A safe place for transgender teens to just be

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Josephine Hoskins knew she was in a different place – a special place – the moment she walked into her first KC Passages meetup.

“Hey, what are your pronouns?” one of the youths asked.

With just five words, the anxiety and nervousness Hoskins had been feeling since a friend suggested she visit the LGBTQ+ youth advocacy program evaporated.

“Oh my God, do you know how awesome that felt?!” says Hoskins, 17.

She’s sitting in the living room of her home that suffocates her, barely 2,000 feet from the high school that broke her. Hoskins explains how, in her world, no place is truly safe.

“Some people look at America as a country. To me, America is a war zone. Anytime I step outside of my house, hell, when I come into my house, I realize I can be killed.”

Hoskins was born biologically a male, but as early as when she was 2, she has felt an innate and deep psychological identification with the female gender.

Her identifications are so strong, in fact, that she feels she has gender dysphoria, a psychological distress stemming directly from a conflict with biological assignment and gender identity that affects some (though not all) transgender individuals.

“It feels like I’m falling, like I’m out of place,” Hoskins says. “I used to really fear going to sleep because when I would wake up, I was in this defenseless state where I felt like I was in the wrong body.

“It’s hard to put into words what this feeling is like. I don’t hate my body, I don’t see anything wrong with the male body at all,” Hoskins continues. “It’s just not right for me. I can love the shoes you have on, but for me I know they’re four sizes too big. Living your life in a body that’s not right for you is like trying to wear a pair of shoes that’s four sizes too big.

“It’s really lonely.”

She revealed her gender identity to her mother, Tiffany Sykes, just three months ago.

“I had a mini breakdown,” Sykes recalls. “I didn’t know anything about that life. It’s like losing a child. One day, I tried to accept it but the next day, I’m struggling.”

Sykes says she has done some research about being the parent of a transgender child, but she says she still has “five sons and a daughter. I don’t have two daughters.” For her, Hoskins is still Josiah.

Being Muslim adds more complexity to the issue for Sykes: “This goes against everything my religion is about.”

Hoskins says religion doesn’t define her or her gender identity, but between the two, it’s hard to find acceptance.

“I’m a black Muslim transgender girl,” the teen says. “What place in America is really for me? What space is safe?”

There’s at least one place.

LLAMAS AND UNICORNS

“You all look like llamas to me. And I don’t want to have sex with a llama.”

The gaggle of teens inside Brush Creek Community Center erupts with laughter.

“Lovely llamas,” Hoskins adds with a smirk. “But llamas, nonetheless.”

It’s a Wednesday evening and there are 18 kids of every size, shade and style congregated inside the community center’s oblong meeting room for their weekly KC Passages meeting.

Flashy, skinny boys in chokers and “Flawless” Beyonce-themed T-shirts. Grungy teens in plaid and faded rocker tees. Shy, chipmunk-cheeked middle-schoolers trying their best to blend in. And uber-confident 6-foot-tall boys in impeccable makeup. And the hair. Manes dangle in shades of candy red, fuchsia, sky blue and seafoam.

If this sounds weird and otherwordly, perfect. This is Passages, a mobile youth center that serves local LGBTQ+ youth. “Different” here isn’t just cool; it’s comfortable.

Founded in 1990, Passages operates under the tenets of “inclusion, education, safety and acceptance.” It aims to provide LGBTQ+ youth ages 14-20 with what they desire most: a judgment-free space of acceptance.

As recently as five years ago, this room most likely was filled primarily with gay and lesbian teens. But Passages has experienced a shift in demographics.

“I’d say nearly 80 percent of our kids align themselves with either a queer, transgender or gender nonconforming identity,” says Melissa Brown, a youth services manager with the KC Anti-Violence Project, the local organization that facilitates and sponsors Passages.

Normalization and inclusion are a rapidly materializing reality for gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals. From television and movies, to artists and athletes, to same-sex marriage legislation, they have a high level of visibility and inclusion.

Those who identify as transgender or nonconforming, however, find themselves lagging behind.

In the fight for LGBT equality, the T has often been excluded.

“There has certainly been more acceptance for the gay and lesbian communities,” says Justin Shaw, 37, executive director of the KCAVP and a former Passages youth. “In a way, trans kids and gender nonconforming kids, they are the new frontier in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.”

Only in the last year or so has discussion around the transgender community and their issues begun hitting news cycles. The national debate continues over transgender bathrooms. In December, a Kansas City girl was featured on the cover of National Geographic – the first known transgender person on the magazine’s cover.

Still, Hoskins says, there’s work to be done.

“People are getting around to understanding sexuality. They still don’t get gender,” Hoskins says.

