LA's 'Mother' Karina Samala on Years of Transgender Advocacy
For years, Karina Samala worked for the military by day and secretly performed as a woman in bars at night. Now, she's one of LA's hardest fighting transgender activists.
Photo by Bethany Mollenkof.
This interview is part of Broadly's Trans Legends oral history project. Read more here.
When I moved to LA in 2005, parties catered to trans women and their admirers were so abundant that you could go out every night of the week to a bar or club and find your people. Many were in Hollywood, on Santa Monica Boulevard, where lots of girls still worked the stroll. You could always tell when the escorts showed up at the end of the night—they had the most expensive handbags and were surged to perfection. There were also cross-dressers, venturing out for the first time, young club queens on a rampage, and everyone in between. This was where we congregated, manifesting community in real time.
It was during this time that I first recognized Karina Samala—or “Mother” as many call her—as a fixture in LA’s trans community. I saw that she had a tremendous amount of respect from younger trans women, and that she was the only trans woman who would hang out with the guys around the pool table at the Oxwood Inn. I can picture her now: Listening intently, with her arms folded across her chest, while a suburban Valley guy in jeans and a flannel spilled his worries, dramas, and scandals into her ear. A caring matriarch, she seemed beloved by everyone around her.
As I became more involved in LA's trans community, I learned that Mother Karina was just as active during the day, tirelessly advocating for the rights of trans people like it was her full time job. She presides as President of the Board of Directors for the Imperial Court of Los Angeles—a chapter of one of the country’s oldest LGBT organizations, founded in 1965; and serves on the Transgender Advisory Board of West Hollywood. Outside of politics, she also produces Queen USA and Queen of the Universe, two large transgender beauty pageants. Mother Karina is known for going from one event to another—from LA City Hall to a meeting at one of the many non-profits she works with, then straight to the club, changing outfits in her minivan between appearances. And for the past two decades, she has been patrolling the stroll after hours to distribute condoms and check on the girls, acting as a firewall between trans women sex workers and the police.
Today, it feels like the internet often hinders us from comprehending the true diversity of our community, as we become increasingly siloed into networks that are not as porous—or as serendipitous and random—as real life. To me, Mother Karina’s wisdom and presence is a refreshing reminder of the thrill and value in bringing trans people together through radical inclusion, serving our trans siblings in need, and building community no matter what space you are in.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
When was the first time you entered a space with other trans people? Where were you and what were you doing?
This goes way back, 1990. I got involved with the Imperial Court first, beauty pageants. I used to live in Long Beach, way, way back, and I was kind of a closeted gay boy, because I was employed and working under a government military defense contract. And it was in my contract, because of the work I [did], [that] I had to stay quiet about my identity. At the time, we didn’t have all the protections that we have right now. When I applied for my security clearance, it was fully stated there: “Are you a homosexual?” The word transgender wasn’t on the application. One of the questions on that page was, “Are you a homosexual?” So I had to lie because I was afraid that they would use that information to deny my clearance. They’d do background checks and talk to my neighbors and everybody else.
So I got involved with the Imperial Courts and then early Hollywood, a lot of transgender pageants—Miss Universe, Goddess Ball, and all those things.
I went to a bar, Ripples; it’s still there. I went to that bar and met people. They had a bowling league of all the gay bars. Every bar had its own team, they would compete with each other. That’s how I got involved with the community.
Empress Honey Carolina had a fundraiser for the Imperial Court called the Closet Ball; a coming-out-of-the-closet type of thing. They asked me: “Come on join the pageant! The prize is a lot!” It’s a reverse ball where the male would come out as a male and be judged as a male, then someone would do their makeup backstage and then they’d be judged as a female, and whoever wins gets the crown. And it goes both ways. So, I won and was so excited and started dressing up in public! That started the whole thing. And I started joining other pageants, bigger pageants. I went to Chicago, San Francisco, Sacramento. I started winning! I thought, wow this is fun. But I still couldn’t leave the house in makeup, because of my neighbors.
You couldn’t go out of the house?
No, I couldn’t. I was working for aerospace.
You had a government job in aerospace engineering?
Yes. I couldn’t be out because of my security clearance and I was going to work male, even though I had long hair. But then at night, I was going to West Hollywood as a female [and] performing in bars. Because the pageants I had won, I was an advocate for the trans community.
While I was doing that, I met Jeffrey Prang, who has been, from the beginning, a very big supporter of our community. He was a council member and a mayor of West Hollywood; now he’s heading up the Los Angeles LGBT Task Force. He was the one who mentored me and guided me to get involved in my community. At the time, he was working for LA County Sheriff’s department. They started the LA Sheriff's department LGBT Advisory Council around 2006. Prang came up to me and said, “They want to fill that spot.” They wanted a meeting with me. So I said, “okay.” So I got involved with them.
I was interested in improving the trans community’s interactions with the Sheriff’s department. We served the jail system, the twin towers, stuff like that. We have a section for gay and trans people in the county jail to protect them from general population inmates. They housed them by their genitalia at the time. If they had male organs, they had to be housed in a male prison. I recommended the girls be given bras and make-up in these men’s prisons. I also got in there and supplied makeup so it would be available in the commissary.
Do you consider the work with the sheriff’s department the beginning of your career as an activist?
Oh, yeah. I’d drive on the streets of West Hollywood, Santa Monica Boulevard. I was doing my patrol, talking to these girls, learning how they’re being protected and treated with the cops, and everybody else out in the streets.
