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Trans Minister Mourned

by Seth Hemmelgarn
Sunday Jan 12, 2014

As they mourn the loss of BobbieJean Baker, a transgender minister who was killed in an auto accident in Oakland early New Year's Day, many are recalling the advocate, woman of faith, and gifted singer's sense of love and laughter.

But what also stood out to friends and co-workers was Baker's lack of fear in telling them the truth. That was exemplified in a biographical account that the Oakland resident gave to San Francisco's Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center. Baker worked there as part of a transgender community health program aimed primarily toward women of color.

"My purpose is to help you break whatever it is that had you bound so that you can move to better yourself," Baker said of her work with clients. "... I'm willing to hold hands and walk you through every phase, but I am not willing to be your babysitter. There comes a time when you need to really step up and do the work for you."

Yvette Flunder, 58, was with Baker and others for New Year's Eve Watch Night worship services in Oakland just before Baker died. Flunder, who's the bishop of the national Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, said Baker, 49, seemed to understand that she didn't have much time left.

"She gave best wishes to everyone, wonderful, kind words," said Flunder. "She went way out of her way speaking to everyone and wishing them the best for the coming year. It was incredible the space that she was in."

It was almost as if Baker knew "that something was coming, because she was so unusually specific in many of the ways she was going around talking to different people and encouraging them through their own struggles," she said.

After the services, Baker went to Bobby Wiseman's home for a traditional meal that included corn bread and black-eyed peas.

Wiseman, 42, a gay deacon with City of Refuge Church, said at about 2:30 a.m., he was driving his 2000 Ford Expedition west on Interstate 580 in Oakland to take Baker home.

He said they were "remembering the good times and the friends that we've lost over the years" when a silver and black car came up on the left, bumped his SUV, and "fishtailed off the front," "swerving" before it drove away.

Wiseman's vehicle fishtailed, then rolled "two to three" times before landing upside down on the Park Boulevard exit, he said.

Wiseman, who suffered only "some scrapes and abrasion," got out through a window. He called Baker's name "but she didn't respond," he said. They had both been wearing seatbelts.

A bystander "tried to get her out" but was unsuccessful, he said. Baker died at the scene.

Wiseman said he didn't catch more descriptive details of the other car or how fast it had been going. He said he'd been driving his SUV about 65 to 70 miles per hour.

Officer Daniel Hill, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said Wiseman hadn't been able to provide a description of the other car, and investigators had been unable to find any damage to the Expedition to substantiate Wiseman's claim that someone had struck him. Hill also said witnesses had only seen his SUV "losing control" and couldn't verify the other car's presence.

Hill said Wiseman underwent DUI testing and "was not determined to be under the influence" of any substances. The crash investigation remains open.

Asked about not providing a description of the other vehicle to the CHP, Wiseman said he believed he'd told them of the car's color, but he didn't remember whom he had talked to, and he stands by his account of another car hitting him.

'Running the Streets'

Following the advice she gave to others, Baker had worked to better her own life.

In the account of her life that she gave to API Wellness Center, she recalled her initial arrival in San Francisco in 1992, "running the streets of the Tenderloin," one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, "doing sex work, smoking crack and on speed," and living as "a fugitive from justice." She said she was extradited back to her home state of Tennessee to serve a four-year prison sentence, then she returned to San Francisco.

Flunder said among other church activities, Baker was the Western region coordinator for TransSaints, a network of faith-based transgender and gender variant people across the country.

"She believed her ministry was to help transgender people reconcile their spirituality but also to help provide practical assistance," such as food, housing, and self-care, said Flunder.

Baker was also a founding member of the Transcendence Gospel Choir.

"BobbieJean was a Memphis-born blues singer for real," said Flunder. One of Baker's favorite songs was "God Kept Me, So I Wouldn't Let Go."

"She was off the chain on that one," said Flunder. The song "was the story of her life in many ways," she said, referring to Baker turning her life around after her struggles with drugs and her incarceration.

Lance Toma, API Wellness Center's executive director, said Baker was "a warrior" who "never wanted to waste time."

"BobbieJean always spoke up around issues affecting transgender women of color and she reminded me and everyone on staff daily that we were here to serve the community," said Toma.

Gail Spencer, 51, a transgender woman who lives in Gilroy, which is south of San Jose, remembered Baker as "a kind, loving person." Spencer pointed to Baker's final post to Facebook December 31, just hours before she died.

In that message, Baker wrote that despite troubles she'd faced in 2013, "I never lost my Praise." She added to those whom she'd offended or hurt, "know that I'm sorry [and] that I'm striving to be a better vessel on this walk we call life. ..."

A homegoing service for Baker is set for 1 p.m., Saturday, January 11 at First Congregational Church, 2501 Harrison Street, Oakland.

Anyone with information related to the crash is encouraged to call the CHP regional field office at (510) 450-3821 or (800) TELL CHP (835-5247). Callers may refer to the Alameda County Coroner's case number, 2014-0001.

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