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Every morning on their way to daycare, Kimberly and her six-year-old daughter, Kai, pray for their estranged family. "No matter how I try to avoid mentioning certain people in our family, Kai continues to pray for them by name," Kimberly said in an interview with VICE. "That's difficult for me, to see this little girl, how she loves unconditionally, and how she has no idea what's going on—because I've strived so hard to protect her from that."
Two of the people that Kai prays for are her twin cousins. Sometimes she asks her mom when they'll get to play together again, but Kimberly doesn't have an easy answer. It has been two years since Kai began to live as a girl. Within the first year, almost all of their relatives stopped talking to them.
Kimberly and Kai live in Pearland, Texas, a growing city that's torn between the more progressive-minded culture of southern Houston, which it borders, and the other, more conservative counties surrounding it. Like many families living in the Deep South, Kimberly's is extremely conservative. She would like to salvage the ties that have been broken because of Kai's transition, but says it's simply not safe for her daughter. "I can't risk unhealthy relationships for her that I have an ability to help control," Kimberly said. "How do you do that to someone? How do you do that to Kai? Kai is five years old." (At the time of our interview, Kai was five. She has since turned six.)
"It feels lonely," she said. "You feel like you're in the fight of your life to save your child, and the people that have been in your life fighting for you—the people you need to help keep you strong and support you—they leave you on the battlefield alone."
All of Kimberly's friends were in the ministry, she says, describing them as "strong, devout Christians, straight-ticket Republicans, like I was." That's not the case anymore: Like her family members, Kimberly's friends stopped associating with her after Kai began living as a girl.
"We are starting from scratch," Kimberly said, reflecting on her family today and their process of "rebuilding a life."
In the beginning, Kimberly wasn't an accepting parent. She's never been political, but was taught to always vote Republican, and shared these beliefs with her friends, neighbors, and family members. Before Kai, Kimberly saw those closest to her as good Christians. Today, she believes they are hateful.
Before Kai transitioned, all Kimberly knew was that her child was incredibly feminine, and would persistently transgress gender norms. Kai would tie her t-shirts into skirts or wear one on her head as if it was long hair, and she kept insisting she was a girl. Kimberly did what she thought a good parent would do: whatever it took to prevent her child from being transgender. She researched conversion therapy and implemented the techniques she read about into her parenting style.
"I didn't look up the fact that—how dangerous it was," Kimberly said. "I just looked up how to do it, because I wasn't gonna have this transgender kid; this wasn't going to happen to me."
Whenever Kai told her mom that she's a girl, Kimberly reprimanded her. "I would say, 'No, you're a boy'," Kimberly said. "'You're a boy.'" Kai was constantly being punished—she spent entire days in and out of "time out" for crossing gender boundaries. "This kid spent the majority of her days being punished. There were days when I would have to tell myself that I could not spank her again that day. I would tell myself, 'You have to let this kid out of time out.'"
Kimberly also attempted to use deliverance ministry to exorcise the dark forces she believed had manifested in her child. Kimberly fasted, and she prayed. "As a Christian, I exhausted every avenue that I thought I was supposed to do at that time," she recalled. One night, Kimberly tucked her child into bed, and felt that Kai's legs were cold: Earlier that day, Kai had taken the underwear off of a baby doll and put them on herself, constricting blood circulation.
"As hard as I tried to break her little will, she would not be broken," Kimberly said, ashamed of how she initially treated Kai. "I was awful for her. I was horrible to her. I thought that I was doing everything a parent would do to make their kid not be this way."
Finally—after acknowledging the fact that Kai was suffering from behavioral problems from being forced to live as a boy, and that punishing her wasn't changing anything about her gender identity—Kimberly decided to do research. Through the internet and other resources, Kimberly learned about transgender people, trans healthcare, gender identity, and the medically recognized treatment for transgender people. She also connected with other Christian mothers of trans kids.
I wasn't gonna have this transgender kid; this wasn't going to happen to me.
Kimberly eventually gained clarity, but she says that she only came to accept her daughter after "kicking and screaming." It was Kai's resilience that forced Kimberly to realize that what she was doing to her daughter was wrong.
Some people have argued that young children shouldn't be allowed to self-determine their gender identity, but today, Kimberly strongly disagrees. "All kids know their gender identity," she explained. "It's just that you're focusing on my child's gender identity because it's not what you thought it should be."
When she was four years old, Kai socially transitioned. That means she was allowed to grow her hair, wear girls' clothing, and use female pronouns—to live as the girl that she is. Later on, when Kai starts to approach puberty, there will be other issues to face, as well as controversial medical decisions. But Kimberly isn't worried about that. In fact, she says that the most difficult aspect of this experience has already passed.
"The hardest decisions for me to make were even to allow her to transition in the first place," Kimberly said, outlining the way trans children's lives can become entwined in their parents' fears and personal issues. "It was very difficult to allow her to grow long hair. It was awful the first day I went out in public with Kai in a skirt. This kid was so, so happy, and I was so, so terrified and miserable and embarrassed—because I was thinking about myself."
When she was considering letting Kai wear girls' clothes, Kimberly asked Kai's older brother if he'd be embarrassed to see his younger sibling in a skirt. "Mom, it's embarrassing that you make Kai wear boys' clothes," he replied.
