By John Wright
As an evangelical Christian who attends Houston’s iconic Lakewood Church, Kimberly Shappley feels that she brings an important voice to the debate over transgender restroom access.
Shappley, an ordained minister who identifies as Republican, is also the mother of a 5-year-old trans girl, Kai, who began kindergarten in the Pearland Independent School District last month.
Pearland ISD officials are refusing to follow recent guidance from the Obama administration saying public schools should allow trans students to use restrooms based on their gender identity. In response to the guidance, school superintendent John Kelly issued a statement in May suggesting it would lead to “legalizing pedophilia and polygamy.”
But Shappley isn’t backing down. In early August, she made national news by attending a school-board meeting and imploring officials to reconsider the policy, pointing to high suicide rates among trans youth. “I made life very challenging for my little girl for a long time, because I felt it conflicted with my faith,” Shappley told OutSmart. “For people to see a strong Christian who loves the Lord stand up for her transgender child, I think that’s impactful.”
Shappley is one of dozens of parents across the state who’ve emerged in recent months as passionate advocates for their trans children. The parents have become the LGBT community’s most visible response to efforts by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton to restrict restroom access.
Shappley “came out” at an Equality Texas press conference at the state capitol in May, where she and other parents condemned Paxton’s decision to challenge the guidance by filing a lawsuit against the Obama administration. Since then, Shappley said she’s been ostracized by the majority of her friends and family.
“I’m not gay, I’m not trans, but I still had to come out of the closet,” Shappley said. “I still had to risk losing family and friends and support that’s always been there. Even the people who have known about Kai being trans before we came out publicly—once we came out publicly, it became too risky for their own reputations to continue to support us.”
Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, said the sacrifices of Shappley and other parents who have gone public have not been in vain. “None of these parents sought out being advocates, and they find themselves becoming advocates because their kids are being targeted, and I think it’s important for the public to see that our lieutenant governor and our attorney general are trying to make political points at the expense of young children, and it’s disgusting,” Smith said.
In response to Paxton’s lawsuit, a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction on August 21 barring the Obama administration from enforcing the guidance. LGBT advocates expect the U.S. Department of Justice, which was reviewing its options, to appeal the injunction.
In the meantime, three months after he was first invited, Paxton recently agreed to meet with the family of a trans child, Adam and Amber Briggle of Denton, and their 8-year-old son, MG.
“It may not change either of their minds, but I want them to see the real people that they’re hurting,” Smith said of Paxton and Patrick. “They’re doing things that jeopardize innocent children’s physical and mental well-being.”
Shappley said she was “disappointed and sad” to learn of the injunction, but for now, it won’t affect Kai’s situation. Pearland ISD has unisex restrooms in kindergarten classrooms, but if Kai is in the cafeteria or on the playground or at an assembly, a staff member will have to escort her to a nurse’s station.
Kai carries an extra set of clothes to school in case she can’t wait and has an accident, Shappley said, but she hasn’t tried to explain the situation to her young daughter.
“If she’s going to be told that she can’t use the restroom with her peers, it will have to be a staff member who tells her,” Shappley said. “It’s not going to be her mother. I would never tell her that.”
In response to an inquiry from OutSmart, Pearland ISD spokeswoman Courtney Morris said the district’s stance on trans students had not changed since the superintendent’s statement in May.
“Children whose parents declare them transgender must go to the bathroom for the sex indicated on their birth certificate,” Morris said in an email. “Such students have also been allowed to use a private bathroom (such as in the nurse’s station) if they are so inclined.”
Morris acknowledged the district’s “stance” isn’t a formal written policy and has not been voted on by the school board.
“With federal guidance on this issue now being litigated by Texas and other states, policy on this matter is delayed,” she said. “Until then, Pearland ISD’s stance remains as stated previously.”
Shappley said she’ll continue to communicate with teachers and school officials, and advocate on behalf of her daughter.
Meanwhile, she said the response from Lakewood Church leadership has been positive, although she hasn’t met directly with pastor Joel Osteen.
“It’s really, really hard to look at your child and know that they were born this way, that the Lord made them this way, and they’ve done nothing wrong, but people hate them,” Shappley said. “I am a Christian, and I believe that the Lord is going to take care of Kai through all of this.”