If you see a very pretty blonde, Filipina driving up and down Santa Monica Blvd in a van, it’s probably LGBT human rights activist Karina Samala or “Mama Karina” as she is affectionately referred to by her “girls.”
At the request of the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department, Samala’s midnight to dawn patrol has a two-fold mission: She’s out to make sure her girls behave themselves and are playing safe (she has a bag full of condoms on her dashboard) and she’s making sure that police officers are adhering to the new policies and procedures when interacting with transgender individuals.
Although she may be a former beauty pageant winner and a three-time International Imperial Court Empress, Samala is much more than a pretty face. For five years, the “Queen of the Universe” (1991) has proactively worked with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the transgender community to help resolve issues over profiling.
The problem began when transgender individuals who lived around and frequented the nightclubs in the Hollywood area (where some of the “girls” walk the streets for a living) felt they were all being profiled and harassed for prostitution. Samala stressed that every transgender on the pavement is not a “street walker.” For example, one transgender was stopped on suspicion of prostitution for just walking her dog.
At a 2007 community forum with LAPD officials, transgender women reported that police officers conducted excessive pat-downs, referred to them with the wrong gender pronouns and insisted that they were engaging in prostitution or using drugs, simply because they were transgender. Samala grew exasperated at seeing her friends, harassed, humiliated and profiled.
As a result of the community forum, the Transgender Working Group (TWG) was formed and Samala was elected as chairperson. The organization produced and disseminated a questionnaire for transgender individuals’ who may have had interactions with the LAPD. The results supported the initial accusations of profiling and mistreatment:
30% complained of verbal harassment,
25% said the officers used the wrong name or gender pronoun when addressing them,
12 % of the participants reported physical abuse,
4% indicated they were sexually harassed and
1% said they were sexually abused.
In partnership with the City’s Human Relations Commission and Mayor Villaraigosa’s Office, TWG recommended procedures to the LAPD that were based on law enforcement policies previously adopted in Washington D.C. and San Francisco.
Samala stated that the survey had exposed another problem for trans persons who had been arrested. “There’s been a history of violence against transgender individuals by other inmates when they’re placed in the jail’s general population,” said Samala. TWG and its supporters urged the LAPD to create a safer environment.
TWG’s arduous and prolonged work finally paid off. In 2012, the LAPD became the first police department in the nation to open up a separate holding cell for biologically male and female individuals who identify themselves as members of the opposite sex.
Now when a trans person is taken in, instead of being housed with the general population, the arresting officer will transport the trans-identified arrestee to the downtown Metropolitan Detention Center where he or she will be housed in a separate module. There they will have access to their preference of clothes and even makeup.
Samala added that the separate LAPD facility will only hold inmates until they are arraigned. Then the arrestee will eventually be transferred to LA Sheriff controlled county jails (Twin Towers K6G Facility), which also have segregated gay and male to female transgender areas.
As a member of the LA County Sheriff’s LGBT advisory council, Samala is currently working with the LA County Sheriff controlled county jail officials to implement similar LAPD police interaction and jail policies.
Samala admitted that the implementation of the new police regulations was a collaborative community effort. West Hollywood Mayor, Jeffrey Prang, was Samala’s mentor, pushing her to get involved and stand up for her community. But Samala also acknowledged that it was Police Chief Charlie Beck who courageously accepted the recommendations and handed them down as policies for his entire department to follow.
In addition to the separate holding facility, the new guidelines instruct that the arresting officer(s):
– Not use language that a reasonable person would consider demeaning to another person, in particular language that references a person’s gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation;
– Treat transgender persons in a manner that reveals respect for the individual’s gender identity and gender expression, which includes addressing them by their preferred name and using gender pronouns appropriate to the individual’s gender self-identity and expressions, and;
– Recognize that non-traditional gender identities and gender expressions do not constitute reasonable suspicion that an individual is or has engaged in prostitution or any other crime.
– Not question a person’s gender identification, a reminder that “no proof of an individual’s gender is required” during questioning,
– and a search or frisk shall not be performed for the sole purpose of determining an individual’s anatomical gender.
The new procedures have been in effect for a year, and Samala recognized that there is still room for improvement in the relationship between the LAPD and the transgender community. “But it truly is a new LAPD,” she said.
What’s the Queen of the Universe’s next mission? The former chemical engineer is working with St. John’s Well Child and Family Center to provide the first exclusive clinic for transgender persons.
There are more than 22,000 transgender individuals in Los Angeles County and local focus groups revealed that there are multiple barriers to health care for transgender persons including being uninsured or underinsured, stigma, and lack of culturally competent health services.
Last October, Samala helped organize a fundraiser for a new comprehensive health and support services. The “Head Over Heels” event was a huge success,” said Samala. CEO, Jim Mangia hopes to open the new program this spring at several of its sites throughout Los Angeles County.
Samala stressed that a clinic program solely for transgender persons is necessary because many health care providers just don’t “know how to treat us medically or respectfully. We may have given up our masculinity, but we haven’t given up our dignity.”
By Joseph Castel