20 Under 20

Kai Shappley Shows The Bright Future of Trans Youth

Everything is bigger in Texas, including Kai Shappley’s fierce determination to make the state a safer place for trans kids like herself.

The 11-year-old activist has been fighting for trans rights since she was an even littler kid. She was 5 years old when she first watched her mom, Kimberly Shappley, testify before Texas lawmakers. She was arguing against a bill that would have prevented Kai from using the girls’ bathroom at her elementary school.

“It’s sad that I had to start learning politics at such a young age, but I had to,” Kai told NBC News. That particular “bathroom bill” later died in the House, but more and more anti-trans bills came in the following years. So the Shappleys continued standing up for trans rights.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Kai Shappley (@kai_shappley)

Kai herself went viral after speaking before the Texas Senate committee in April of 2021. She was urging lawmakers to vote against Senate bills 1311 and 1646, which would have banned gender-affirming medical care, including puberty blockers, hormones and surgery, for minors in Texas. One of the bills even referred to such treatments as “child abuse.” 

“I love ballet, math, science and geology. I spend my free time with my cats, chickens, FaceTiming my friends and dreaming of when I finally get to meet Dolly Parton,” Kai said. “I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices.”

“It makes me sad that some politicians use trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist,” she continued. “God made me. God loves me for who I am. And God does not make mistakes.”

Both bills ultimately failed, and a video of Kai’s testimony went viral (thanks in no small part to her quick wit — after her testimony, when no lawmakers had any questions for Kai, she quipped, “Seriously? None of y’all want to know more about me?”, giving the whole committee some serious side-eye). The video put the young activist on the map, earning her a large online following of supporters.

“It makes me want to keep on going, knowing that there are so many people who rely on me,” Kai told TIME. “Activism matters to me because it is a way to show that we belong. It’s a way to show that we will fight for what is right. We won’t sit silent.”

Not sitting silent is an understatement. Kai and her mother have worked tirelessly for trans rights through the years, speaking at rallies for LGBTQ+ rights, working with the ACLU and even meeting with national lawmakers to advocate for the Equality Act, a proposed bill that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender idenitity. Along with other activists in Texas, the Shappleys defeated more than 50 anti-trans bills during the state’s last legislative session.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Kai Shappley (@kai_shappley)

But Texas still isn’t a safe place for trans folk. In February, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate the parents of trans kids for child abuse. Despite efforts to stop the directive, including a statewide injunction, these discriminatory investigations resumed on May 26 of this year.

“Seeing what these families are going through is terrible and knowing that it could happen to my family is even worse,” Kai said of the directive. 

Fighting statewide hate like that is a lot of pressure to put on an 11-year-old’s shoulders. But she’s committed to advocating for trans kids like herself.

“It’s in my nature to do what’s right,” Kai said. “And it’s in my nature to get into a lot of drama.”

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Kai Shappley (@kai_shappley)

When she’s not at the Texas capitol, of course, Kai is like any other kid. She loves playing strategy games with her friends, cuddling with her cats and being Dolly Parton’s number one fan.

“Why wouldn’t you love her?” Kai said of the country icon. “She’s nice. She’s gracious. She’s fabulous. Her hair. Her dresses!” A for Kai, who self-describes as “the most Southern activist you will ever meet,” looking up to an outspoken advocate like Dolly just makes sense.

So, what does the future hold for Kai? Will she be a country star like Dolly? Will she continue to fight for trans rights? Will she pursue something else entirely? Yes, yes and yes, and that’s just the beginning.

​​“I want to be president,” Kai said. “I want to be a mother of 103 cats and live on a big beach — free cat litter. I want to be an astrophysicist. I want to be a scientist. I want to be a ballerina. I want to be an activist. I want to be an actress. I want to be everything.” ♦


INTO’s 20 Under 20 series celebrates Gen Z changemakers who are standing up and fighting for a better world. Read the full series here.

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