January 8, 2018 at 7:51 pm PST | by Dawn Ennis
Meet 5 trans activists making a difference in LA

A change occurred in 2017 that went largely unnoticed: attitudes toward transgender people shifted from controversies over bathroom issues to the majority of Americans agreeing that trans service members should be allowed to serve in the military. Marking the moment, the Los Angeles Blade created a Transgender Advocate category for the upcoming “Best of” issue. However, nominee Maria Roman suggested that instead of the nominees competing against each other, we should highlight their accomplishments. We agreed. Here are five extraordinary trans activists making a difference in LA. – Troy Masters

Michaela Mendohlson

Michaela Ivri Mendelsohn

Michaela bought her first El Pollo Loco restaurant in 1988, adding several more by the time she transitioned in 2004. Now she owns six, the largest chain of El Pollo Loco restaurants in Southern California. Ownership compelled Mendelsohn to launch a transgender employment program.

“Since I was a child I always felt like ‘the other’ and was often treated as such,” Mendelsohn told the LA Blade in an email. “Breaking through my own barriers — I wanted to help others do the same. Six years ago, when we hired our first transgender employee, I sat down with Kristy (a trans woman of color) and listened to how she had been treated by her other employers. I was shocked and for the first time realized how lucky I was to have transitioned as the boss of my own company. It was then I decided to start hiring more transgender employees in my restaurants and eventually start a program to pave the way to open the door with businesses throughout the country to do the same.

“We hired over 40 transpeople of color into our restaurants and founded TransCanWork to open doors at businesses nationwide to increase the hiring of transgender employees,” she says. “We train companies in diversity and use our jobs board to advertise their open positions to the transgender community. 

“Our work with Senator [Ricardo] Lara in Sacramento resulted in the passage of SB 396, which now requires all California companies to include harassment training of management to include gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation,” she says.

Mendelsohn is also on several boards, including serving as Vice Chair of the Trevor Project, a board member of Mayor Garcetti’s L.A. Workforce Development Board, and is working with the Los Angeles Community College District and other institutions to “normalize” trans lives.

“This White House is bringing all the hate and prejudice to the surface, which exists whether we like to admit it or not,” Mendelsohn says. “The pushback by people of decency is giving us an opportunity to heal this hatred and move on.”

Karina Samala

Karina Samala

Karina is chair of the Transgender Advisory Council at the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and serves on nine other voluntary boards, including the West Hollywood Transgender Advisory Board.

Perhaps unknown to her colleagues, Samala has a degree in chemical engineering from the Philippines, which led to 12 years of top secret work as a senior engineer for defense contractor Northrup Grumman.

“I was going back and forth, going to work in a suit and tie during the day, because of my work,” says Samala. “Back then, there was not even a word for ‘transgender.’ It was not even on the books at the time, and I had to lie, because I would not be able to get my secret security clearance, because of the work I did. I had to lie. Back then, the question was, ‘are you a homosexual?’”

Finally, Samala says, “I decided to just quit my job, because I saw the need to help the community. I saw the hate crimes, the discrimination from police profiling, lack of legal and medical services and so forth. And I wanted to live a life true to myself.”

Samala was instrumental in changing policies at the LA County Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD, which in 2012 produced the historic Transgender Guidelines for police interaction with the transgender community. But she still faces hate speaking at public meetings.

“Somebody from the public comes up to the microphone, saying to me that I am an abomination to the Lord and to the Bible,” she says.

Samala is a trans icon, having won several beauty pageants and producing pageants through the Imperial Court of Los Angeles/Hollywood, where she is an empress and president of the board of directors. The court provides tens of thousands of dollars each year in education scholarships to trans youth and other people in need.

“A lot of the girls call me ‘Mother Karina,’” Samala says. “They come up to me and they say, ‘I need help.’ ‘I need medical help.’ ‘I don’t have insurance.’ And they’re undocumented. They’re getting their hormones on the streets. So there are a lot of issues that they have. We talk to everyone, the homeless and especially the women of color.”  

But LA cares. “We are very lucky that we live in a city that is very proactive and very accepting and very supportive of our community, and I am very truly, truly grateful.”

Maria Louise Roman

Maria Louise Roman

Maria is a former HIV Commissioner for the Los Angeles County and member of the board for both the TransLatin@ Coalition and the West Hollywood Advisory Board. She currently works with at-risk transgender women as a counselor at APAIT Health Center in Los Angeles.

