Content Warning: This interview with Josi contains mentions of mental health issues, anti-trans violence and conversion therapy practices.
Interviewing Josi: a passionate singer and poet, striving for visibility
We would like you to meet Josi Phene, a trans singer at the LGBTQ+ choir Pink Singers. During our interview, Josi embarked on a journey of her gender identity. For decades she suppressed her feelings about her gender. With the life expectancy of trans women being less than that of their cis counterparts, it is a privilege to listen to Josi share her story with us today.
What stood out immediately from our interview was Josi’s passion for visibility. ‘I never had anybody to look up to’, she explained. Josi is a strong, witty person who wishes to be a representation for other trans singers. At 72, she is a proud trans woman who found a new purpose in singing among a hundred other people in an LGBTQ+ choir celebrating our community.
Josi also has a creative side to her and describes herself as a polaroid poet, writing poems as they come, often writing them just before a show.
Josi: I have been in performance poetry for a number of years. It was mostly about trans angst. I saw it as my role to educate people about what it’s like being a trans woman. I call myself the polaroid poet because I would take a snapshot – sometimes I was still writing it before going on stage – and like a polaroid picture you don’t edit it. You just look at it and you either bin it or you keep it. I also had a couple of poems published but I didn’t want to get paid for, I just wanted to spread the message.
Below you can listen to one of the emotional and impactful poems she wrote about being a trans person in today’s anti-trans climate. Join us in understanding who Josi is, how her identity impacted her relationships and how a choir saved her life.
Josi’s journey with her gender identity
Josi: Oh God, I am 72. My journey started a while ago. I knew there was something wrong, but I didn’t know what it was obviously. I was one of those people who didn’t say ‘I think I’m a girl’, I knew I was. While I had that positivity from a very early age, I also felt fear and shame because I was frightened that anyone might see this in me.
My only exposure to other trans people was in things like News of the World, where they exposed trans people. Trans people were used for cheap laughs. My exposure was that it was wrong, it was illegal, it was shameful. So, I was terrified, but I couldn’t stop myself. I needed to have opportunities to represent myself in a way that suited my spirits.
While she knew who she was from a young age, coming out as trans was much more difficult, especially at work which was the place where she didn’t feel comfortable being out yet. After retiring as a police officer in 2002, Josi trained as a life coach and pursued different jobs for another 15 years, until the age of 67. At that point, her friend gave her the final push and Josi legally changed her name and started presenting as herself at work. She had ‘total support’ at the workplace, with friends even buying her flowers to celebrate her. ‘I never had an issue’, Josi explained.
Around the same time, Josi was also providing support to other groups, educating them on why companies might be dealing with trans people who are not able to come out yet.
Josi: In that preparation, I sat down … and I worked out that in the 10 years that I have been out, I had at least one transphobic incident a month, which resulted in over 120 occasions, and it shocked me when I realised that was the truth of what it’s like being out as a trans woman who didn’t pass. These incidents still happen to this day.
The negative impact of conversion therapy on Josi’s mental health
Josi: I used to be very involved with the Baptist church. One time, we went on one of these away weekends where you get to know each other more. There, I made the mistake of opening up about my gender and they sent me to conversion therapy. Conversion therapy still haunts me to this day. Being held down, screaming and shouting. I went through it three times and it didn’t work obviously. It is who I am, not bloody demons and spirits who are making me trans. All that shouting didn’t do any good at all but because I was truthful, explaining that I still felt those feelings, I was dropped from the church.
I am now an atheist because of that, and I also have complex post-traumatic stress disorder which means that my PTSD is not from a single incident but from a combination of several, such as the church and conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy and the church left a long-lasting negative impact on Josi’s mental health. Even now, decades after going through these horrible practices, Josi was triggered by singing a hymn and performing in a church with her LGBTQ+ choir.
Dating and making friends as a trans woman
Josi: I really tried to suppress this part of me, and I thought that if I told my now ex-wife that would be the end of my relationship. I was trying to convince myself and others. So, I had all those confusions and fears. I was married to my job and then the marriage collapsed. It was also difficult for her to understand why I was cross-dressing. After the marriage ended, I moved back to London. There, I met my second wife and we had four children.
