Thursday 29 April 2021

Interview with Ella Baker

Monika: Today I have invited Ella Baker, a Korean-American model, poet, Zen student in the Kwan Um School of Zen, and transgender woman that documents her transition on social media. Hello Ella!
Ella: 안녕! Hi! Thanks so much for having me!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Ella: I’m a second-generation Korean American and a queer transgender woman of faith. I manage college programs for high schools throughout California and am finishing my Doctorate in Education at the University of Southern California this year. My research specialty is in belonging and how a sense of belonging impacts academic, psychological, and social outcomes. My dissertation specifically focuses on transgender college students and I’m hoping to provide colleges with student-centered data to improve their climates and policies.
I’m also an active Episcopalian and a Zen student in the Kwan Um School of Zen, so faith and spirituality are important aspects of my identity. Being able to draw positive practices and mindsets from these traditions and articulating them to the trans community has been helpful, especially because of the harm done to trans people in the name of religion. I’m also a poet and have been published in The Toast, Anamesa, and Stanchion.
Monika: Why did you choose Ella as your name?
Ella: I essentially took my birth name and feminized it, becoming Daniella Roberta Baker. The Hebrew meaning of Daniella is “God alone is my judge”, which is a lesson I’m still working on internalizing in the face of a culture that still demonizes and mocks trans people. (My undergraduate minor is in Biblical Hebrew).

"I still struggle with dysphoria and don’t always see
myself accurately in the mirror as I truly am."

Ella to me simply means “God’s”, which tells me that I fundamentally belong to the grand totality of all that is and ever will be. The theologian Tillich liked to call God “the ground of being”, so by going by Ella I like to feel like I’m grounding myself in the source of being itself rather than external social validation (still a work in progress).
Ella in Spanish is also she/her so I very much like that as well. I also learned last summer that Ella Baker was a Black feminist civil rights leader that supported the movement for decades. I like to draw on her example as something to aspire to.
Monika: What inspired you to share your intimate life moments on social media?
Ella: Mostly it’s for me, I still struggle with dysphoria and don’t always see myself accurately in the mirror as I truly am, so having a place to look at pictures of myself and remind myself of the truth and how far I’ve come is very helpful.
I also like to show my trans community that thriving is possible in this lifetime and as their trans selves. Having the thriving examples of my trans friends Jade and Danny gave me the courage to come out and I hope to be able to do the same for others.
Monika: Do you get many questions from your followers? What do they ask for?
Ella: I do! I usually only respond to friends or trans people because everything else tends to be daily harassment. Most of the questions I get from the trans community are on how to access transition care and services, as well as on how to address family difficulties and estrangement. I hope that I’m able to speak from my experience and provide a little bit of solace and hope while navigating them to the resources that I know of in their communities.

"I like to show my trans community
that thriving is possible in this
lifetime and as their trans selves."

Monika: What is the attitude of the Episcopalian Church towards the transgender phenomenon?
Ella: How trans people are treated really does depend on the individual church but as a denomination, we are officially inclusive and affirming of trans people. Ordination of trans people has been the official church position since 2012 and my church All Saints in Pasadena, California gave me a ceremony to mark my name change and transition. It was a beautiful experience that you can see here.
Monika: You were very emotional during the ceremony.
Ella: Most definitely! I was fired by people claiming to be Christian and still face a lot of hatred and rejection from people in the name of their so-called Christianity, so having my church affirm me and love on me in this way was incredibly healing. 
My priest, Father Mike Kinman, reached out to let me know that All Saints had a name change ceremony available in case I wanted to ritualize my transition and I was so glad to have this opportunity to be seen fully by my faith community and affirmed by the congregation. I believe this is a practice that all affirming faith communities should adopt so that the harm that has been done to transgender people in the name of religion can begin to be healed.
Monika: Did Zen help you with the transition?
Ella: Absolutely. My international Zen school is in the Korean tradition and is named after Guanyin, the bodhissatva of compassion. Before becoming the female Guanyin, she was known as the male Avalokitesvara so I like to consider her a transgender figure. When I came out as trans to Paul Park, my Zen teacher at Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles, he simply said “Wonderful! Zen means believing in yourself 100%”. That brief spontaneous interaction was full of so much grace and tenderness, which is what Zen teaches: how to respond to each moment with compassion.
Another teaching that has helped me is to be so centered as to not be blown over by social praise or blame, the latter of which trans people are all too familiar with. I used to get really upset over micro-aggressions and misgendering, as if such instances actually said something true about me. Now when people are hateful and transphobic, it still hurts, but I can compassionately connect with the fact that such instances say more about the suffering of the ignorant than anything true about my nature or character.
Monika: What are the common mistakes that are made by colleges as regards transgender students?
Ella: Most colleges make it incredibly difficult to get documents updated, which can result in students being perpetually dead-named and misgendered by their institutions. Also, trying to get a diploma reissued in your current legal name is very difficult and costly.
Another mistake is assuming that trans students can safely go home. Many students do not have welcome homes to go to over break so year-round student housing would very much help alleviate some of the anxieties of housing-insecure students. We are also largely neglected in curriculum and there aren’t many examples of transgender faculty and administrators to serve as models for trans students. There’s been a lot of progress in just the past five years but there’s a long way to go.