Hence the llamas.

There’s a general flow for Passages each week. Kids stumble in as early as 4 p.m. and linger until 6 p.m., when the program officially begins, usually with food – sometimes pizza, or corn dogs, or tacos. Always Hoskins’ famous Kool-aid (read: extra sweet).

Afterward there’s an ice-breaker. On this day, it’s the “Gender Unicorn,” an illustration chart that helps kids describe their sexuality, identity and expression clearly and with distinction.

Sexuality defines whom a person is attracted to both sexually and emotionally. Gender identity is about the gender an individual aligns with. Gender expression defines how a person chooses to express their gender identity.

Or as youth advocate Melissa Winter puts it: “Identity is who you go to bed as, sexuality is who you go to bed with.”

For Hoskins, that’s no one. In addition to being a transgender girl, she is also asexual, meaning she doesn’t experience sexual attraction to any gender or identity. To her, when it comes to sex, we all might as well be llamas.

But then there’s Soraya, a posh trans girl from Knob Noster who, judging from her conversation, has nagging boy problems. Life’s a bit simpler for Alice O’Kelly, a cis-gender (traditional) girl from Liberty. She’s pansexual, meaning she can be attracted to males, females and transgender individuals. “I’m more attracted to the person,” she says.

After the ice-breaker, there’s usually a type of presentation. One week there’s an open mic – the perfect venue for Hoskins to try out a new poem. Another week: All Is Fair in Love and Wear, a local garment company that specializes in creating undergarments for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. Another week will feature a workshop on sexual assault and consent.

It’s these kinds of workshops and presentations that mark Passages’ growth.

“A lot of Passages in the ’90s was social time. Coming together and talking about dating, where to go, what to do. Who to date,” says Shaw with a laugh. “But now the program comes with a linkage of services, access to other organizations, licensed therapists. It’s a full-service program.”

The group also provides sex education and assistance on issues affecting LGBTQ youth like suicide, domestic violence and mental health. Just as importantly, they welcome ideas from the youth.

A PLACE TO ‘BE’

A National Transgender Discrimination survey based on 2015 findings (released in December) found that 77 percent of those who were out or perceived as transgender experienced some form of mistreatment between kindergarten and 12th grade, such as being verbally harassed, prohibited from dressing according to their gender identity, disciplined more harshly, or physically or sexually assaulted because people thought they were transgender.

Hoskins says this happened at her school, the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts.

She alleges she wasn’t allowed to host a school poetry event in November because of what she wore: trousers, a sweater, bra, makeup and heels.

“They crushed me,” Hoskins, a junior, says, thinking back on the incident. “I think that was the first time I cried in public ever. I had been profiled before by people online, but I didn’t have to go to school with them.”

Paseo administrative staff explain the issue that day was Hoskins’ safety. Principal Dennis Walker says Hoskins failed to mention that she was also wearing “five-inch heels” and a skirt with a train so long that earlier in the day, she got entangled and tumbled down a flight of stairs. “I thought she broke her neck!” Walker says, recalling seeing Hoskins fall.

So when Hoskins told Walker she was hosting the event, on a stage with more than its share of steps and dark spots, Walker said no.

“I’m the one who made that call,” Walker says. “For her safety and her safety only.”

The next time the poetry event was held, this April, Hoskins was permitted to perform in her feminine attire.

“We support our trans males and our trans females,” Walker says. “They are very comfortable here at Paseo Academy. We treat them with the same equity and respect as we do all the children in our building.”

Several other transgender students at Paseo disagree, saying that some teachers have not abided by their request to be referred to by their preferred pronouns and names, while others sometimes make disparaging remarks about their identity.

“Those are isolated incidents,” Walker says.

Still, it’s incidents like these that might be why the 2015 study also found that 39 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals had experienced serious psychological distress, and 40 percent had attempted suicide, a rate nine times that of the general population.

The Southern Poverty Law Center listed 2016, with 27 transgender homicides, as the deadliest year on record for transgender people.

This year, nine transgender people have been murdered. All were transgender women of color. More than half were misgendered by local news or authorities in the announcement of their deaths.

These are the stories that haunt Hoskins.

“I don’t want to die,” Hoskins says. “But I realize when you live the life that I live, when you’re the person that I am, by no fault of my own, I might meet an end.”

Which is why walking into Passages felt like coming home.

“Take home, school, the world. There’s no place where we’re allowed to be ourselves. But then you create Passages. It’s the only place where I’m allowed to be. Where I don’t have to prove to someone ‘Hey! I’m this,’ ” Hoskins says.

“At Passages,” Hoskins says. “It’s just somewhere where I can BE.”

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