On the Monday before Christmas break at an elementary school in Pearland, Texas, just south of Houston, a five-year-old girl named Kai went with the rest of her kindergarten classmates to the library. Physically slight but hugely affectionate with silky blond hair, Kai loved her teacher, her classmates, and her school.
Yet a short time later, Kai’s family claims, she was crying and standing over a puddle on the hallway floor. Accidents aren’t uncommon for kindergarteners, of course. But when Kai’s mother, Kimberly Shappley, picked her up that day, Kai was wearing different clothes than what she’d gone to school in, her original outfit was wet and balled up in her backpack, and she was distraught.
“That day she made a big deal of it, because in her mind and her heart, it was a different feeling, and she knew it was different,” said Kimberly.
Kai assured her this accident wasn’t because she’d gotten distracted playing or waited until the last minute. It was because Kai is transgender, and adults at her school took too long to figure out what bathroom she should use.
Kai’s own classroom, like all kindergarten classrooms at her school, has a single-occupancy, unisex bathroom for everyone to use. But when Kai goes to the cafeteria, library or gym, she isn’t allowed to use the regular girls’ restrooms, thanks to a confusing workaround the school district came up with last spring.
When Kimberly first approached the Pearland Independent School District last year, saying her child would be starting school in the fall and she hoped they might find a private way to accommodate her, school officials initially seemed amenable. But days after that conversation, Kimberly said, the superintendent, John Kelly, lamented to the Houston Chronicle about the “social engineering” of Obama’s Departments of Education and Justice in mandating that public schools let trans students use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.
The May 2016 directive, clarifying that gender identity was a protected category under Title IX— the federal law that forbids sex discrimination in public schools—was an assertion of dominance from a “hostile vocal minority,” Kelly said. “What’s next? Legalizing pedophilia and polygamy?”
Kelly’s comments might be a mélange of red-state stereotypes, but they don’t represent the universal approach taken in Texas. Sixteen miles away in Houston, superintendent Richard Carranza said on the first day of school this year that “kids are human beings, and I think that a human being should be treated like a human being.” Districts in other major Texas cities, like Fort Worth, have withstood the ire of conservative politicians over their progressive policies for accommodating trans students. And even in the unlikely setting of a majority-Latino Houston Catholic church, one family of a 12-year-old trans girl told me the local priest let their daughter take her First Communion in a dress and become an altar server.
For Kai, her humiliation was simply a result of bad geographical luck. After Kelly’s comments, the Pearland district declared that outside the classroom, Kai could use a gender-neutral bathroom at the nurse’s office. But that December day, Kai said the nurse’s office was locked.
Kai would later tell her mother that she wandered through the hallways, looking for an adult to tell her what to do. Kai’s own teacher has been kind, said Kimberly, and other faculty at the school have signaled their support by sending home handwritten notes declaring Kai a “sweet little GIRL” and recommending trans-friendly kids’ books. Yet that day in the hallway, the adults Kai encountered didn’t seem to know what to do with her. The grown-ups hemmed and hawed long enough that ultimately where to take the child became a moot point: Kai’s clothes and the floor beneath them were wet, and she was crying. When Kai recounted the story to her mother, she declared that “everyone” had seen.
“As a mom, you don’t want your kid to become bitter and jaded, and so you tell them it’s not your fault and it happens,” said Kimberly. “But in your head, you’re like ‘What the hell? Nobody could get her to a potty?’”
Pearland ISD communications director Kim Hocott forcefully denied the Shappleys’ story. “There is NO evidence that the incident described by the mother happened,” Hocott wrote in an email. The district won’t comment on the accident itself, citing federal student privacy law, but said “the child has never been out of sight of school personnel and they report there was no time in which access to a bathroom for this child was locked. Like all other students in the class, the child uses the bathroom in the kindergarten classroom. In those instances when the child is away from that classroom, arrangements are made to protect privacy for this child and all others.”
