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Kai Shappley has had a very different childhood than most 11-year-olds.
She first started learning about politics at age 5, when the Legislature in her home state of Texas tried to pass a bill that would have prevented her from using the girls’ bathroom because she’s transgender.
“It’s sad that I had to start learning politics at such a young age, but I had to,” Kai told NBC News. The Texas Senate passed the "bathroom bill," but it later died in the House.
Since then, Kai and her mom, Kimberly Shappley, have become nationally recognized activists. Kai has spoken at Pride rallies and news conferences and has traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to members of Congress about the Equality Act, a bill that would provide the first federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in housing, employment and many other areas of life. In January, she was named a Time Kid of the Year finalist.
At the same time, Kai is just a kid. She’s the sixth of seven children, and her family has three cats, five roosters and, by Kai’s estimate, “20-something” chickens at their home in Austin.
“Our neighbors must hate us, but they can’t, because we give them free eggs,” she said.
Kai is well-known in LGBTQ activist circles for her spirited personality — she describes herself as “the most Southern activist you will ever meet” — and her ability to work Dolly Parton into almost any public speech.
In April 2021, she testified before the Texas Legislature, and video of the moment went viral. She spoke against a bill that would have banned gender-affirming medical care, such as puberty blockers, hormones and surgery, for minors in Texas, and would have made providing such care a felony.
“I spend my free time with my cats, chickens, FaceTiming with my friends and dreaming of when I will finally meet Dolly Parton,” Kai said. “Texas legislators have been attacking me since pre-K. I am in fourth grade now.… It’s just sad that some politicians use trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist.”`
Activists, including Kai and her mother, successfully defeated the bill against gender-affirming medical care and more than 50 others targeting trans people during Texas’ last legislative session.
The Texas Legislature has a session once every two years, so Kai and her family thought they’d have a moment to catch their breath. But in February, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate any reported instances of parents providing gender-affirming medical care to minors.
The next day, Kai and her mother joined a news conference held by the Human Rights Campaign. Kimberly Shappley described how the family had been fighting the state of Texas for six years, and they had considered leaving, but that would require them to uproot the family.
“Just being the parent of a trans kid is difficult, so it’s not just as simple as leaving,” Shappley said during the news conference.
Kai began to cry as her mom spoke. In the days following the directive, Shappley said Kai asked to sleep in her bed.
Kai told NBC News that she’s recently felt terrified and sad about the investigations.
“Because seeing what these families are going through is terrible and knowing that it could happen to my family is even worse,” she said.
She said the last legislative session was “tiring,” so her only message to politicians now was “stop,” she said. “Please, at least give us a break.”
She said her cats, chickens, music and friends help to give her hope. Her favorite Dolly Parton songs are “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors.”
“I love staying up all day and all night playing with my friends,” Kai said. “Mom never gets any sleep when that happens though, so it’s very rare. I love to just stay inside and eat and sleep, and I love snuggling with my cats,” she said, as a large black-and-white feline named Jake (who responds to the pronouns “she” and “her”) lay on her lap.
Kai said she’s also inspired by her LGBTQ hero Monica Roberts, a trailblazing trans journalist who lived in Houston and died in 2020. She called Roberts “Auntie Moni” and described herself and Roberts as “the best of divas.
“She was humble and prideful at the same time — something I’m still trying to learn,” Kai said.
As for her future, Kai said she wants “to do everything.”
“I want to be president,” she 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.”