"When I came out I was fired from my
job as a teacher and administrator."

Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Ella: When I came out I was fired from my job as a teacher and administrator. I lost many relationships and became estranged from the family for a while. It seemed that choosing to be myself came at the cost of my entire life, and it was very hard. My fears that kept me in the closet for 30 years were absolutely confirmed and I still, unfortunately, deal with panic attacks from fear of abandonment rooted in my experience. It also took years to get my insurance-provided facial and top surgeries, which were the hardest years of my life. I remember going shopping and having people literally point and laugh at me.
I’ve also been assaulted multiple times since coming out and lost the privilege of being able to go anywhere and feel safe. Things are so much better now and I completely love my life, but I still notice that people treat me differently when I let them know that I’m trans, as if I’m worthy of disrespect. People also take me less seriously than before, which just comes with the territory of being a woman in a misogynistic society.
Monika: When we contemplate a facial feminization surgery we always face two options: to undergo extremely deep changes to be feminine and beautiful or light changes to be feminine but preserve something from our character. Is there any third option?
Ella: I don't agree that there are only two options, rather, there are as many options as there are trans-feminine people. Ideally, surgeries wouldn't be necessary but we do live in a shallow culture that places a major emphasis on achieving and maintaining Western capitalist conceptions of femininity and beauty. I did not have the option to choose what my facial feminization surgery would look like, my insurance-provided surgeon simply asked what elements of my face caused me the most dysphoria and discomfort. She then addressed that with a scalpel and I'm very happy with the outcome and so grateful that this incredibly expensive surgery was covered by my insurance.

"Things are so much better now
and I completely love my life."

However, it wasn't a cosmetic dream come true - there are still elements of my face that I don't find ideal, especially as we are bombarded with "Instagram face" and naturally beautiful models that find it necessary to further edit their photos to be completely unrealistic and unachievable.
I think that when considering FFS, it's important to really reflect on what causes dysphoria and not try to become some kind of elusive ideal that's been entirely constructed by marketing teams trying to sell us surgeries and cosmetics by increasing our discomfort with ourselves.
I also want to express my utmost appreciation for our transgender siblings that are breaking the gender binary because it is creating a better and less judgmental society for all of us. If there isn't a binary standard of what a woman, man, or non-binary person is supposed to look like, it will create much easier social conditions for both transgender and cisgender people who may not meet those incredibly cruel expectations.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Ella: Yes! My friends Daniel Lavery and Grace Lavery are brilliant, hilarious, and deeply committed to lifting up our community. Danny is a deeply talented writer (check his work out at and Dear Prudence [I'm on an episode!]) and Grace is one of the most intimidating minds I've been blessed to encounter in this lifetime (she has a memoir called Please Miss coming out in 2022 and some of her work can be found at
My friend Jade Phoenix Martinez was the first person I personally knew that publicly came out as a transgender person and her courage, example, and delicious food have provided me with ongoing sustenance.
My friend Vera Drew is the funniest person I know and is currently making an independent comedy film that centers her experience called The People's Joker (I make an appearance as Catwoman!). I find that most stories about transgender people, even amazing series like Pose, focus overwhelmingly on struggle, Vera is able to speak candidly about her life and transition with such humor that it's absolutely disarming and so much needed.
Dr. Allie Taur and Alison Whiteacre have also been incredibly helpful to my own journey and do so much for the transgender community in Los Angeles and beyond. For transgender Christians, Austen Hartke is an amazing person and resource as is Father Shay at Queer Theology.


All the photos: courtesy of Ella Baker.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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