Kimberly said that when she spoke to the school about the incident during an unrelated academic meeting in January, informing the principal and counselor about what Kai had told her, she received a follow-up phone call repeating the district’s line: that what Kai reported couldn’t have happened.
“All I can say for certain is that my daughter came home crying and told me the incident and how it made her feel,” she said. “In our home, we don’t talk about the bathroom stuff. I strive to protect her from knowing as much as possible. I also know my child. For her to come home distraught is not within her normal behavior.”
In the last few weeks, after the Trump administration announced its massive rollback of Obama-era protections for trans students, Texas has emerged as the white-hot center of the nation’s “bathroom” debate—the newest and most fervent battleground in a fight, bookended by conflicting federal guidelines, made up of state lawsuits, court injunctions, a scuttled Supreme Court case, and now, a Texas bill that’s very close to codifying a hardline approach that could effectively bar trans people from many avenues of public life.
But this fight has also created a new and promising partnership between the state’s LGBTQ community and a cadre of fiercely protective parents. And many of these “mama” and “papa bears” of Texas trans pride are former conservatives, surprised to find themselves radicalized by their children’s ordeals, working hard to prove that Texas values are neither uniform nor fixed.
The fight over trans equality is still recent history, but it goes back further than last May’s directive. In 2014, the Department of Education first declared that Title IX protected students from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Two years later, when North Carolina passed its infamous HB2—the “bathroom bill” that, beyond mandating people use the public restroom that corresponds with their birth certificate, also overturned Charlotte’s municipal equal rights ordinance—the Obama administration became embroiled in multiple lawsuits with the state.
At the time, Attorney General Loretta Lynch described HB2 as the ultimate example of punching down, “inflict[ing] further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share.”
After the Departments of Education and Justice issued their letter to public schools last May—“The desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students”—conservative backlash was swift. More than 20 states filed lawsuits against the federal government. Nationally, right-wing advocacy groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal network that provides pro-bono representation for culture-war lawsuits, began to seed local challenges to the directive.
ADF helped parents’ groups in Minnesota, Illinois, and now Pennsylvania sue over their children sharing locker rooms or bathrooms with trans students. A similar case in Virginia, involving a trans student whose school district forbade him from using the boys’ restroom, was winding its way up to the Supreme Court in early March when the Trump administration’s policy reversal stopped it in its tracks.
But amid all this activity, Texas did what Texas does, and went bigger. Last May, State Attorney General Ken Paxton, with the support of state Senate leader and right-wing radio personality Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick—both widely viewed as political climbers—led a federal lawsuit over the directive, and they were granted a national injunction that prevented the Obama administration from penalizing schools that didn’t comply. (Patrick has also declared God was speaking to his people through Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, painted a watercolor of the Statue of Liberty on which Jesus’ face “appeared,” and claimed immigrants are infecting the U.S. with leprosy.) The lead counsel on the lawsuit, Austin Nimocks, is a former ADF senior counsel.
Last fall, Texas State Senator Konni Burton introduced a bill that would compel schools to share any and all information about students with their parents—a bill widely interpreted as a mandate for teachers to inform parents about LGBTQ students’ gender and sexual orientation. The year before, in 2015, a bill was introduced that would have required schools to pay $2,000 fines to any student who could prove that a peer had accessed the “wrong” bathroom.
Then, in 2016, the Texas University Interscholastic League passed a policy requiring students to compete within the sex listed on their birth certificate, propelling to national news the story of a high school trans boy wrestler who was required to compete against his female peers.
It’s all enough to make national advocates suggest that “Texas is becoming a hotspot,” as Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center who focuses on education issues, put it. And historically, Texas-born policies have had outsized influence on the rest of the country. “Texas is where we got the anti-DACA/DAPA immigration injunction as well, where this one court says the entire country has to stop this progressive policy,” Brodsky said.
