Over the past few years, Houston’s LGBTQ community has gotten to know one of its youngest advocates—the courageous nine-year-old Kai Shappley.
Kai, a transgender girl, first made national headlines in 2016 when she was the center of a controversial bathroom debate at her Pearland elementary school. Two years later, her story became the subject of the Emmy-award winning film Trans in America: Texas Strong, as well as several popular streaming documentaries.
Destined for celebrity, Kai now has a budding acting and modeling career in the works, thanks in large part to her recent guest role in the popular Netflix series The Baby-Sitters Club.
“I had a wonderful time,” Kai says. “I’m also super-happy they used a trans person to be a trans character. We get lots of messages from moms and trans kids telling us how much it meant to them.”
Based on Ann M. Martin’s popular 1980s book series, The Baby-Sitters Club tells the story of four ’tween girls who band together to offer babysitting services. The Netflix series has been updated to reflect the challenges that young girls face today.
In the fourth episode, “Mary Anne Saves the Day,” Kai plays Bailey, a trans girl who spikes a fever while babysitter Mary Anne is taking care of her. After being taken to the hospital, Bailey is misgendered by the hospital staff. The normally introverted Mary Anne then rises to the occasion and firmly explains that Bailey is a girl.
Mary Anne later seeks insight on trans people from her friend Dawn. “It’s like this: are you right-handed or left-handed?” Dawn asks.
“Right-handed,” Mary Anne responds.
“And if someone tried to make you do everything with your left hand, it would be super-weird, right? Well, that’s how Bailey feels. The same way that you know that you’re right-handed, Bailey knows she’s a girl. We all want our outsides to match our insides,” Dawn concludes.
Prior to filming, the creators of The Baby-Sitters Club were determined to find the perfect trans actress to play the role of Bailey, and Kai was exactly the kind of girl they had in mind.
Netflix casting associate Leigh Ann Smith says she remembered Kai as the little girl in the Texas Strong documentary. In a matter of minutes, she assembled video clips of Kai and emailed them to her teammates at The Baby-Sitters Club. Within the hour, the answer was unanimous: the team had to have Kai for the series.
“I went into no-stone-unturned mode,” Smith says, laughing. “I searched and searched and finally found Kai’s mom on Facebook. I sent her a message introducing myself and telling her about the project. She explained that Kai has done a lot of public speaking, and was no stranger to cameras, but she had no acting experience.” That was even better for Smith, who was obviously concerned about presenting an authentic character.
Award-winning trans writer, blogger, and activist Monica Roberts says that “employing an actual trans child to play a trans child is a huge step in the right direction for Hollywood.”
“Every time moviemakers cast a cis male to play a trans woman, it feeds into the hate for trans women,” Roberts states. “When Eddie Redmayne was cast as The Danish Girl, or Jerod Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, it served to foster more violence against trans people.
“Lots of cis people view trans people as deceptions, or ‘acting’ as the opposite sex,” Roberts explains. “They think we ‘trick’ them, then 20 guys gang up and beat a trans woman, just like they did in June in Minnesota. Casting Kai as a trans child lets the audience get to know her as who she really is—a beautiful, human girl.”
By the age of two-and-a-half, Kai regularly began telling her mother, Kim Shappley, that she was in the wrong body. Kim, a devout Christian and conservative Republican, struggled to accept Kai’s gender identity before she found a support network to lean on.
“I didn’t know anything about trans people, and I had no one to ask,” Kim recalls. “The longer it went on, the more Kai would act out. We were both miserable for several years.”
The Pearland mother didn’t know what to do, so she turned to the Internet. There she found information and community support from a website for Christian parents of trans children. She also discovered the statistics on trans kids: about 40 percent consider suicide if they are not accepted for who they are at home.
When Kai was five, a moment came that made it impossible for the situation to continue as it was. “I overheard my child praying to Jesus one night, asking him to ‘take her home,’” Kim recalls. “I heard my child say she would rather go home—to die—than live another day as a boy. I made up my mind at that moment that I would rather have a trans child than a dead child.”
Kim allowed Kai to socially transition by first softening her wardrobe, adding dresses (and lots of pink) and letting her blonde hair grow long. “Kai was ecstatic, overjoyed, and she became a happier child from that point on,” Kim recalls. “In truth, Kai did not need to transition, she had always been Kai. It was me who needed to transition all along.”
While coming out came easily for Kai, the rest of the world was not as comfortable. The Shappley’s biological family, as well as their church family, disappeared overnight, and many won’t speak with Kim to this day.
By Kai’s second year of school, the youngster was bullied, ostracized, and ordered to use the nurse’s bathroom to separate her from the other girls. Kim also waged a year-long educational outreach campaign in defense of her daughter’s fight for equality and inclusion in the Pearland Independent School District, but the conservative board of trustees was immovable.
In 2018, Kim did the only thing she could think to do: she packed up her family and moved to Austin, where gender equality is written into the school district’s mission statement. Kai started school in Austin with a much better chance of acceptance.
The American Civil Liberties Union caught wind of the family’s struggle and decided to produce a documentary about how eight-year-old Kai is navigating life and the challenges of school. That 18-minute film short Trans In America: Texas Strong was released in 2018 to resounding praise, and won Little By Little Films an Outstanding Short Documentary award at the News and Documentary Emmy Awards in New York City in September 2019.
Kai’s political résumé as a self-described trans activist is equally impressive. She has addressed crowds and cameras from the steps of the State Capitol in Austin and in the halls of Congress in Washington, spreading her uplifting brand of enlightenment.
As for Kai’s acting career, audiences can expect to see her in other productions. “After working with her on The Baby-Sitters Club, I think it’s a safe bet that she will enjoy an acting career in the future,” Smith predicts.
The Netflix series is in its first season, and has not yet been re-signed due to the constraints of COVID-19 and the risks to the cast and crew. But Kai looks forward to appearing in future seasons.
“I would love that,” she says.
The Baby-Sitter’s Club is now streaming on Netflix. Keep up with Kai and Kim Shappley on Facebook at facebook.com/Our.Faith.In.Transition.
This article appears in the August 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.