Josie Totah Didn't "Come Out" — She's Always Been Here
Before revealing her gender identity, the Disney star formerly known as J.J. Totah took a break; she's back with a new style and sense of self
Less than five minutes into my interview with actress Josie Totah, I ask her one of the most dreaded questions that come up when discussing someone else’s gender identity.
When did you know? I ask.
“I literally cannot remember the day that I told my mom that I was a girl,” she replies. Shit, I think. I knew that. But the reality is, with less than 48% of Americans reporting to know or have met a transgender person (meaning approximately 52% of them haven’t), many people don’t understand that the feeling of being in the wrong body is something that can start as early as one can remember. “It wasn’t a ‘coming out’ moment for me since my family has known I was transgender since I was three years old; it was more of a Let me just inform the world of something they don’t know kind of moment.”
Totah, now 17, who charmed audiences as J.J. Totah on television shows like the Disney Channel’s Jessie, Glee, and the Mindy Kaling-produced Champions, revealed her gender identity via Time last year. In her op-ed, the Sacramento native explained why she was ready to “be free”: “This is not something that just happened. This is not a choice that I made. When I was five, long before I understood what the word gender meant, I would always tell my mother that I wished I were a girl. Since I could speak in full sentences, I was like, ‘Give me a dress!’ I always knew on some level that I was female.” In no uncertain terms, she revealed her preferred pronouns to be she, her, and hers, and that she identifies as female, specifically as a transgender female.
She is even wiser than you'd expect a 17-year old who worked and grew up in Los Angeles to be — sweeter than candy (until you cross her), as arresting as her scene-stealing characters, and curious about the road ahead. But her announcement was more take-it-or-leave-it, like putting one’s foot down after delivering a very long-winded sentence. In fact, she told her millions of fans that they could either “jump on or jump off”. But she’s the first to tell you that, though her gender journey isn’t without its low points, it’s been mostly positive.
“If I were to tell someone my entire story — about my parents accepting me, my private Catholic high school being so accepting — they’d be like, This bitch is perfect. Go home,” she quips. “But it’s not true. I’ve acted for all of these years where, even if it was subconsciously or indirectly, I’ve been forced to identify as something that I’m not; constantly, in interviews with people who are very well-known, who have just labeled me as gay or what-have-you — so many publications, live talk shows... it’s been extremely difficult.”
In other words, Totah entered the industry as male-appearing because she had to. Not only did the press assume that the characters she was playing reflected who she was on the inside, but the fact that she’d played the token gay character so much meant that she’d inadvertently typecast herself. She recalls a script a friend sent her, in which the note called for a “super funny, feminine, gay boy — like J.J. Totah.”
She says that Hollywood — and journalists — have a lot of catching up to do when discussing gender and writing characters that reflect the millions of gender-questioning individuals around the world. “No one [was insensitive] on purpose,” Totah acknowledges. “But maybe they could have phrased their questions in a more thoughtful, educated manner, because I’d never come out as anything. I know a lot of trans people have that part of their journey where they come out as gay. But that was never a thing for me. I always ignored the question. I became such pro at dodging those questions because I had to. I could work in politics now.”
“I couldn’t be angry,” Totah continues. “But it was so frustrating that I was living what I thought was my best life and getting to experience these incredibly amazing things but I wasn’t being myself. It felt like a lie. It felt like I wasn’t being true to what everyone wanted me to be.” She jokes that she felt like Hannah Montana without the wig. (Totah has since embraced the alchemy of wigs.)
Real-life encounters with her Disney fans, meanwhile, would pose another gauntlet. “That was where the issue lied: It wasn’t that I didn’t have the support system, which is what a lot of [trans] people struggle with — I have a phenomenal one — it was that I literally wasn’t able to live my life outside of my house.” Most of Totah’s gender exploration happened within the confines of her childhood bedroom. And if it didn’t, due to her fame, she’d have to go “undercover” if she wanted to leave her house.
Growing up, Totah had a separate closet that she’d fill with “girl’s clothes” over the years. “It was a walk-in, let me tell you, and I kept all my favourite looks in there. I had it since I was, like, five-years old. I’ve always had stuff.” That “stuff”, like dresses, skirts, kitten heels, and the like, wasn’t Totah’s armour. She didn’t need the protection, and her parents put most of it there anyway. It was her treasure chest — not filled with Barbies or plastic trinkets, but a trove of fashion as pure joy, puzzle pieces that helped Totah put herself together. Her favourite item? A little pink dress, given to her by her father.
