Jennicet Gutiérrez says her heart was racing when she interrupted President Obama as he delivered a speech at a White House LGBT reception on Wednesday.
Gutiérrez delayed the president’s speech for two minutes, demanding that he end the practice of detaining LGBT immigrants in immigration detention centers.
“President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention,” Gutiérrez told the president.
Initially, the crowd seemed confused and perhaps a bit shocked. Dozens of phones had been raised in the air to photograph Obama. The moment Gutiérrez started speaking, the phones came down. “Shame on you,” Obama said while he pointed at Gutiérrez, who said she was an undocumented trans woman. “You’re in my house.”
Then someone in the crowd booed. A second later it sounded like everyone in the room was booing, drowning Gutiérrez out.
"This is not for you. This is for all of us,” someone yelled.
Gutiérrez was following in the footsteps of LGBT activists in years pasts who have interrupted presidents over a number of issues that hit close to home for the gay community: from gay marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell” to access to medical care.
But this room full of LGBT leaders on Wednesday booed Gutiérrez.
“No one clapped, no one supported me,” said Gutiérrez, who is a founding member of FAMILIA TQLM, an immigrant rights organization. “I felt a really strong sense of disappointment because the president tried to silence me. And then I felt a strong sense of disappointment because the community that I'm part of turned their backs on me.”
The gay-rights movement has always been centered around activism. The majority of gay pride events are held in June to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, an uprising against continuous police brutality that occurred at a New York City gay bar on June 28, 1969.
But the booing illustrates the disconnect between the established gay-rights movement in the United States, which is largely centered around marriage equality, and those who are fighting issues that affect working-class LGBT people of color.
The disconnect is clear as the Supreme Court prepares to issue a ruling on gay marriage in the next week. There are still no federal laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination at work or housing. Which means that in many states across the country employers can deny jobs or promotions and even fire employees just for being gay.
When it comes to the transgender community the situation is even more dismal. Transgender people can struggle to find work and generally make less on the job.
Black transgender individuals living in the U.S., are nearly four times more likely to have a household income under $10,000 per year compared to all African Americans, according to an analysis released earlier this year by the Center for American Progress, the leading progressive think tank in Washington.
“What happened at the White House is a clear indication that the priorities of the mainstream LGBT movement are not matching the realities of what's happening to LGBT people of color, particularly to trans immigrant undocumented women who are being raped and tortured inside immigration detention centers,” said Jorge Gutiérrez, the national coordinator for Familia QTLM (no relation to Jennicet Gutiérrez).
A 2014 Fusion investigation found U.S. immigration officials detain an average of 75 transgender detainees each night. A significant portion are women who have requested asylum.
But even though Immigration and Customs enforcement (ICE) holds 34,000 immigrants each night, transgender detainees account for one out of five confirmed sexual abuse cases in detention, Fusion’s investigation found.
Some critics says a pride event at the White House wasn’t the right time or place to interrupt the president.
“I can't celebrate pride when I know the conditions our [LGBT] immigrant community is facing,” Gutiérrez said. "There are people who are suffering and they don't have a voice because they're in detention centers. I gave them a voice today.”
As Gutiérrez was escorted out of the room President Obama lectured the crowd on respectability politics.
“I am just fine with a few hecklers, but not when I’m up in the house. You know what I mean? You know, my attitude is if you’re eating the hors d’oeuvres, you know what I’m saying?”, Obama told a cheering crowd.
Gutiérrez says the president was just trying to duck the actual issue. She said she had a glass of champagne and a piece of watermelon.
“The president mentioned the [food and drinks] to continue hiding what's happening. I had a critical and serious message for him,” Gutierrez said.
“The message I have for President Obama is release all the people in detention that are members of the LGBT Community. He needs to stop the abuse and torture that trans women are facing in detention and to stop all deportations,” Gutierrez went on to say.
Still activists say there’s an opportunity here to bring the LGBT movement closer together.
“This is opportunity for the mainstream LGBT movement to prioritize the issues that matter to LGBT people of color and to center the work around trans people of color and to ensure that the leadership and visibility of trans women of color are at the forefront,” said Jorge Gutiérrez, the national coordinator for Familia QTLM.
One advocate said LGBT organizations could start by hiring more trans women.
“Mainstream LGBT organizations should respond to this shameful attempt at silencing a brave and brilliant activist by ensuring that their staffing, priorities, and advocacy demands reflect those who are most impacted by homophobia and transphobia,” said Olga Tomchin, a deportation defense coordinator at National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an immigrant rights group.
“The most marginalized members of the LGBTQ movement have always been our most courageous and visionary advocates, because their activism is a matter of survival,” said Tomchin.