In early January, the newly seated Texas legislature followed through with the long-awaited introduction of the state’s own “bathroom bill”: SB6 or the Texas Privacy Act, which requires people in schools and government buildings to use the bathrooms corresponding to their “biological sex,” a seeming end-run around trans people who have rushed to change their birth certificates in the wake of Trump’s election. The bill, which according to UCLA think tank the Williams Institute would affect more than 125,000 transgender Texans (nearly 9% of the estimated trans population in the U.S.), was condemned swiftly by both civil rights organizations and the business community, which fears a backlash on par with the economic losses North Carolina sustained after HB2.
According to the Texas Association of Business, SB6 is likely to cost the state $8.5 billion in lost revenue and 185,000 jobs. Though the validity of that report has been called into question by some independent reviewers, like Politifact, businesses from Facebook to the NFL have warned that the legislation might keep them away.
The new federal government has seemed to provide nothing but support: Trump appointed John Gore, a lawyer who defended the University of North Carolina over its enforcement of HB2, to the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights. Arguments in the Texas case that led to the federal injunction were scheduled to begin in early February, but the Trump administration withdrew the Justice Department’s challenge to the injunction the same month.
And of course, in late February, Trump’s Departments of Justice and Education—led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, respectively—sent out a joint guidance letter, rescinding protections for trans students and returning the issue to the states and local schools.
But even without the Trump team’s support, Texan bluster has moved the bill forward despite the looming chance of repercussions. “There’s a big ‘We don’t give a fuck’ factor in Texas,” one local advocate noted. “They really don’t care if they shoot themselves in the foot.”
Kimberly Shappley’s former self is about as by-the-book right-wing as you can get: a Southern Baptist-identified evangelical, a Republican stalwart, an “ultraconservative” Tea Partier. When she heard of other parents with transgender kids, she remembers derisively thinking, “If my kid wants to be a dinosaur, am I just supposed to let them?”
Then Kai was born and everything changed.
By the time Kai was 2 years old, Kimberly said, she was already noticeably, dramatically feminine for a child being raised as a boy. Members of Shappley’s conservative Christian family speculated on whether the child would turn out to be gay. By age 3, Kai only wanted to play with girls, and had begun telling her parents and teachers that she was a girl.
Kimberly turned to a DIY form of conversion therapy. She dressed Kai in camouflage and held her down to cut her blond hair into a flattop. Since most of the family’s seven children are boys—Kimberly has one adult daughter—there were no “girl toys” at home, but Kimberly asked the Christian daycare Kai attended to hide any baby dolls from her as well. When Kai turned her T-shirts into skirts or insisted she was a girl, Kimberly spanked her. When Kai asked for a Minnie Mouse birthday cake, Kimberly bought her one with Mickey.
“No matter how much punishment this kid got, you couldn’t beat it out of her,” Kimberly said. “You couldn’t pray it out, I couldn’t cast it out.” Indeed, Kai was having none of it. Sometimes she would wait until Kimberly was on the toilet to taunt her from just out of striking range: “You know I’m a girl.” Other times, she began praying within her mother’s earshot that God would “let Joseph” (Kai’s former name) “go home and be with Jesus.”
Kai’s prayer was Kimberly’s breaking point. That, and learning about the sky-high suicide rate for trans kids; according to one study, 41% of trans youth had attempted suicide—a rate almost ten times higher than their cisgender counterparts.
“There are so many trans kids who don’t have her persevering, persistent spirit,” Kimberly said. “And if Kai didn’t have that spirit, I would have succeeded in breaking her, into conforming into what I was trying to make her be. And we would have all been ok with that until she killed herself, at 14, or 13, or 11, or 20, or 50.”
Kimberly began to relent. She decided to go to Walmart to buy Kai girls’ underwear to wear under boys’ clothes. The first three times, she ran out of the store before making it through the checkout line. When she finally managed to buy the underwear on her fourth try, Kai fell on the floor crying and laughing, hugging the princess and My Little Pony briefs to her chest.
