For a 17-year-old, Josephine Hoskins says “I don’t want to die” a lot.
It’s what she’s thinking, she says, when she walks down the street some days. When she has to use a public restroom. When choosing what college to attend next year.
“America is a dangerous place for people like me,” she says.
Josephine, or “Josie,” is a transgender woman. And black. And Muslim.
The Kansas City teen’s already challenging existence has become even more difficult in the past year as President Donald Trump has targeted each of those groups she is a part of, she says.
“It’s not really an option for me to feel safe or comfortable,” Josie says, sitting on a couch in the office of the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, an organization that advocates for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and hate crimes in the local LGBTQ+ community and serves as home base for the KC Passages program for LGBTQ+ teens. It’s one of the few places where Josie feels comfortable and safe.
And where doesn’t Josie feel comfortable or safe? Well, take your pick.
Last year while riding the bus to work, a black man “in his late 30s” noticed her black nail polish and makeup and began making crude sexual comments. Startled, she exited the bus. So did the man. She walked a few blocks, making four right turns to see what the man would do. He made four turns as well.
“I just sprinted off running,” she says. “I was so terrified. I was paranoid for a month after that.”
This summer, during what was supposed to be a peaceful protest rally at the J.C. Nichols Fountain, a “burly” white man accosted Josie and another trans woman, calling Josie a “tranny,” “nigger” and “faggot.”
For her own safety, Josie dresses more masculinely in most places — at school and out and about — wearing clothes like jeans and hoodies. But when she feels safe and welcome, she “passes,” presenting what she says is her true feminine identity. She likes to wear makeup, flowing dresses and wigs.
But even spaces Josie considered safe havens have let her down, she says. Last year, while participating in the Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry competition, Josie went to the women’s restroom to practice her lines. Louder “was one of the few places where I assumed I could pass and use the restroom safely,” Josie says.
But then a young woman — much taller than Josie’s slight 5 foot 8 frame — heard her practicing and asked about her deep voice: “Are you sick?” When Josie said no, the woman asked why her voice was so deep. “I told her I had testosterone,” Josie recalls. “She asked what that meant, and when I told her she began screaming at me, filled with rage.” The young woman asked why the (expletive) Josie was in the women’s restroom and told her she didn’t belong there.
Still, Josie maintains hope that America can work toward a better relationship with people who share her identity as a Muslim and transgender woman of color. She points to the openly transgender candidates elected to public office this month.
“We’re getting closer every day to becoming that melting pot that we’ve always strived to be,” she says. “I don’t think America believes in boundaries. Not really.
“I think, as a people, every time someone sets a boundary for us, we decide to tear the whole damn thing down.”
But, she concedes, reaching that goal will be a struggle.
Josie sees Trump’s proposed ban on trans men and women in the military, as well as what some say was his tepid response to the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally, as direct assaults.
It was his proposed Muslim travel ban, Josie says, that alarmed her the most: “That was the first time he did this crazy thing that I don’t think anyone thought he would really do,” she says. Though Josie says her Muslim faith is “not a defining characteristic” of who she is, she says it does play a role in her life. She reads the Qu’ran, prays daily and fasts for Ramadan.
She says she embraces a “solidarity” with fellow Muslims around the world and their struggle against Islamophobia, and mentions the time she got into a heated argument on Facebook with a man who claimed Muslims are “inherently dangerous” and should wear markers revealing their religion.
But being trans, she says, is the biggest threat to her safety.
With 27 homicides, 2016 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2017 so far there have been 23 recorded transgender homicides — 21 of them women of color (the other two: Native American Gwynevere River Song and white Cabool, Mo., teen Ally Steinfeld).
Earlier this year the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs listed Missouri as one of the most dangerous cities in the country for trans people.
“The pressure that I really feel is to pass better,” to look feminine, Josie says.
Born Josiah Hoskins, Josie says she’s always felt a “dissonance” between the gender she was assigned at birth and the gender with which she identifies, and she came to suffer from a psychological distress known as gender dysphoria. “I used to fear going to sleep.” Josie says. “I’d wake up and would feel like I was in this defenseless state where I felt like I was in the wrong body.”
It wasn’t until she was 12 when she says she learned the concept of being transgender and realized it applied to her. Still, Josie says it wasn’t until two years ago that she “put the word trans into action,” and began attempting to pass.