Again with her, I hid my identity. But because of my job, I could lie and steal time for myself and use our money to purchase things that made me feel happy. I am still deeply ashamed of it. She later found my stash of clothes. I promised to seek help, but my feelings were always there. She met somebody else, and we eventually got divorced. I was 52 when that happened and the night she left, … from that moment, I knew that I no longer had to consider a partner.
Josi’s most recent relationship also ended due to her gender identity. ‘When she realised that I was not a cross-dresser but a trans woman, she couldn’t do it. I have not had any relationships since then’, Josi heartbrokenly explained. While romantic relationships did not work out, she found long-lasting friendships with her girlfriends.
Josi: I didn’t want to be a trans woman among only trans people, I wanted to be a trans woman in the world. After dating, I went on friendship sites and made deep, long-lasting friendships. I hadn’t been out in the world as myself outside of trans-only spaces. One of the women I met was the first person who accepted me for who I was. That was huge for me. It was the first time I was shown such deep trust, and it was incredible. I determined that I would never give them any cause to worry. I didn’t want to be seen as a predator or as calculated, because that’s how we’re portrayed, so I was very careful.
What inspired you to become part of Pink Singers?
After going through many hardships in her life, one constant was her creativity and passion for music and poetry. This passion led Josi to Pink Singers. They are the oldest LGBTQ+ choir in Europe, singing and celebrating queer and trans joy since 1983. This year marks Pink Singers’ 40th anniversary.
A friend then introduced Josi to Pink Singers. She went to one of their concerts and ‘they broke my heart’, Josi expressed while tearing up. They did a cover of ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay and Josi became a ‘sobbing mess’.
Josi: They followed it up with ‘Chosen Family’ and that was it, I was an absolute puddle. I was so impressed by the professionalism of this choir. They blew me away, so I applied for an audition. I was made to feel so welcomed. There is a difference between being accepted and being embraced. I did the audition and then I got through.
We are a charitable choir so one of the things we do is go to places where people are from within the choir, and we perform in hometowns. This year, we sang at London Pride and London Trans Pride. We also performed at Liverpool Pride, and it was an emotional firecracker. We had our arrangement of songs, which was fabulous. ‘Chosen Family’ is my favourite song we perform and only the last couple of times I got through it without crying.
What does being part of Pink Singers mean to you?
Josi: I am not just accepted, I am embraced and dare I say it, I am loved. I know I am. The support for trans people in the choir is phenomenal, it is immense. When I was struggling, they noticed, and they did something about it. That is the measure of the care of the people at Pink Singers. They saved my life, it’s not an exaggeration. I have been given a purpose. All the songs that we sing suddenly have a new meaning to me. The choir truly gives me purpose.
Being surrounded by 109 other voices is a taste of heaven. Being in the choir feeds my spirit hugely as well as getting such warm responses. I had people come up to me after a concert telling me about the impact I had had on them, seeing somebody like me. That was very moving. My biggest motivation is saying ‘Look I’m here, we’re here, we exist’. When I am interviewed, I want my grandchildren to see me, I want other people to see me. That kind of visibility is very important to me.
Advice for future trans singers
Josi: Be yourself and if you like singing, try it. Sometimes you have to taste it to know if you like it. If the choir calls themselves LGBTQ+ you know you are at least safe to walk in. Many of the choirs do open invites so you can go to one of their open sessions. These sessions give you a real, honest flavour for the choir. Remember it’s also about the people surrounding you and how you relate to each other. Give it a go. You might get a sense of belonging from it.
While for most of her life, she was not able to outwardly be her true self, Josi is proof that we have a lot to learn from older trans people and how they fought to exist in this world. If you would like to read more of Josi Phene’s poetry, follow her on Twitter, Soundcloud and her YouTube channel. Celebrate Pink Singers’ 40th anniversary and check out their latest concerts and events on Instagram, Twitter and their website! Make sure to also subscribe to their YouTube channel and listen to their beautiful renditions of songs like ‘Chosen Family’.
This interview is part of a monthly series titled Showcasing Our Community: Trans Creators Making a Difference, where we spotlight a trans content creator. The intention is to share and celebrate the work of trans individuals with GenderGP’s community.
We thank Josi for being so vulnerable and sharing her story with us. If you are a trans content creator of any sort, such as an activist, singer, artist or TikToker, and this interview inspired you to share your own journey, then make sure to contact us via: firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to sharing who you are with our community.