Jennicet Gutiérrez, who is a founding member of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, was in the audience listening to Obama say how wonderful everything was for the LGBT community. Gutiérrez protested.
“President Obama, stop the torture and abuse of trans women in detention centers!” Gutiérrez shouted. “President Obama, I am a trans woman. I’m tired of the abuse.”
Obama responded, “You’re in my house. As a general rule, I am just fine with a few hecklers, but not when I’m up in the house.”
The LGBT community at the reception erupted into loud applause and cheering. The president scolded Gutiérrez, “It’s not respectful when you get invited to somebody’s [house].” Plus, “You’re not going to get a good response from me by interrupting me like this.”
People who one would think might show solidarity with a person like Gutiérrez booed. Obama escalated his open berating of Gutiérrez, “Shame on you! You shouldn’t be doing this!”
The community of the people launched into a chant. “Obama! Obama! Obama.”
Seeing how that did not convince Gutiérrez to stop trying to get Obama to address a critical issue, the detention and deportation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender immigrants, Obama asked security to escort Gutiérrez out of the reception. She was removed while many in the room stood around laughing at what happened.
Remarkably, Obama stated later in his speech, “We know that transgender persons still face terrible violence and abuse and poverty here at home and around the world.” A person in the audience shouted, “The transsexuals love you.” Everyone applauded and Obama reacted, “Well, that’s the kind of heckling I can always accept.”
After applause, Obama continued, “Seriously, too many folks are still targeted, and transgender women of color are particularly vulnerable. So that kind of ugliness simply doesn’t belong in America. That’s not who we are.”
Apparently, Obama could not have said that when Gutiérrez protested. He had to patronize and shame her for dissenting against him.
In an interview for The Advocate, Gutiérrez said it was the crowd that “most frustrated” her. “I’m just very disappointed with the way it was handled.”
“I’m part of the LGBT community, and they didn’t back me, instead they were booing, which to me was like a slap in the face to all these people in detention centers,” Gutiérrez added.
Initially, Gutiérrez did not plan to protest at the reception. She was able to get on the list of attendees through someone at the group, GetEQUAL. But she “couldn’t help but think about the conditions,” which “LGBTQ Latino/Latina, especially trans women of color, are facing in detention.”
“To me, that was the moment I had to speak up. I had to raise awareness to the President and to everyone else watching that I’m not just going to celebrate, when my trans sisters are facing a lot of violence in the detention centers. [Trans women are facing] sexual and physical abuse, and I just had to send a message.”
On June 23, members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.
“We write to express our concerns regarding the circumstances surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) immigrants who are held in detention centers under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. These individuals are extremely vulnerable to abuse, including sexual assault, while in custody, in particular, transgender women housed in men’s detention facilities,” the representatives wrote [PDF].
Congress members outlined the statistics showing how LGBT immigrants are at risk of abuse:
Detention should almost never be used for vulnerable groups such as LGBT immigrants facing immigration proceedings. Recent surveys of jails and prisons by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that non-heterosexual detainees experience sexual assault at up to ten times the rate of heterosexual men. The situation is starker for transgender detainees’. According to the BJS survey, one in three will be sexually abused within twelve months in custody. When viewing the trend of reported sexual assaults against this community in immigration detention, the Government Accountability Office in November 2013 found that transgender immigrants reported 20% of sexual assaults in ICE custody. This is deeply troubling given the fact that transgender individuals are estimated to be less than 1% of the general population.
ICE’s own intake system recognizes the risk LGBT immigrants face in detention and says they can release LGBT immigrants 70% of the time, however ICE officers consistently override this and use their discretion to detain anyway in 68% of those cases. A recent study conducted by the DHS Office of the Inspector General found that ICE overrode explicit Risk Classification Assessment recommendations in 7.6 percent of cases for the general population and in 19 percent of the cases for LGBT detainees…
A prime example of this abuse is Johanna, who was described in a letter [PDF] to Obama endorsed by 100 organizations and sent in December:
…Johanna, a transgender woman from El Salvador, is just one of many members of our community who has escaped from such violence. She left for the United States after she was gang-raped. After living in the U.S. for twelve years, Johanna was apprehended by ICE and placed in an all-male detention facility. While in the facility, Johanna was beaten and sexually assaulted by another detained immigrant. Unable to bear the conditions of her detention, she elected to self-deport. Life in El Salvador quickly became too dangerous for her and she returned to the U.S., crossing the border where she was apprehended by the Border Patrol. After being sentenced for illegal reentry, Johanna was sent to an all-male federal prison and was held in solitary confinement for seven months before being deported back to El Salvador for a second time. Upon her arrival at the airport in San Salvador, she was kidnapped and gang-raped. When Johanna reported the crime to the police, they refused to help her and suggested that the men should have killed her. Soon after, she fled to the U.S. for a third time and was once again arrested by Border Patrol, sentenced and imprisoned for four and half months in federal prison for illegal reentry. Afterward, she was transferred to an all-male ICE detention center where she was held for six months.
After enduring such horror, Johanna eventually prevailed. This is what happens to many LGBTQ people fleeing Central America and countries like Uganda, Jamaica, and Russia, where they face escalated violence.
When the LGBT community booed Gutiérrez, they booed someone seeking to force Obama to pay some attention in his speech to the violence, which LGBT immigrants or refugees disproportionately face in the United States.
It may have seemed impolite, rude, or not classy to disrupt Obama. It may seem counterproductive because Obama is seen as an ally. People in the LGBT community may even think that she should go back to her home and learn some manners, but the fact is that there is nothing polite or classy about placing transgender immigrants seeking asylum in detention facilities where authorities know they are likely to be sexually abused.
Just because it was a celebration, and it marked numerous LGBT victories does not mean people should not remind the president of what needs to happen next. That culture of protest is what made previous victories possible. In fact, five years ago, LGBT community leaders would not have been invited to any event at the White House to celebrate Pride.
Finally, too many confuse the protesting of public figures in positions of power with heckling. What Gutiérrez did was not “heckling,” as the media labeled it. This was not someone in the audience of a show by comedian Dave Chappelle, who was growing increasingly hostile to an act. There were no insults or any effort to get Obama to leave the reception. An activist driven by the fierce of urgency of now seized upon a rare opportunity to confront the President of the United States.
Her act was in the tradition of others, who have disrupted authority figures when there was pervasive injustice to be challenged.