But the next day, when Kimberly went to pick up Kai from her new daycare—another Christian facility—the owner was waiting for her with Kai’s new underwear in a ziplock bag and said, “This will not happen here.” Kimberly vowed that no one from the family would ever return to the daycare, not even to retrieve belongings they’d left behind.
Kai was happy, though: She began to wear girls’ clothes and grew out her hair. She set up a toy cash register in the front yard and announced she was selling all of Joseph’s clothes. Her siblings took it in stride, with one pre-teen brother telling Kimberly it wasn’t Kai’s transition that was embarrassing—it was the fact that Kimberly had tried to dress their flamboyantly girly sister in boys’ clothes to begin with.
Still, the social fallout for Kimberly was swift. Trans advocates often say “everyone loses someone” when they transition; Kimberly’s family lost almost everyone. While one of Kai’s uncles helped his niece pick out new outfits, most of her extended family distanced themselves. One aunt threatened to call CPS on Kimberly. Other relatives shared a Facebook post from a Houston-area preacher, proposing a training day where the church would teach children how to spot and report trans kids at their schools. A cousin sent Kimberly a Facebook message warning if he ever saw Kai in a bathroom with his 22-year-old daughter, Kai would “need a stretcher.”
A best friend from the family’s church, where Kimberly served in ministry for years, stopped their years-long 5 AM prayer phone calls. When Kimberly attended a school board meeting last June to discuss the accommodation of trans students, she said one pastor from her church showed up to speak out against them.
Kimberly had begun to panic whenever she saw “Jesus fish” bumper stickers in the parking lot outside school board meetings or at a press conference with Equality Texas, the state’s largest LGBTQ group. “My stomach would sink, and I’d just feel sick,” she said, “because I knew they were the enemy that day.” On the day of the press conference, the sinking feeling prompted Kimberly to tearfully apologize to the LGBTQ community for things she’d said or done in the name of her faith.
Kai’s school life isn’t a respite from hate, either. Already this year, a boy has walked in on Kai in the classroom’s bathroom and threatened her, saying she was disgusting and he was going to punch her in the face. Next year, in the first grade, there will be no in-classroom bathroom, and Kai won’t be allowed to use the girls’ room or, Kimberly worries, the boys’ room either. Pearland ISD spokesperson Kim Hocott said the district is waiting to hear what will happen to state and federal law as it considers what accommodations will be available to Kai and other trans students.
But as it stands, every time Kai seeks out the bathroom she’ll be permitted to use, she’ll be reminded just how different she is from everyone else.
As Kimberly was preparing Kai for kindergarten, North Carolina had recently passed HB2, setting the stakes for a national fight over trans students’ rights. But the roots of North Carolina’s bill were actually in Kai’s and Kimberly’s backyard. The North Carolina law was inspired by a clash in Texas in 2015, when right-wing activists took aim at a Houston equal rights policy much like Charlotte’s, and successfully overturned it in what became a conservative tactic later exported to other states.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, would have protected not just LGBTQ rights, but also the rights of people in 15 different demographic classifications, from religion and ethnicity to disability and veteran status. But when conservative groups like Texas Values, a local affiliate of the Family Research Council, responded in force, they focused narrowly on the narrative of “no men in women’s bathrooms.”
“Those five words on a bumper sticker are all that they can talk about,” said Lou Weaver, the transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas.
Though talking about bathrooms can sound like a minor matter of convenience or embarrassment, it has real consequences. 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.
When Houston’s city council first voted, HERO passed, but conservative activists obtained an injunction shortly after, meaning HERO sat in limbo, never going into effect. Then, in June 2015, after the Supreme Court Obergefell decision made same-sex marriage the law of the land, Texas conservatives seemed to seize on HERO as an opportunity for backlash. They went for “the next-most vulnerable group,” said Weaver. The state Supreme Court took HERO “out of the penalty box,” compelling the city to repeal the ordinance or put it up for a public referendum. A nearly three-month battle ensued, marked by frequent conservative rhetoric denigrating trans people as sick and disturbed, until in November 2015, HERO was put to a referendum and, in the absence of an organized progressive response, was defeated nearly two-to-one.
