The new faces of the transgender movement in Texas are a sunny five-year-old named Kai Shappley and her best advocate: her mom, Kimberly, a former evangelical, “ultraconservative” Tea Partier.
It’s easy to see why the Shappleys, profiled Monday by Fusion, are an appealing poster family for trans bathroom access. Kimberly, whose first response to her child’s gender identity was to “pray it out,” is a relatable proxy for many parents in the southern states where this issue is most contentious. And Kai—who came to activists’ attention after a humiliating experience in which, in her telling, she wet herself at school while teachers tried to figure out which bathroom she should use—is adorable in the most normative sense of the word, with pixie-like features and straw blond hair that she sometimes adorns with a big pink bow. Refusing to sympathize with this little girl’s plight would be like resisting the Olsen twins’ charms circa Full House. That straight-from-central-casting quality makes her a powerful symbol, if also a slightly troubling one.
Texas is becoming ground zero for the trans rights movement, as the Fusion piece points out. Last year, in response to a lawsuit by twelve states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a judge issued an injunction blocking the Obama administration’s guidance that schoolchildren should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice. (More recently, the Trump administration has said it will reverse Obama’s policy on bathroom access, leaving states and school districts to sort out the issue.) This January, the Texas legislature introduced a “bathroom bill,” SB6, mandating that students and others in government buildings use bathrooms of their “biological sex”—a term legislators chose in “a seeming end-run around trans people who have rushed to change their birth certificates in the wake of Trump’s election,” according to Fusion.
Texas’s SB6 was transparently modeled on North Carolina’s HB2, a similar measure enacted in 2016. And North Carolina was, in turn, inspired by Texas, and by a 2015 anti-trans initiative in Houston that succeeded based on the slogan “no men in women’s bathrooms.”
Trans rights advocates have spent the last few years trying to counter these misleading attacks. One strategy is to point out that trans people are hardly looking for trouble—indeed, they themselves are disproportionately the subject of violence and harassment—but just need a place to pee, like anyone else. Denying them safe and comfortable access to public restrooms can effectively bar them from public life. As Fusion’s Kathryn Joyce writes:
In a new survey of more than 27,000 trans Americans, 59% of respondents reported that they avoided using the bathroom when they were out in public. Lou Weaver said he hears over and over about trans Texas students who won’t eat or drink water at school, because they know it will force them into a crisis of what restroom to use. Eight percent of transgender youth reported a bladder or kidney infection in the last year as a result of avoiding public restrooms.
The LGBT cause has also gotten a boost from the business community. The AP reported Monday that North Carolina’s HB2 will cost the state “more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years” in “financial hits ranging from scuttled plans for a PayPal facility that would have added an estimated $2.66 billion to the state's economy to a canceled Ringo Starr concert that deprived a town's amphitheater of about $33,000 in revenue.” The Texas Association of Business has calculated that SB6 would cost the state roughly $8.5 billion and 185,000 jobs, and powerhouses from Facebook to the NFL have threatened to vote with their feet if the legislation passes.
Most of all, though, effective activism hinges on savvy storytelling, and in Texas, advocates have decided to highlight the struggles of children like Kai—and like “Erica,” Fusion’s pseudonym for a girl whose community rallied around her in the Trump-voting town of Dripping Springs. Recently, an image circulated there on social media of four little blond girls walking hand in hand. It’s impossible to guess which one is Erica, or, in other words, which one is trans.
Of course, not all trans people are tiny blond prepubescent girls clad in pink bows. They include plenty of adults who also need to be able to safely use the bathroom, regardless of how tidily they fit into other people’s gender norms. In the real world, black and Latina transgender women have faced an astonishing toll of violence in the last few years: As Fusion reports, at least three trans women of color were murdered in 2016 in Texas alone. Texas’s bathroom bill would force these women into the men’s room—which sounds awkward at best and hazardous to them at worst—or simply force them to find accommodations elsewhere.
Rather than just paint that everyday scenario, though, trans rights advocates are seizing on Kai and her peers as the precise polar opposite of the bathroom-bill advocates’ boogeyman—the scary guy who wants to use the women’s room. To the archetypal white, conservative, Texan voter spooked by this vision, they offer a counterargument: Instead, these campaigns say, picture a harmless blond girl child, raised by nice Christian people just like yourselves, who wants to use the same bathroom you’d expect. The hope is that the first step to rejecting Texas’s bill and ones like it may be coming face-to-face with kids like Kai and Erica and seeing them for what they are: little girls who just need a comfortable place to pee.