One night after dinner, Kai Shultz decided it was time to spill the secret.
The middle schooler cleared the dishes, hoping to curry favor with parents Laurel and Mick: “I sat them down on the couch and told them: I’m a boy. I’m a trans male.”
That was more than a year ago.
“Their reaction was better than I expected,” recalled Kai, now 14, who just completed freshman year at Peninsula High School.
Laurel and Mick wanted their child, named Kyla at birth, to know he had their full support. Kai remembers them both telling him they loved him, no matter his gender identity.
“My dad said, ‘I know you probably don’t want to hear this right now, but I still love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ ” Kai says.
Kai’s big reveal wasn’t a big surprise to his family. Looking back, they can recall clues from Kai’s childhood.
“When we were very young, and we were playing Disney princesses, he always wanted to be a prince or a knight or whatever male character he could be,” said Kai’s older sister, 20-year-old Haley. “I was always down with that.”
Mick tells a story about Kai in the bathtub, about age 3. Suddenly, a serious look came across the preschooler’s face. Mick asked what was wrong. The answer: “I feel like a boy. I wish I was a boy.”
“That struck me as a poignant statement for someone who was 3 years old and who had a female body,” Mick said.
Kai said that, growing up, he always gravitated toward boy clothes.
“I always had an idea that I wanted to be a boy,” he said.
Around age 10, Kai got a short haircut, and someone called him “he.”
“I felt so happy, and I didn’t know why,” he said.
When he was in fourth grade, he heard the term lesbian.
“I thought maybe that explains it. But — nope,” Kai said. “It wasn’t until seventh grade that I realized I was a boy, and that being transgender was a thing. I kind of educated myself.”
He watched YouTube videos on the subject, chatted with people online and consulted a transgender school friend.
Kai said there are more transgender kids than most people realize. Many remain closeted, he said, either because they don’t realize they are transgender, they’re not ready to come out, or they don’t feel it would be safe to do so.
What prompted Kai to begin living out his inner identity?
“I would get more and more annoyed when people said ‘she,’ or used my birth name,” he said. Once he figured out why, he was ready to come out — step by step.
He started by telling his friends he was a transgender boy, and they were accepting. Next, he broke the news to Haley, who also reassured Kai she still loved him.
“He has always been the same person,” Haley said. “He’s always had a beautiful, bright, vibrant personality. All that changed was his name and his pronouns.”
Bigger changes are on the horizon now. Kai is looking forward this summer to starting on male hormones that will help him look and sound more masculine.
“I’m really happy about this,” he said.
Transgender kids who decide to tell their parents are looking for support, Kai said. His advice for parents: “Don’t make a big deal of it.”
“You can’t control it or postpone it,” he said. “Act like it’s completely normal. Because it is.”
Once Kai’s family was onboard, they made the decision for him to make a full transition to living as a boy once he started high school.
“I thought, ‘I can start over at a new school, with a clean slate,’ ” Kai said. “That worked, for the most part.”
Laurel contacted Peninsula High’s counseling office before Kai’s first day there.
“I wanted to give them all a heads-up that Kai was male and that his name would be different on school records,” she said. “I talked with the counseling team about how to navigate PE and other logistics at school.”
Kai was given access to a private restroom and an alternate place to change clothes for swimming.
“Kai is not a kid that complains,” Laurel said. “He’s the kind of kid who will suck it up and do what he needs to do to be successful.”
She was shocked to learn, for example, that her child hadn’t used a restroom at school for several years.
“People don’t realize how much pain there is in being transgender,” Kai said. “No one would choose that, just so they could go into a woman’s restroom.”
It’s been mostly smooth sailing at school for Kai. He said he sometimes gets “dirty looks” from a couple of kids, but they are kids he doesn’t care about anyway.
Kai said one teacher refused to acknowledge his male gender, even when other students corrected him. Kai switched out of that class.
“There’s been full administrative support,” Laurel says. “And a focus on education for staff.”
She says Peninsula High has a well-deserved reputation for tolerance.
“With over 1,400 kids, there is an expectation that you are going to behave in a positive way at school,” Laurel said. “It’s a clear cultural expectation.”
Kai said he lives with the knowledge he won’t be fully accepted by some. The mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub is one reason Kai said he wants to speak up.
“I can’t believe someone could be filled with so much hate,” he said.
Kai said he’s not fearful for himself but worries about the future.
“There is always the fear that someone will hate you just for being who you are,” he said. “There’s that moment when someone mis-genders you, and it’s like a stab through the heart. You don’t feel like yourself. You feel alienated.”
This isn’t the first time Kai has spoken publicly about being a transgender kid. He’s been part of a panel at a local university, and last fall, was quoted in a story on transgender students in The News Tribune’s sister paper, the Peninsula Gateway.
Mick said he was apprehensive about that first interview.
“I was really concerned that being in a newspaper was going to compromise his physical and emotional safety,” he said.
But that hasn’t happened. After the article was published, an elderly neighbor came to the Shultz home to give Kai a hug. Laurel’s father, who’s in his 80s, welcomed Kai as another guy in the family.
“We got cards and letters from people we barely knew,” Mick said. “They said, ‘Good for you, for supporting your kid.’ That took me by surprise.”
“I was so thrilled with the outpouring of love and affection from our community,” Laurel said. “What an affirmation for our son.”
She dismisses people who tell her how brave she is for standing by Kai.
“We have to have one-tenth of the courage that he has to have to walk in this world,” she said.
Kai draws some inner peace from nature, a place he learned to love by spending time with his grandfather.
“If I can spend any time in a forest, that’s where I’ll be,” he said.
He also loves to read, write and play guitar. Last year, he wrote a song called, “Battle Cry.”
“It’s about speaking out for what you believe in,” Kai said. “I want to let people start hearing my battle cry.”