An inspiration to many in LA, the 47-year-old Puerto Rican woman began her journey of self-discovery at age 19, surviving the streets to become an outspoken activist and role model. She is engaged to musician Jason Taylorson, with a wedding planned for later this year.

Roman is also an actress who’s appeared in a number of movies, including the film short “The Transfigured Body: A Requiem in Celebration of Gwen Araujo,” about the brutal murder of 17-year old Gwen Araujo in Newark, Calif., in 2002. Four men used a “trans panic” defense, claiming Arajuo deceived them into believing she was a cisgender woman.

AIDS drove Roman to become an activist. “A lot of my friends who were trans were dying from HIV, and it sort of forced me to feel that I wanted to be part of the solution,” Roman says. “So when a position opened up at a nonprofit agency, I took it, as a health educator. For the first time, I really found my voice, and I discovered my passion: I could influence discussions, and advocate not only for myself but for other women like myself.”

Roman says her job at the APAIT Health Center is finding “housing for people who are living with HIV.” She hopes to find resources to create a shelter for transgender women.

In 2018, Roman says, “We have to sort of step up our game, and start creating things like the Translatin@ Coalition, which is an organization that focuses on serving our own people, We have to really entrench ourselves in every aspect from politics to social services to the media.”

Roman adds, poignantly: “We see trans visibility at its highest point—but people are struggling with the same issues I struggled with 20 years ago: lack of employment, lack of education, lack of resources. So, the issues are still the same, although there is more visibility.”

Bamby Salcedo

Bamby Salcedo

Bamby is president and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition, which she says is “the very first trans-led organization providing services, direct supportive services to trans people here in Los Angeles.” Salcedo knows the territory, having started as an HIV/AIDS educator and Transgenderos Unidos leader at Bienestar, after which she spent eight years as the Health Education and HIV Prevention Services Coordinator at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“I don’t consider myself an activist,” Salcedo says. “I just feel like a piece of the puzzle. I consider myself a pawn in the game. Having said that, the murder of Gwen Araujo activated something inside of me, for me to understand and realize there was a lot of work that needed to be done to bring awareness about our issues, particularly the violence that we experience in our society. Since then, I’ve been very active in the community, about 18 years now that I’ve been moving and shaking and organizing.”

Salcedo’s trans, LGBT, Latina and HIV/AIDS work also intersects with issues such as immigration and incarceration. She advocates getting involved in local politics, learning about elected officials, and visiting their offices.

“They’re here to serve us, not the other way around,” she says. But because of the way politics works, “they basically serve those who give them the most. And we need to change that. We need to hold them accountable for what they do. We need to fight the power.”

Salcedo is also pragmatic. “There have been gains, but the current political climate is not helping,” she says. “To fight the oppression we experience, we need to be able to understand our individual power, but also our collective power,” forming alliances “with other people who understand our struggle.”

On Jan. 5, Salcedo announced the expansion of The TransLatin@ Coalition through The Center for Violence Prevention & Transgender Wellness and a bigger space to provide a multitude of services at 3055 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 350.

Ashlee Marie Preston

Ashlee Marie Preston

Ashlee Marie is an activist who rose to prominence as the first trans editor-in-chief of Wear Your Voice magazine, then gained international notoriety when she confronted Caitlyn Jenner over her Republican political views at a Trans Chorus of Los Angeles performance December 29, 2017.

“I don’t think there was ever a moment I consciously chose activism,” says Preston. “It was never a profession so much as it was a passion. I feel that ‘activist’ was originally a descriptor assigned to me by those who’ve benefited from my contributions.”

Preston has worked as a consultant on cultural competence and issues around “diversity, inclusion, and the social impact media has on trans people.” She has also used her media platforms to enable trans women to tell their own stories.

Preston is also on the board of TransCanWork. “I recognize that true economic empowerment doesn’t mean saving trans people, it means giving us tools and resources to save ourselves,” she says. “Full economic empowerment means establishing alliances outside of the traditional LGBTQ sphere and actively shaping the inclusive society in which we wish to live.”

In a Dec. 29 press release, Preston announced her intention to run for the District 54 State Assembly seat that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas vacated for health reasons. The Special Election has been scheduled for June 5, with the primary slated for April 3, 2018.

“The most effective strategy in countering trans erasure is to double down on our visibility,” she says. “In 2017, the United States witnessed nine brilliant transgender people take political office (some even making history), and it was absolutely glorious. We no longer have to hide out in the shadows. We know how to survive; but it’s time we truly thrive. We don’t need an invitation to access our greatness. Let’s keep showing up to spaces that haven’t always embraced us traditionally; in order to change the course of history.”

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