused to his sister were she forced to detransition. When states target trans kids, their parents, and their doctors, there is collateral damage.”
“There were only three states that were safe,” Kai said. “And two of them were way too expensive. Like, so unaffordable it’s not even real.”
As of press time, Connecticut is one of only three states (The others are Massachusetts and California.) that protect families of trans kids from being extradited back to their home state to face child abuse allegations. And since August, Connecticut has been the Shappley family’s new home.
“We came all the way, from the West to the East, and we’re trying to get used to the cold weather,” said Kai, who turned 12 years old in December.
This is the family’s first winter outside of Texas, and last Autumn, Kai, her mother and brother found time to chat with CT Voice.
“How do you like Connecticut so far?” I asked Kai, who responded with a distinct Southern drawl: “It’s cold! Too cold. Even y’all’s fall is colder than our winter!”
“Is anyone here in Connecticut giving you a hard time about being who you are?” I asked. “No,” Kai said, “And if they did, I’d just ignore ‘em.”
In September, Kai, her mother and brother were among those honored at the inaugural Connecticut Voice Honors Gala at Foxwoods Resort and Casino. The family received the Profiles in Courage Award for all they have done and are doing to create a safer world for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community.
“Thank you for a wonderful night @ctvoicemag,” Kai posted on her Instagram, which has thousands of followers; Her Facebook account has reached more than one million users. Given her age, all her social media accounts are managed by her mom, Kimberly.
“Our family was presented with the ‘Profiles in Courage’ award at the Connecticut Voice Honors Gala,” Kimberly told her followers with an update to her GoFundMe account, which at press time exceeds $55,000.
“I am hoping that you know how important you are to my family. Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about the goodness of the people who continue to believe in us and help us in the ways you have. Every penny of the GoFundMe has enabled us to keep going. Safe places are rarely affordable places but now that we are here in the New England area it’s easier for us to look around for a safe place to call home within our budget. We are excited to find where we will be moving come Spring.”
Kimberly told CT Voice signing a six-month lease here was their first step, in a journey to establishing a permanent home. But before they move again, her focus is gearing up for the unfamiliar Connecticut winter.
“Fall in Connecticut feels a lot like winter in Texas,” Kimberly said. A new friend in their new neighborhood took them shopping at Goodwill and Savers for some new duds, but more shopping is in their future: “We totally need to up the winter clothes game soon. We have heard ‘layers’ and ‘wool-blend socks’ a lot, so I have been adding things to our Amazon list and purchasing a few items on paydays. We are learning as we go, and I’ve been told we have until December/January to get all of our winter necessities. The kids and I were surprised to see ‘snow pants’ on their school supply list and are thankful a friend already gifted us with those since I have zero idea what I’m doing when it comes to winter clothes!”
Kimberly checks in regularly with CT Voice, and told me she and her family have at long last found balance here in Connecticut.
“Life finally has a sort of cadence, and we know our way to walk to the grocery store, pharmacy, and post office, without having to use the GPS. The leaves are changing colors and it’s so exciting for me,” she said. “Fall has always been my favorite season, and now I’m in a place that’s famous for its fall foliage. I’m hoping to get a few daytrips in, to drive to see the best fall leaves sighting spots in New England. We’ve been working so hard with very few breaks between my work as a nurse that pays the bills — and also advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community—and our family’s work advocating for the trans community to do our part in changing hearts and minds. We have a lot to do leading into elections and then legislative sessions.”
Given that Kai is no stranger to politics, she used an invitation to address the annual fundraising gala for the Triangle Community Center last October, to make a political statement:
“Thank you for using your gifts and your talents to help us. And if you still have gifts and talents to use, use them until you don’t have any more. Can I use the ‘R word?’” Kai asked the crowd, who applauded to signal their support. “Let’s turn this country from Republican to Queer! Thank you so much.”
The warm reception and standing ovation Kai received prompted her to tell the TCC’s president, Colin Hosten, “This is the best night of my life.”
And that night got only better from there, as Kai and her family met the president of Lambda Legal, the mayor of Norwalk, drag queens Loosey LaDuca and Robin Fierce, and many more LGBTQ+ movers and shakers. And then they danced the night away.
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