HERO’s reversal became an inspiration for conservatives in other states. Georgia and Indiana considered bills overturning local city civil rights ordinances. When a Houston LGBTQ boycott campaign failed to cancel several major city events, including plans for the 2017 Super Bowl, the president of the Texas Pastor Council wrote an open letter to the governor of Mississippi suggesting that, should Mississippi follow Texas’ lead, they too could do so without consequence. And then, of course, came North Carolina, which adopted the anti-HERO playbook so seamlessly that advocates there used the same TV ads initially created for Houston.
“We’re the epicenter of this fight,” said Weaver. “What we’ve seen for years is that things get brought up in Texas and then funneled out to the rest of the U.S. This is like a breeding group for bad legislation against the LGBTQ community.”
Now the idea has returned, boomerang-style, to Texas. And it’s returned at a moment when many trans people had just begun to get comfortable with the idea of being out, thanks to the Obama-era promise of acceptance.
SB6 doesn’t just threaten K-12 schools, nor is it happening in a vacuum. In 2016 alone, at least three Texan trans women of color were murdered, and Ian Finch, a local state attorney who finished transitioning in November 2015, says that in the weeks following the election he learned of several Houston trans women who’d been violently attacked—including one who was assaulted and raped the day after she and Finch had gone on a date. Notably, he said, none had felt safe enough to report their assaults to the police.
Finch, a senior staff attorney at Texas’ Fourteenth Court of Appeals, is the picture of straight-laced tradition: a man given to suits and conservative haircuts, a former Republican precinct chair and delegate to the state GOP convention. In part that’s just who he is—he’s so idealistic about the law that Finch named one of his sons “Atticus.” But he also wants to demonstrate how trans people are no longer relegated to marginalized and dangerous lifestyles and professions.
Of course, he was still nervous about telling his Republican boss and colleagues about his transition. And yet, the morning after he discreetly told the judge he worked for, he began to receive congratulatory emails, found his office nameplate and personnel records updated with his new name before he’d legally changed it himself, and learned that a former boss, another Republican judge, had cited him in an awards acceptance speech, using his new name.
It was an astonishing moment of affirmation: “Nobody I know professionally batted an eye.” Not only did he not find himself having to prove he was as smart as he’d been before, but his colleagues acted as though there “was no before—that this is who I am.”
Now he’s counting the days before he loses his job. He works in a public building, and as the only out trans person in that court, he says his workplace will have to create a policy that will apply only to him. It might not happen the first time someone complains about the bathroom he uses—there’s an initial $1,000 to $1,500 fine for schools or public agencies that have not created a bathroom policy—but perhaps after the second, when penalties climb to $10,000. (Texas, like 29 other states, has no law that protects employees from being fired because they’re trans.)
Finch is the only attorney among his colleagues certified to work in some areas of appellate law; he chairs certain subcommittees; in January he was accepted to the bar for the U.S. Supreme Court. His ouster would, by any standard, be a loss for the state.
But, he argues, it’d also be a confirmation that SB6 isn’t so much about bathrooms as an effort to purge trans people from public life. If trans kids can’t go to public schools, Finch reasoned, they’ll be home-schooled. That means public school kids won’t have contact with trans kids. And if trans people don’t have full access to public buildings, from schools to libraries to courthouses, they’ll also lose full access to justice and education.
“They are trying to condemn a generation of a marginalized population to a permanent underclass,” Finch said. “And if we all disappear from public life, what then?”
If Texas has helped generate some of the harshest anti-trans laws in the country, Equality Texas thinks it also knows the best tactics for fighting back. In a conservative state, that means appealing to family values, through the accidental activism of “mama” and “papa bears” advocating on behalf of their children.