Tell me about your patrol!
I do my patrol at night. I never walk; I drive. Girls see me and say, “Mother, Mother Karina, I need help!” I’d give them condoms. I met a lot of these girls because they’d been involved in the pageants.
There was a restaurant called the Yukon Mining Company with a big parking lot. I’d be parked there, and since all of the girls would come over and talk to me, the guys would come up and ask, “Are you the madame?”
So you were doing that on your own, you took the initiative to do outreach work as an independent community member?
Yeah, I was doing that on my own.
When did you start doing that?
Oh my God, it was 2000—around that time. And some of those girls really turned themselves around. One of them in particular was out homeless, doing survival sex work on the streets, and now she is a lawyer.
When did you immigrate to the US?
My whole family moved here in the early 80s. I went to school in the Philippines and here. I only went back to the Philippines three times, that’s it. So while doing that, a lot of the girls came up to me needing healthcare. They’d say, “Mother, we need help.” They’re undocumented, no money; they come up to me because they get their medications and also their hormones off the street, and also getting injected with dirty needles. When they got sick, they needed to be seen by a physician, but they had nowhere to go. They’d get a lot of problems with infections and all that. So, since I know Jim Mangia and got to work with him on the Imperial Court—he started St John’s [Well Child and Family Center] in Los Angeles—we did fundraising for the food drive to feed all the people up there. I came up to him and I said, “Jim, I have these girls who really need our help. Can I bring them to your clinic?” So we started. I’d bring girls in there. It didn't matter if they were documented or not, we’d give them medicine, blood tests, a doctor.
Maybe like three years [into] doing that, I said to him, “Jim why don’t you open up a transgender clinic?” The LGBT center had it already but there’s a long, long waitlist before people can see a doctor. And we needed a program that was trans-specific. I encouraged Jim to meet with Mason Davis, from the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco—I asked him to come down here so we could have a meeting. He met Jim Mangia, and that’s how we got [the Transgender Health Program at St. John’s] started. Their staff and all of them are so open and friendly to the community. Now they have over 2,000 trans patients.
I know when you do your patrol, not only to check on the girls, but to check on the police and sheriffs department. You told me once about being stopped by the cops while doing so.
At the time, I was involved with the City of West Hollywood. When I do my patrol, I drive on the street. I drive all the way to Western and Vermont. If I have problems with LAPD...that’s how I got to know LAPD chief Beatrice Girmala, who at the time was a captain of the Hollywood station. I’d go to her and say, “We got a problem here. Members of our community are being targeted, incarcerated.” I’d ask: “What is happening here?!”
Now, I’m on the LAPD working group, because of my role on the LA Human Relations Commission’s Transgender Working Group. We had a community forum... I invited community members and leaders. We had kind of a panel with Mason Davis, Mia Yamamoto, and also Talia Bettcher, a Gender Studies professor at Cal State LA. We had everyone there to draft a policy. It is now currently signed and being used by LAPD as their recommended policy.
"We need to build a free world for everyone to be respected and to improve the quality of life and space for all transgender people."
We’re very lucky to live here in Los Angeles, and the city of West Hollywood; we have city officials who are fully supportive of our community and making sure that human and civil rights of its citizens are protected. We are working diligently with LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department to ensure that violence towards the Transgender community is taken seriously and there is an immediate response to these crimes.
So, the first time you were in a contest was 1990. You were in the Imperial Court, the pageant scene, and by 2001 you quit your job and dedicated your time to activism?
I overheard a coworker saying something about me: “So unprofessional coming to work with long hair and dressed in that look.” They were starting to notice me changing. My eyebrows were plucked.
I said, “I overheard you, and you shouldn’t be talking about me like that.” I said, “I was not hired here for my looks. It’s what I have here in my head.
I said, you know, I’m not happy doing this work—going to work inside and hiding myself then doing shows at West Hollywood bars. So I quit my job and focused on helping the community. I’m doing a lot more [now]. I started doing Miss USA. And then Queen USA, Queen California, Queen of the Universe. So then I focused on those.
Who were your trans mentors and who showed you the way in those early days?
I had my mothers, too. Right now, my mother is Nicole Murray-Ramirez. She’s my mother right now and really mentoring me. She’s the head of the National [Imperial] Court System. So she’s Empress Nicole the Great, the Queen Mother of the Americas. She’s 81 years old; she’s been in LA since the early 1960s. And Empress Lola, past empress of LA, Hollywood, she gave me my name. She kind of helped, guided me—she did all my gowns for the pageants.
Also, Mama José Sarria! She was the founder of the Imperial Court system in 1965, which currently has 72 chapters. It’s a three nation organization—USA, Canada, and Mexico. Mama José was the first drag queen to run for public office in San Francisco. She didn’t win, but she was the first queen to run.
What are survival strategies would you share with future generations?
We need to unite. We have to work with each other in order to survive, and there are a lot more of us out there than we think. For us to survive, we have to stick together. We should also be on the streets, to participate in demonstrations, so they know that we’re here and we’re working with them. Also, vote! Tell everyone to vote. We need everyone out there to help us! We need to honor transgender people, especially all those who died; we must fight for them. We need to vote the right people into office who will help us. That’s very important. We have lots of work to do. We need to build a free world for everyone to be respected and to improve the quality of life and space for all transgender people.