Now that Kai isn't hiding her gender anymore, Kimberly has become vocal at school board meetings, arguing on behalf of trans rights. Ever since Kai's gender became public, Kimberly says, "it's harder." Some friends claim to "love" Kimberly and Kai, but then express political beliefs that deny Kai's civil rights. "They're not sure she should have those," Kimberly says. "How can you love me and not think that my kid deserves basic human rights?"
Around the time that VICE spoke with Kimberly, she said, many of her Facebook friends were sharing a video of a local pastor on Facebook. She later sent us the link to this video to help illustrate the extreme hatred in her area: "There are a lot of people in the world who hate my child simply because she exists."
In the video, which was filmed around May of 2016, a wholesome-seeming man speaks from a pulpit. It was around this time that the Obama administration issued their guidance on trans rights, explaining that Title IX of the Education Amendments Act—which protects against discrimination in schools on the basis of sex—includes gender identity. Put more simply, it means that trans kids have the right to go to school like any other kid—and that includes the right to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their true gender identity.
Speaking to a small congregation, the local pastor condemned Obama's guidance on Title IX. Those gathered shouted "amen" and cheered as his outrage grew. "We will act to protect our sons and our daughters, no matter what the local, state, or national politicians do," the pastor ominously commanded. "We will mobilize and strategize to prepare for a national movement for decency."
This isn't political or religious, he continued: "This is a family protection thing. We must protect our sons and our daughters from the militant homosexual agenda and tell them loudly, but lovingly, but very plainly: You cannot have our children."
Kai is starting kindergarten this year; Kimberly says that they're "probably in the worst school district in the worst state to be in right now at this time." In preparation for her daughter's enrollment, she had spoken privately with school officials. At first, the administration appeared responsive and understanding, but Kimberly was quickly informed that Kai would have to use the boy's restroom, and that she may be forced to conform to the boy's dress code. "Kai transitioned at such a young age that she's never known that she can't use the girls' restroom," Kimberly said. "To tell her that she has to be segregated to use the restroom—the experts in the field all are adamant that that is detrimental to her health and well-being."
Like many transgender people and their advocates, Kimberly is frustrated that this debate is centered on bathrooms. "It's not about the bathrooms," she affirmed. She believes that politicians have used the bathroom as a matter of tactical convenience so they don't have to engage with the larger issues, or explicitly acknowledge that legislation that targets trans people is simply meant to erode civil rights. "It's so easy to divide us there," Kimberly says. "It's so much more than that."
One example, Kimberly said, is the fact that there are no laws protecting against discrimination in housing on the basis of gender identity in Texas. So, if her landlord wanted to evict her because Kai is transgender, it would be legal. "People can deny my child a job because she's transgender, or fire her from a job if they find out she's transgender. That's discrimination, and that is wrong."
This kid was asking the Lord to let her die.
This legal discrimination codifies anti-trans bigotry into law, reinforcing a dangerous reality for kids who simply want to live freely. "As a transgender youth, she has a 41 percent chance of committing suicide—41 percent," Kimberly said. (Since our interview, that number has shifted to 40 percent.) "The research shows that children who are supported in their gender identity by their peers, by their family, by their community, have no higher risk of suicide than their peers who are not transgender."
Kimberly just wants to be a good parent. When parents reject their trans children, they chart them on a dark, deadly path. People like Kimberly—the moms of trans kids—have an incredible ability to end the pain trans youth endure. "I'm still learning and watching the parents who are a few steps ahead of me, and I'm trying to learn from that so I can be the best mom that I can be, so Kai has the best opportunities in life," Kimberly explained.
Though Kimberly says that her hometown shows signs of political progress, she knows that her family may be targeted. "There is a real risk for our safety here in Pearland," she said. Kimberly and some of the other Christian mothers of trans children who she met online have received death and kidnapping threats. One mother received a threat on social media from a man who said "he was gonna come rape her daughter to make her understand and want to be a boy," Kimberly explained.
Kimberly had a fixed set of beliefs, things she believed were real and right. But that changed with Kai—demonstrating how knowing a trans person can alter one's extreme ideological opinions. "When I saw Loretta Lynch on the news talking about how they were going to stand up for the transgender children in the school district, I wept," Kimberly said. "I have to tell you I did not vote for Obama. I used to be the worst anti-Obama Republican on the planet. Now, I love that man for what he has done for my family." However, Obama's directive, which Trump has since rescinded, didn't make Kai's life in Texas better right away—instead, it inflamed the hatred of citizens, as well as state and local politicians. Still, Kimberly believes it was a necessary step, that it forced an important issue to be heard. After all, this is about children.
Before she transitioned, Kai struggled every day. "Kai was praying and asking the Lord to let [her] go home and live with Jesus," Kimberly said. "This kid was asking the Lord to let her die."
Other Christians sometimes question Kimberly's faith, telling her that the way she's raising Kai is antithetical to the Bible's teachings. Kimberly strongly disagrees. "It's not an oxymoron to be a transgender and be a Christian," Kimberly said. "It is an oxymoron to be hateful and be a Christian. You can't be a hateful Christian. You can be a transgender Christian."
"There are parts of my life when I used to think I was this loving, great Christian person. And now I realize that that wasn't even love," Kimberly said. Her acceptance of Kai, and her work for equality, have made her realize what real love looks like. "One of these [days] I'm not going to be here to fight for my kid," Kimberly said. "I have to fight with everything I have now, so when I'm not here to fight for her, it's easier for her.