Ken Ballard, a tall, thin man with a deep drawl, said he and his wife, Melissa, hadn’t known about their 14-year-old trans son Ashur’s identity until one day he came home wearing a jacket he refused to take off. When the couple convinced him to take it off, they found Ashur’s arms “literally sleeved from wrist to shoulder in cuts.” Later, they found a suicide note from what appeared to be an earnest attempt several weeks before.
“When you’re faced with that reality, you start to play back the history, the hints,” Ken said. Ashur had previously come out to them as a lesbian; when they refused to buy him boy briefs immediately after having done the family’s annual school shopping, he’d been more upset than they’d realized. “But it doesn’t really matter, because now you have the information of what you need to do,” Ken said. “You have a son, so you raise him. Was I going to be his bully?”
“I’ll call the kid whatever they want before I write their name on a tombstone.”
Ken and Melissa, who at the time were conservative homeschoolers deeply involved in their church, enrolled Ashur in treatment at GENECIS, the center for trans youth at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, the only such facility in the southwest. They began attending parents’ therapy sessions there, and then, after meeting with other parents of transitioning youth, decided to start their own support group. Two years later, they have almost 175 parents as members, all from the Dallas area, and Melissa, once an enthusiastic George W. Bush voter, now writes a regular column for Trans Universe.
The Ballards’ political journey has been mirrored elsewhere in Texas, as the rise of an empowered right wing has sparked a corresponding movement of protest from unexpected quarters. That’s perhaps nowhere as clear as in the small Austin bedroom community of Dripping Springs.
On a Monday evening the week after Trump’s inauguration, parents began to file into the district administrative building behind the red cinder track of Walnut Springs Elementary School. Dressed in office wear, sundresses, and sandals in the mild Texas winter, the parents nursed travel coffee mugs and greeted each other. Many attendees wore the same T-shirt, reading “Many Stripes, One Tiger.”
Behind me, a woman noticed a sign held aloft by one attendee and whispered to her seatmate, “I love that picture”: a photo of four young blond girls holding hands, taken from behind as they walked on a path outside Walnut Springs. It could have been a Hallmark card if you didn’t know that one of the girls was trans. Captured at an age before children’s bodies betray their gender—before they sometimes betray themselves—she was a girl like any other.
In the fall, as Kai Shappley and her family had encountered the bureaucratic face of anti-trans policy in Pearland, a similar fight had taken shape in Dripping Springs. Long a traditionalist town at the eastern border of the picturesque Hill Country—a town that went for Trump in November—Dripping Springs residents prided themselves on their civic sensibility. It’s the kind of place where a women’s group laundered muddied clothes after bad floods tore through a neighboring town, where locals pooled funeral funds after two out-of-towners died in a highway accident. Their school system was widely recognized as among the best in all of Texas, and locals took enormous pride in that fact.
In the fall, though, the school district became a target for the conservative group Texas Values, infamously run by a man, Jonathan Saenz, whose wife left him for another woman. The group got wind that a third-grade trans girl at Walnut Springs—one of the four girls in the picture—had been allowed to use the girls’ restroom and pounced.
Madi Gmur (who is using her real name for the first time in this article) had been attending the school for several years already, but in early 2016 had started dressing consistently as a girl. Her mother had asked the school if Madi could use the girls’ room going forward, and the school had agreed. After an uneventful first month, a small group of parents showed up to complain at a routine PTA event one Friday in September.
Jamie Baldwin, a local parent deeply involved with the PTA, remembered that the size of the crowd at the meeting that day was more than double its normal size—up from 15 or 20 to around 45—and there were far more men present than usual. As the meeting was about to adjourn, one of the men stood to say he had a non-PTA question to ask: Was it true that the principal was letting a boy in the girls’ restroom?
The questions went on for an hour and a half: What could parents do so that their children didn’t have to use the same restroom? What would the school do if 50 kids lined up to use the faculty bathroom and missed classes, because all of their parents had told them not to use the girls’ room anymore?
“I was just sitting there in disbelief,” Jamie said. “They just kept saying, ‘You should have told us,’ ‘You deceived us.’”
