Kai Shappley didn’t feel scared when she sat before the Texas Senate committee in April 2021. Wearing a flowing yellow blouse, floral skirt and cowboy boots, the then-4th grader calmly introduced herself.
“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,” she testified. “I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices.”
Shappley urged lawmakers to vote against Senate bills 1311 and 1646, which banned doctors from providing gender-affirming treatment to transgender kids like herself. One of the bills even went as far as to define the treatment as “child abuse.” (Both bills ultimately failed.)
“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.”
Beneath her composure, Shappley says she felt furious. Lawmakers were avoiding her gaze, she tells TIME, glancing at their watches, scrolling on their phones or doodling on papers. When the opportunity came to ask her questions, no one spoke up.
“Seriously? None of y’all want to know more about me?” she quipped.
Video of Shappley’s testimony quickly went viral. It wasn’t the first time she’s garnered attention. The now-5th grader has been publicly telling her story and calling for trans equality for years. She’s traveled the country with her mother, speaking at rallies for LGBTQ rights. She’s worked with the ACLU on pro-trans projects. She’s met with national lawmakers to urge them to pass the Equality Act, which would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender idenitity. But April was the first time she’d ever testified on her own. Her reasoning was simple. “I wanted to show them that all these lies people have been spreading [about trans kids] are not true,” she says.
Shappley is a force of nature. At only 11 years old, the trans rights activist has built a following online; children and adults have written to her saying she’s inspired them to come out. “It makes me want to keep on going, knowing that there are so many people who rely on me,” Shappley says. And amid an unprecedented rise of bills in U.S. state legislatures targeting trans kids—including over 130 anti-trans bills in 2021 alone, per the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign—she has no plans on stopping.
“Activism matters to me because it is a way to show that we belong,” Shappley says. “It’s a way to show that we will fight for what is right. We won’t sit silent.”
The first time Shappley watched her mom testify before Texas lawmakers on her behalf, she was only 5 years old. Her mom was speaking out against a bill that would prevent trans kids like Kai from using the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity. As more anti-trans bills appeared over the following years, the Shappley’s returned again and again. The days could be long. Sometimes Kai and her siblings would sleep on hallway benches or on the floor of the chambers. “She’s grown up in the Texas capitol,” her mother, Kimberly, says.
Shappley puts it differently. “I know the capitol like [I know] my glorious face,” she says, grinning.
It was before the funeral of Monica Roberts—a renowned transgender journalist and advocate who had become Shappley’s mentor—in the fall of 2020 when Kai decided she wanted to start speaking publicly without her mother. “Mom was like, ‘I’ll go up there with you.’ But I said, ‘I think I’m strong enough to talk for myself now,” she says. Shappley ultimately spoke about Roberts’ life and legacy for several minutes. By the spring of 2021, she’d decided she wanted to testify before lawmakers.
“People say she just has that ‘it’ factor… she’ll take any platform and any microphone,” Kimberly Shappley laughs. “She’s just who she is, 105%, all the time until she passes out.”
But activism hasn’t consumed all of Shappley’s time. The sixth of seven kids—and one of only two girls—Kai loves going to school and playing strategy games with her friends, whom she calls “the beauty squad.” She’s completely devoted to Dolly Parton, and appears visibly offended when asked why she likes the famed country singer.
“Why wouldn’t you love her?” she exclaims. “She’s nice. She’s gracious. She’s fabulous. Her hair. Her dresses!”
Shappley says she wants to be “everything” when she grows up. “A mother of 103 cats. An actress. A director. A writer. A scientist. A ballerina. A musician.” She loves acting, and even appeared in an episode of Netflix’s 2020 show The Baby-Sitters Club. “Next thing you know, I’ll be on Broadway,” she beams.
Shappley’s family moved from Pearland, Tex., to Austin in 2018 after her previous school refused to let her use the girl’s bathroom. She loves the new city. Even still, her mother says they worry about the state becoming a hostile environment for trans kids. And after Texas lawmakers filed at least 13 bills directly targeting trans kids last legislative session, the family decided they’d seen enough. They plan on moving out of Texas, the only place Shappley has lived her entire life.
“I don’t think people understand the whole picture of what trans families are going through,” Kimberly says. “It’s not safe.” The attention on Shappley’s activism has also directed unwanted online hate towards their family. They’ve even received death threats.
But the family has a saying: It’s Mom’s job to worry. It’s Kai’s job to tell her story. And so she’s going to keep telling it. Shappley plans on testifying against more anti-trans bills in the future, and says she is prepared to testify “every single time” if she needs to. She feels a responsibility, she says, “to stand up for all of those who [cannot] have a voice of their own.”
“It’s in my nature to do what’s right,” she adds. “And it’s in my nature to get into a lot of drama.”
Watch the Kid of the Year broadcast special, hosted by Trevor Noah, on Nickelodeon on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 7:30pm/6:30pm CT to find out which finalist will be named TIME Kid of the Year
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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at email@example.com