Texas fifth grader, Kai Shappley, was given recognition for her work as her state's anti-trans sports law went into effect.
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Kai Shappley was 5 years old when her mother Kimberly testified in front of the Texas Senate to oppose legislation that would prohibit Kai from using the restroom matching her gender identity—the girls' restroom—in her Pearland, Texas, public elementary school. In spite of Kimberly's effort, the bill ultimately passed, making the Shappley family feel forced to move to Austin.

The setback didn't keep Kai and Kimberly from speaking out for transgender children's rights. Over the past six years, the mother-daughter duo have spoken at LGBTQ+ rallies, ACLU-sponsored, and trans-supportive projects all over the country. The pair even met with national legislators in a plea to pass the Equality Act—a federal bill that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQIA+ identities. The bill eventually passed the House in February 2021 but has since stalled.

Woman covered with the transgender flag on a protest
Credit: Getty

Last spring when Kai heard that the Texas Senate committee was considering a pair of bills that would criminalize doctors for administering gender affirming treatments to transgender kids, she felt called to take a stand. Kai told local news station KXAN, "We've seen a lot of what's going on multiple times in history, and it's just history repeating itself over and over. It's terrible, so I started speaking out because I wanted that to stop." Kimberly offered to continue to speak on her daughter's behalf but Time reports that Kai was adamant. "I'm strong enough to talk for myself now."

In April 2021, Kai testified alone before the committee, representing transgender people and showing the human face of someone who would be affected by their legislation.

"I love ballet, science, math, and geology. I spend my free time with my cats, chickens, FaceTiming my friends and dreaming of when I will finally meet Dolly Parton. I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices," Kai said during her testimony before the Texas Senate committee.

Her indictment of lawmakers was clear and cutting: "I've been having to explain myself since I was 3 or 4 years old. Texas legislators have been attacking me since pre-K." Kai also remembered to recognize those who stand in support of transgender kids' rights. "And I want to thank those of you who are sticking up for kids like me. By the time I'm in college you will be celebrated in the history books." Ultimately, the Senate bill did not pass.

The video recording of Kai's two-minute testimony went viral on social media, catching the eye of jurors for the multiplatform (Time and Nickelodeon, among others) honor. Kid of the Year recognizes young people rising as leaders in science, education, and social justice.

On Tuesday, January, 18, Kai was announced as one of 20 finalists for the award, ironically on the same day that House Bill 25 went into effect.

Signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott last October, House Bill 25 prohibits Texas public school athletes from playing on the team that matches their gender identity in favor of the sex indicated on their birth certificate. Though the bill was killed multiple times during regular sessions, it passed both the Texas House and Senate during a special session. Texas is the tenth state to pass anti-transgender athlete bills since 2019. (Three other state legislatures passed the bill but their governors vetoed.) Eight more states are currently considering similar bills for the 2022 legislative session.

Kimberly is proud of Kai for her willingness to speak out against anti-transgender bills becoming law, but she is also worried for Kai's safety. Though their family considers itself safer in Austin than they might be in other Texas cities, in the last legislative session alone, Texas lawmakers considered 13 bills limiting the rights of transgender kids. After Kai's testimony, the Shappleys received death threats and hate mail. Kimberly has even considered moving out of state like some other families of trans kids have recently done, but the Human Rights Campaign reports that U.S. state legislatures passed 130 anti-transgender bills in 2021. Seven states are currently considering bills similar to the one that initiated Kai's viral testimony (limiting medical professionals' ability to treat transgender minors in a gender affirming way).

Kai isn't swayed by these numbers and refuses to stay silent. She feels responsible for the people of all ages who have written to the her family indicating that her activism is what has inspired them to come out. With over 11,000 followers on Instagram, she continues to persevere as a vocal transgender rights activist, eager to testify in the face of other anti-trans bills. "I'm a bold and strong, independent little lady and I will keep fighting for as long as I need to."