The drive from Pearland, Texas, to Austin isn’t that long by Texas standards. The Lone Star State’s vastness is sometimes overstated, but it’s about twice the size of Germany. The trip between the two cities is a two-and-half-hour ride over flat terrain—as the humid swamplands of East Texas give way to interior lowlands before desiccating into desert at the westernmost corridors of the state.
But when your family has been forced out of a quiet Houston suburb because your trans daughter can’t use the bathroom at school, the journey feels a lot longer.
That’s the position Kimberly Shappley found herself in after her daughter, Kai, had been having “potty accidents” at Pearland Independent School District because she wasn’t allowed to use the restroom with other girls. While Kai had been permitted to use a single-stall facility in the school nurse’s office since kindergarten, she would often wet her pants when the nurse was out and the door was locked. This was the norm for years.
Although many teachers were affirming and supportive, Shappley describes the environment in the Houston suburb as like a scene from Lord of the Flies.
“By first grade, Kai was consistently being called by the wrong name on purpose,” she tells NewNowNext. “Kids at school started chanting: ‘You’re a boy! You’re a boy! You’re a boy!’ We reached the point where Kai told me she couldn’t take it anymore.”
Shappley did everything she could to remain in a town she had called home for 25 years. When Kai was set to start kindergarten in 2015, she scheduled a meeting with administrators at Pearland ISP to let them know her daughter doesn’t use the name on her birth certificate and that she uses the girls’ bathroom. The family went to board meetings, testified before the Texas State Legislature, appeared in videos produced by the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas, and was even featured in a documentary.
But no matter how loud Shappley cried for help, it felt like no one was willing to listen. Dr. John Kelly, district superintendent of Pearland ISP, compared trans children to pedophiles and polygamists in statements to the local newspaper. As her daughter came home crying every day, lawmakers in the state legislature attempted to pass a series of anti-trans bathroom bills to make her life even worse.
After three years of pleading, the only option left was to move to a city where the school districts have policies in place to protect her daughter. The Austin Independent School District—where Kai has been a student since 2018—forbids discrimination and harassment against students on the basis of either gender identity or gender expression.
But even in their new home, the fight isn’t over. This year Republicans in the Texas State Legislature are pushing “religious refusal” bills preventing the state from taking action against professionals who discriminate against LGBTQ clients. The passage of such a law would ensure no town is safe for her daughter. But while Shappley admits it’s “going to be tough to get protection” for LGBTQ people in Texas, her nursing license restricts her from relocating to another state altogether.
“I’m limited to where I can move,” Shappley claims. “I’m having to look at a map and look at states that are safe for my daughter to live in. This is America—I should not have to worry from one county to the next, one town to the next, and one state to the next that one would give her rights and one wouldn’t.”
Facing yet another challenge to her daughter’s right to exist, Shappley took the matter to a higher authority. Last week, she testified in Congress on behalf of the U.S. Equality Act, a federal bill that would update the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to grant LGBTQ people protection in housing, employment, education, federal funding, credit, the jury system, and places of public accommodation. If signed into law, Kai would have the right to equal treatment in every school district in the country.
On Tuesday, Shappley was the first witness called upon to speak before the House Committee on Education and Labor. With only five minutes to address the room, she told a story she’s shared many times since her daughter’s gender identity began to reveal itself at around two years old.
Instead of Tonka trucks and G.I. Joes, Shappley told committee members that Kai insisted on playing with dolls; she wanted panties instead of boy underwear.
“Immediately, I intervened,” Shappley said. “I requested the daycare put away the girl toys so Kai couldn’t play with them. But by three years old, Kai was telling anyone who would listen that she is a girl. That’s when I implemented a home-remedy version of conversion therapy. I hated it but felt a responsibility to save my child’s soul.”
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Shappley began a process of transformation as her daughter continued to assert who she is. An ordained evangelical minister, Shappley used to be a Tea Party voter and a weekly member Joel Osteeen’s megachurch in Houston, Texas. She continued to attend service every week even after Kai came out. During this time, Shappley admitted her “heart and mind [did not] change overnight about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”
“It has been a years-long process that only happened because of Kai,” she testified.
As Shappley explained to the committee what a difference it has made in her daughter’s life to be accepted by those around her, there were numerous sniffles in the halls of Congress. After Kai’s first day at Austin ISD, she bolted through the front door and immediately ran upstairs. At first, Shappley was terrified her daughter had been bullied and picked on, just like at her old school. But when she went upstairs to check on her, Shappley found Kai writing in her diary that she “had the best day ever.”
“In Austin ISD, parents don’t complain and classmates invite her for sleepovers,” Shappley said during her address. “District leadership set a standard to be kind and truly inclusive.”
While the Equality Act would help affirm that standard of treatment for transgender children in school districts across the U.S., the historic legislation remains a long shot in 2019. Republicans hold a six-seat majority in the Senate, and President Donald Trump has endorsed the First Amendment Defense Act, a sweeping bill allowing people of faith to refuse basic services to LGBTQ individuals.
But with her daughter sitting behind her last Tuesday, Shappley felt as though their family’s story was finally being heard by those who needed to hear it most.
Afterward, Shappley scheduled a meeting with the office of Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), who had twice sponsored federal legislation targeting trans people. The Civil Rights Uniformity Act, which he introduced in 2016 and 2017, would exclude “gender identity” from the interpretation of “sex” under federal laws like Title VII and Title IX. He claimed decisions by the Obama administration to extend those civil rights protections to trans people serve to “impose social policy on America.”
But as Shappley and her daughter waited to speak with the Congressman’s staffers, Olson spotted Kai twirling around in her sundress. He asked her to come sit in his office while they waited; the two played for awhile before his team came and whisked the family away. In a photo Shappley snapped of the occasion, Olson pushed her around in his office chair while Kai gasped for joy.
What made the Kodak moment possible, however, is that the Republican lawmaker didn’t know Kai was transgender. He wasn’t in committee for the Equality Act hearing and didn’t hear the speech.
“I just kept saying, ‘Thank you, Lord,’” Shappley says. “‘I know that you did this. I know that you gave Kai a chance for this man to see her as the little girl she is.’ He didn’t know why we were in his office, but I guarantee you that as transgender rights move forward, he’s going to remember that he met her.”
One day, Shappley predicts Olson will learn their family’s story. She hopes he understands the many miles they’ve traveled to find a place where Kai can be safe and happy, the same journey that brought them to Congress and to his office that day.
It’s one no family should have to make.