For Madi’s family, liberal transplants from Austin, the weekend after the PTA meeting was a whirlwind. Madi’s mother, Lisa Gmur, had been relatively unfazed by Madi’s transition. She’d assumed Madi would be gay; when Madi grew her hair long, wore leggings and headbands, and declared she was a girl, Lisa met with the staff at Walnut Springs, who agreed first to let Madi use the teacher’s restroom and then later to let her use the regular bathroom.
So when the principal of Walnut Springs called Lisa to tell her about the PTA meeting, Lisa’s gut instinct was, “We’re putting the house on the market and getting out of here,” she said. “I can’t live with people who are anti-LGBT.” But then, almost immediately, people started calling, texting, and Facebook messaging her, saying, “‘We’re here, we’re here for you, we’re going to support you.’ I thought ‘OK, we’ll stick around and see what happens.’”
What happened was that the community of Dripping Springs stepped in to speak on behalf of the family—which has remained private throughout the fall and winter—and they kept speaking for months.
At the school board meeting scheduled for the following Monday, a party from Texas Values came in, dressed in business suits and claiming to speak on behalf of concerned local parents. After the meeting, one parent created an unfortunately named Change.org petition, “Drippin’ with Concern…for every student in DSISD.” On a Facebook group, one parent accused Madi of telling classmates explicit details about transitioning and referred to her as “it.”
But after Friday’s PTA meeting, several local parents anticipating a showdown with conservative groups fought back. They created a Facebook group to rally support for Madi and her family, and within two days its membership had swelled to some 800 parents from the 5,000-child district. And on Monday night, more than 200 local parents showed up, spilling beyond the 80 seats in the main boardroom into two overflow rooms, overwhelmingly speaking in support of Madi and the school board—and against Texas Values.
While Texas Values managed to muster a small handful of locals to stand with them (both that day and at a later press conference), the community members supporting Erica and the school numbered in the hundreds. And they began to adopt uniquely Texan rhetoric: Their community was being targeted by outside political lobbyists seeking to meddle with their children’s school.
It was already well known that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was planning on introducing an HB2-like bill in 2017, and while another school bathroom fight had arisen in Fort Worth that year, nearby Dripping Springs made a much more convenient backdrop for political grandstanding: a case study for the need to protect traditionalist Texans besieged by the gay agenda.
The supportive parents formed a group, Many Stripes, One Tiger—a reference to the district mascot—and made T-shirts. They put together an open letter and within a week had some 530 signatures from local residents (and more than 700 overall). They showed up at board meetings every month by the dozens, repeating a common message: that Texas Values didn’t actually represent their small-v Texan values; that the vast majority of people in the town either didn’t care about Madi’s accommodation or supported it.
Claire Bow, a prominent trans advocate and retired state attorney who had moved to Dripping Springs herself, was shocked. “These were parents who are cisgender, with cisgender children,” she said. “They’re not liberals; they’re not armed with any vast understanding of the science behind why some of us are trans. They just knew that what was going on was wrong and they needed to do something about it.”
While many parents initially responded out of a sense of protectiveness of a beloved school district, Andy Hutton said he saw some parents who’d, say, previously posted anti-trans memes on Facebook during the flap about Target boycotts earlier in 2016, begin to come around. For these parents, a once-abstract issue had hit home.
And others, like Jamie’s husband, Dennis Baldwin, who’d had the knee-jerk assumption that, “Oh my gosh, these parents must be promoting this in their household,” began to find themselves unexpectedly drawn into LGBTQ activism. At one point last year after watching Madi use the teachers’ bathroom, the Baldwins’ youngest daughter came home and asked Jamie whether or not she believed in “transgendering.”