Though Totah has been self-styling since pre-school, the thrill of shopping and colour coordinating was so far from playing dress-up — it was real, and thus bittersweet. “Fashion has always been a huge part of my life. But,” she says, “I couldn’t see myself outside of my closet. When someone would knock on the door, I’d constantly have to change out of my dress or my heels and into sneakers to open the door. I’d be in my room and I’d have to run and slam the door and lock it, and then my mom would be like, ‘Come say hi!,’ and I’d pretend to be asleep because I didn’t want to face them.”
And when it came to auditions, things got even more complicated. “That was the hardest part for my mom, because she obviously wanted me to be myself and live my truth, but she also knew that if I was going to make this decision to be hidden — not be open with my identity, and to audition for these roles — I had to show up looking the part,” Totah says. By age 11, she’d already landed her first role, the title character in The Lil' Dictator on Viacom’s web-based AwesomenessTV.
“My mother would always tell me: ‘Ya know, if you don’t want to tell everyone that you’re female yet, why don’t you just be a guy that dresses in girls clothes?’ And I would tell her all the time: ‘I don’t want that. I don’t want people to think that of me because that’s not who I am. I’m a girl. I want people to identify me as that.’ But when I would have these auditions to play straight boys, I would have to wear clothes that reflected those roles.” Totah’s mother never fought back, continuing to support her pursuit of her big break. And, in 2015, Totah landed the role of precocious singer Myron Muskovitz for several episodes on Glee, FOX’s beloved, transgressive Ryan Murphy-produced musical dramedy; the gig amplified her fame beyond the Disney demo.
But as Totah entered her teens, she hit her lowest point. “Eventually, I kind of gave up. I started wearing sweatshirts and sweatpants. I never wanted to show my body or my skin or anything. I wanted to cover it all up.” Totah deactivated her Instagram, which today boasts 571k followers, and went away for months. But after her Time piece, she came back — not as J.J., but as Josie. To reacquaint herself with her followers, she posted her first photo as Josie since announcing her transition — “I just thought I looked good” — and, just like that, Totah was back in the game.
“I love acting,” she says. “It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.” But since graduating high school and returning to work (she stars in No Good Nick on Netflix, out next month), Totah has added some more gold stars to her résumé. She’s received the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility award and the Upstander award, and she’s enrolled at Chapman University in California, where she joined the sorority Alpha Phi. Though Totah was apprehensive about Greek life, she considers it one of the best decisions, as a young woman, that she’s ever made.
“I knew before going into it that I had to meet all of the sororities before the mutual selection process, where we choose and they choose us, and there had been rumours of a sorority that had all of the stereotypes of being mean and rude and disrespectful — and white, blonde, skinny, and tall,” she recalls. “Even though I was going into the process with an open mind, I didn’t want to be prejudiced against. I wanted a safe space and to not get my hopes up. Ironically, I ended up falling in love with the sorority that everyone else thought was the worst option. They weren’t. They were the total opposite.”
Since joining Alpha Phi, Totah says she's received an overwhelming amount of love and support. “Having people come to me and tell me that even though they can’t personally relate to my experience, how much I’ve helped the find light in their life, loving themselves, and accepting themselves — it’s just been such a wonderful experience. I’m so glad that I’ve found a home there.”
It’s where Totah experiments with her personal style now, too. She blames Los Angeles for her penchant for streetwear, platform sneakers, and wanting to “be cool”. But she also knows her stuff, citing Givenchy and Gucci as some of her favourite designers, for their gender fluid designs and good deeds in the diversity and inclusion categories. “One week, I’m feeling streetwear — think: let’s go to a YG concert and have a good time. And then the next week, I’m a young, HR employee in her 30s who’s trying to make her way up, just got her first starter home; she’s wearing a blazer, she’s in a brown bootie — like, give her a break — ya know?”
At this point in our phone conversation, Totah is stuck in traffic on Interstate 5. It’s a highway that feels endless, and though it comes with many stoplights, it boasts a clear, green view. The time feels ripe to ask her one last question: How would you explain your life right now? She pauses to answer, her words slow, contemplative.
“I feel like I’ve just gotten to the very top of a 40-mile mountain and I’ve gotten to take a deep breath after climbing a long, treacherous journey — including rivers that I’ve had to jump through and the terrain I’ve had to endure. And now that I’m here, I’m ready to climb that mountain again. But it’s a new mountain, an 80-mile mountain; it’s fresh, it’s cleaner, and it’s more of a stroll. There are stops to get water and food on the way up, the sun is on my side, and I’m ready to climb and continue the journey of my life.”
With this, she lets out a laugh of relief. “I get very deep on the 5."