Now Josie has begun re-educating herself on the most rudimentary of human functions: “I’ve had to learn how to walk,” Josie says.
“When you’re learning to pass you learn to walk with your feet closer together to give the illusion of hips,” she explains. “I just walk through rooms in my house over and over again. … Every time I walk the halls of school there are these tiles we have that are maybe like 5 inches. I make sure my feet are always within those tiles.”
Josie is also trying to alter the way she talks.
“I read about how women generally use a lot more adjectives,” she says. “For instance someone might say, ‘Oh I like that chicken,’ but a woman would say ‘I like how amazingly scrumptious that chicken was.’”
Josie is also considering voice therapy so that she can speak in a higher tone.
A graduating senior at Paseo Academy, Josie rarely attempts to pass at school since, like most campuses, she says, Paseo isn’t a place that widely accepts her trans identity.
She plans to study computer science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City next year, a place she chose partly because she would feel even more unsafe and lonely anywhere else. “I decided not to move out of state so that I wouldn’t lose my support network,” she says.
Josie doesn’t try to pass at home either.
She lives with her mother, Tiffany Sykes, twin brother Antonio and four younger siblings ranging in age from 6 to 13.
“My little brothers and sister don’t even know I’m trans. I don’t think they grasp the concept yet,” Josie says. She continues with a laugh, “They just know I wear dresses.”
Josie’s mom knows. When Josie came out to her as trans earlier this year, Sykes says she went into “a mini breakdown.
“Five sons and a daughter,” Sykes said in an interview earlier this year. “I don’t have two daughters.”
Antonio says their mom has a “conservative outlook,” and though she’s trying to come to terms with Josie’s identity, she is ultimately falling short. Sykes still refers to Josie as Josiah and misgenders Josie with “he” and “him” pronouns.
“It’s like losing a child,” Sykes had said. “One day I try to accept it, but the next day, I’m struggling.”
Josie says her lone bright spot at home is her twin.
‘We’re all Americans’
In a way, the bedroom that Josie and Antonio share is a microcosm of what she hopes America will become one day.
Nestled in the southwest corner of their home’s second floor, the room is sparse, but for Josie and Antonio — both gamers and avid debaters (“we’ll argue the hell out of anything,” Josie says) — a PlayStation and each other is all they need.
While Josie sits in a chair, wrapped in a blanket playing “Skyrim” on the video game console, Antonio sprawls out on the futon next to her, tapping away at his phone.
The two are at once identical yet clearly distinguishable. Antonio projects the male identity he was assigned at birth. He sports short hair and a fuzzy mustache. Josie has her hair cropped into a high-top fade.
And while Josie is a practicing Muslim, Antonio says he is agnostic.
The two differ politically, as well. Josie is a far-left liberal, but Antonio says he “understands where people are coming from” with the 2nd Amendment, conservatism and teaching creationism in schools.
For Antonio, however, the concept of Josie as a woman has been easy to grasp. “When you’re a twin, there’s a bond there that’s really powerful,” Antonio says.
He doesn’t slip up and call Josie the wrong name, or use the wrong pronoun. He isn’t still “getting used” to his sister’s newly announced identity. “You’re just a person. I see it as just that. But I feel like other people see it as this lifestyle or this threat.
“We’re all Americans,” he says before taking a brief pause. “But that doesn’t mean we’re all good Americans.”
Asked about Trump’s policies, Antonio says “they’re bad for anyone. But especially seeing my loved ones affected is terrible. … Thinking how the world views Josie and people like her, it makes me sad, scared, confused.
“People like Josie are outspoken, and that’s dangerous. … The fact she won’t let oppression happen, it’s a great trait, I’m proud, but I’m also scared.”
In a perfect world, Antonio says, people will look at Josie and others like her with empathy. “People don’t generally try to understand what she goes through,” he says. “Saying that her plight isn’t real.”
Josie says people’s fear of “the other” prevents them from seeing the humanity in others. A fear, she hopes Americans can confront by looking inwardly instead of judging outwardly.
“It doesn’t cost you anything to empathize,” Josie says. “But it does cost you a little bit of your humanity when you see someone and decide that they’re not worth it.
“Why should people care about my story? Because mine isn’t the only story. I’m a human. We’re human. And that’s important.”