At just 20 years old, Josie Totah has already navigated a difficult path to affirming her true self.
The actress started her career at age 11 and quickly landed one of her first big breaks appearing on Disney Channel's Jessie. At 17—with a string of roles on TV shows like Glee, iCarly, 2 Broke Girls, Champions and more—she came out as transgender.
"It was really difficult because I was being told, ‘You shouldn't go outside with nail polish or with makeup unless you are ready to be fully out,' and I just wanted to be myself," Totah exclusively told E! News. "And 12 years old, not being able to do the smallest things that affirm who you are was incredibly difficult and having to feel the burden that the world isn't able to accept me. I'm not able to leave the four walls of my house being the person I felt like I was meant to be and that is such a trapping, traumatizing feeling and it makes life so difficult."
While Totah admits it's "scary" that people can look up everything about her transition on the Internet, the Saved By the Bell star is happy to educate.
"I'm so grateful I'm able to be someone who people can look up to," she said. "It's worth that risk and it's worth all the experiences and s--t that I went through. Because I'm able to make people feel less alone by being myself and I'm so incredibly proud of that."
Indeed, fans are constantly reaching out with their applause and support.
"It is literally the greatest privilege of my life to hear that from people," she shared. "I'll be out at a party or walking on the street and someone will come up to me and it's just like we don't even have to say much because we just know and that's so beautiful. Some people go their whole lives without experiencing that type of connection that I have with my community and it's amazing. I'm so lucky."
And she's just as happy to see her LGBTQ+ heroes, like the cast of Pose and E!'s Laverne Cox, shine
"Even my peers, seeing people closer to my age like Hunter Schaefer and Kim Petras just stand in their power and just be their unapologetic self, that I look up to...that is what makes me invigorated," she said.
It's that confidence she wants everyone to feel as they celebrate Pride this month. "Pride means standing in your truth in the face of adversity and understanding your purpose on earth and feeling proud of that and not feeling ashamed for the person that you were made," she said. "And that includes all your little flaws and what you think are weaknesses and also your favorite things about yourself as well."
As for her advice to young LGBTQ+ people struggling or looking for support on their journey, Totah shared this message: "It's important to remember there are people in this world waiting to love you and that it's OK to be upset and that it's OK to recognize that it's not fair and that it sucks. But it does get better and there is a light at the end of this long road."