Editor’s note: Amid a charged national conversation about transgender rights, the question of how best to love, support, and care for trans-identifying young Americans has become a source of fervent debate. In recent months, as a wave of legislation and orders has emerged from conservative statehouses designed to block gender-affirming medical treatment for young people, Vogue sent the photographer Ethan James Green and writer Devan Díaz to Texas to meet a girl already very much in the public eye. The following text, images, and video documentary are the result. Every young person’s story is different, and Vogue urges readers and parents to consult resources as varied as the Human Rights Campaign, the American Medical Association, PFLAG, Gender Spectrum, the Trevor Project, and others when seeking support and care.
In a quiet neighborhood in Austin, Texas, an 11-year-old girl walks to the end of a road to check her family’s mailbox. Afterward, she will pause to pet a friendly cat, greet the neighbors, or maybe visit a local lemonade stand. She likes to take her time, because a busy schedule waits at home. Most days consist of school lessons taught by her mom, Zoom meetings with agents, auditions, Discord group chats, video games, and a book proposal she’s working on with a potential publisher. YouTube rabbit holes (on Greek goddesses and Dolly Parton, mostly) slide in between responsibilities. Despite the full itinerary, her mother makes sure she splits duties of taking out the trash and feeding the chickens with her younger brother, Kaleb. One morning, eyes still drowsy from the night before, she tells me, “I sleep with my mom, because I’m afraid of what could happen. I’m really tired.”
She isn’t talking about a simple childhood fear of the dark. Kai Shappley, and all transgender children in Texas, now have more to fear than the boogeyman. In February 2022, Texas governor Greg Abbott issued a letter to the Department of Family and Protective Services directing the state agency to investigate medical treatments for transgender adolescents—such as puberty blockers and hormones—as child abuse. The letter asserts that there are reporting requirements for “all licensed professionals who have direct contact with children who may be subject to such abuse, including doctors, nurses, and teachers,” and that a failure to report merits criminal penalties.
At the time, Kimberly remembers asking God to send her to hell if she was making the wrong choice. “I’m the one letting Kai live this way,” she says. “If this is a sin, I need God to punish me and not my kid.” Around the time of the bathroom incidents at school and the storm of media attention, Kimberly teamed up with Equality Texas, a statewide organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ Texans and parents of transgender children. During a press conference, Kimberly spoke to LGBTQ+ Texans directly, asking for forgiveness: “I’m sorry for every time I plucked a Bible verse out of context and I hurt you with it,” she said. “I was a hateful reflection of a loving God.”
What happens if transgender children do get taken away from their families? Foster care and an uncertain future. (At least 104 children have died in Texas’s long-term care system since September 2019, six as a result of documented abuse by caregivers.) Principal Loyola works hard to shield her students from this reality, but it is an impossible task. “It’s hard to talk about what’s happening in the state without thinking about my campus on a day-to-day level,” Loyola says. Kai was halfway through fifth grade when Abbott’s directive came out, and Kimberly made the decision to pull both of her kids out of school and homeschool them—even as she still works as a nurse for a nonprofit dedicated to underserved communities in Texas. Kai’s fifth-grade teacher, Erin Gerton, felt she was put in an impossible position—ordered by the language of the directive to report trans kids and their families, but knowing she would refuse to do so. Gerton is moving to Portland, Oregon, because the experience of being a teacher in Texas has become too overwhelming. “I can’t teach in Texas anymore,” she says. “I can’t do it. It’s really sad, because the state is experiencing a teacher shortage. But everything going on gets in the way of educating children.”