Guest interviewer Rain Valdez recorded Karina Samala’s oral history for OUTWORDS in 2022. Rain Valdez is an actress, writer, producer, and out and proud Filipino Transgender woman, most notably of the 2022 GLAAD-Listed script Re-Live, Ryans, Hexed, and the series Razor Tongue. Rain’s unique writing and performance on Razor Tongue earned her a Primetime Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series,” and a ‘Special Recognition’ GLAAD Award. Her writing and performance in the romcom short film Ryans earned her a Best North American Short Film Award at OUTSouth Queer Film Festival and Hexed earned her 3 nominations for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Short at the Madrid International Film Festival. She is the Trailblazer Award recipient at the 2021 Outfest Legacy Awards.
Karina Samala was born on October 1 in Manila, Philippines. She grew up with seven sisters and a stepbrother. Assigned male at birth, she felt pressure from her Catholic father to fit into traditional masculine roles, but her sisters let her play with their dolls and wear their clothes and affectionately called her “Dolly Boy.” Even though her parents passed away in her late teenage and early adulthood years, she studied engineering to fulfill their wishes.
Karina migrated to California after finishing school, where she worked for 2 years in a pharmaceutical lab and then for 13 years as a senior engineer in an aerospace military company. Because she was working a government job, she had to be careful about hiding her queer identity in the job’s routine clearance procedures. As she worked in suit and tie as an engineer by day, Karina also began exploring the gay bar scene in LA. During these years, she had her first romantic relationship with a man that lasted 5 years. She also became drawn to the Imperial Court and beauty pageants. Karina’s first pageant was the Closet Ball, where she first presented her closeted daytime look as a man, then transformed into presenting as her true self, a woman. The judges were blown away, and she won Closet Ball Queen.
After the Closet Ball, Karina continued to walk pageants all over the West Hollywood gay bars. As she became more involved in the Imperial Court, she adopted the name “Karina,” originally bestowed upon her by her Empress Lola who made her gowns. As Karina became increasingly passionate about the queer community, she decided to quit her day job as an engineer to live a life fully true to herself.
During this transitional period, Karina met Jefferey Prang, the undersheriff in LA, who invited her to join the GLBT advisory council to create legislative policies and law enforcement trainings to better protect the trans community within county jails and on the streets. Karina engaged in activism within county jails to advocate for gender-affirming housing for incarcerated people; created sensitivity trainings for police officers working with the trans community; and became a member of the first-of-its-kind West Hollywood Transgender Advisory Board.
Beyond LAPD, Karina also became very involved with the trans community on the streets, many of whom were thrown out of home for being trans and had turned to survival sex. She advocated for survival sex to be legalized and protected, and often spent her nights driving around the streets to make sure that her girls were safe. Karina worked with St. Johns, a local clinic run from the back of a church, to expand healthcare to the trans community living on the streets; together, they mass-distributed vaccines and tests, and helped guide individuals through various medical treatments. Through the pageants, she fundraised tirelessly for years to distribute scholarships to trans individuals. Today, Karina is chair of the City of Los Angeles Human Services Commission Transgender Working Group.
Rightfully so, Karina’s nurturing warmth towards the trans community earned her the title “Mother Karina.” She fondly talks about the trans community as her chosen family, her “children,” who she is deeply invested in mentoring so that they can carry her advocacy work further to create a safer, more just world for all.