“I’ll be real honest,” Jamie said. “I told her that day I don’t know much about it, I don’t understand it personally. But that’s when we started talking about how it doesn’t matter.” They told her, “This is tolerance, everyone is different and her difference is no different than something else. We’re not mean, we don’t exclude people, we accept. For us, we’re Christians, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Joining the fight had not only been a political awakening for the Baldwins, but a way to express some Texas defiance. As Dennis put it: “A small little town—small Dripping Springs—can put up a fight against Texas Values.”
By December, the regular Texas Values contingent at the school board meetings had dwindled to a lone junior staffer, who seemed so out of place reading from a script that some of the Dripping Springs parents almost felt sorry for her. By the January meeting, there was no one from Texas Values there at all—just a lineup of parents and students rising to praise the school board for standing against bullies and speaking out against outsiders stirring up trouble.
It initially seemed like a victory, but more likely, the coalition came to realize, it was the redirection of Texas Values’ efforts to the larger stage of state politics, where indeed Dripping Springs was being cast as the case study conservatives had meant it to be. When the bill’s chief sponsor in the State Senate, Lois Kolkhorst, defended the bill, she did so by appealing to the parents she described as “pitted against school boards, as we have already seen in Fort Worth, Dripping Springs, and Pearland.” Texas Values created a video endorsement of SB6 featuring a father and daughter from the Dripping Springs school district.
And on Tuesday, March 7, during a marathon 21-hour hearing over the bill in Texas’ Senate State Affairs Committee that drew more than 400 Texans to sign up to testify in a public comment session, the Dripping Springs girl from Texas Values’ video spoke as an invited witness, alongside a Dripping Springs mother who angrily complained that local parents had been “mocked at public school board meetings” by people wearing rainbow ribbons.
Other supporters of the bill spoke, too. Pearland Superintendent John Kelly spoke as an invited guest—referring to Kai Shappley as a boy, and claiming there were only two trans children in his school district, although Kimberly Shappley said she knows of at least three times that many just among her personal friends. So did the superintendent of Harrold Independent School District, the official plaintiff in Texas’s lawsuit against the Obama administration that led to the injunction last year, warning that people in England were “exploring living as animals” and that adult men might decide that they identify as 15-year-old girls in order to access high school bathrooms.
But they weren’t the only voices there. The public comment portion of the hearing lasted an epic 13 hours, until nearly 4:30 AM the following day. An Austin American-Statesman reporter tallied the hundreds of witnesses and found that 253 had come to speak against SB6, compared to just 29 supporters of the bill, with a lineup as diverse as Texas is large.
There was a San Antonio councilwoman who noted there’d never been a reported incident involving a trans person in a public bathroom. There was an Austin-based tech company warning that intolerance would keep away potential employees. There was a trans woman who’d been raped as a child because she’d been forced to use the boys’ locker room, and a Republican mother who said that protecting trans children was a matter of pro-life consistency, and a man who said he’d worn his Trump T-shirt four times a week since the election, but that its “Make America Great Again” slogan had to be a promise of equal protection to minorities.
When the SB6 committee hearing finally wound to a close at dawn on March 8, the bill passed 8-1, and at press time was awaiting a public hearing in the House. But the pushback against SB6 seems to signal that Texas has changed—and that traditional political lines are starting to be redrawn.
Kimberly said that in Pearland, a local school board candidate who opposes the bill has begun running on a campaign pointing to Kai Shappley’s humiliation as “the perfect example of why people have to get out and vote for the school board.” Kimberly’s worries about whether her family will have to move—out of the school district, the county, the state, the South—are tempered by hearing from strangers from all over the political map who pledge to do something to help. Her favorite type of message, she said, is one she keeps hearing from fellow conservatives: “I don’t understand this whole transgender thing, but I know this isn’t right.”
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that, upon publication, Lisa Gmur had “a change of heart and thought” and requested that her family’s real names be used.
Kathryn Joyce is author of The Child Catchers and Quiverfull. Her work has appeared in Highline, Pacific Standard, The New Republic and many others.
This feature was edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, fact-checked by Alex Lubben, and copy-edited by Nara Shin. Original photos by Scott Dalton.