An undocumented transgender immigrant’s decision to interrupt President Obama for two minutes over immigration policy at a White House Pride reception is inspiring widely different reactions in the LGBT community.
The incident — initiated by Jennicet Gutiérrez, an activist affiliated with GetEQUAL and FAMILIA TQLM — took place on Wednesday at an event celebrating Pride, which commemorates LGBT activists who stood up to public officials in 1969 during the Stonewall riots. Although some observers welcomed the disruption by the protester as a political statement, others in the LGBT community — much like Obama himself and attendees who tried to drown her out during her protest — said it was inappropriate.
Melissa Sklarz, a New York-based transgender Democratic activist who was at the reception, said she supports Gutierrez because Obama must “hear all of our LGBT voices on all of the issues.”
“Jennicet Gutierrez used the only tool she had, her voice, to call out and disrupt the president at the LGBT White House 2015 Pride Event,” Sklarz said. “It is essential that trans women have a say in the unending inflexible process of forced deportation and I am supportive of Jennicet using that moment to risk everything, as an undocumented trans immigrant woman.”
Stampp Corbin, a San Diego-based gay Democratic activist, on other hand, said he doesn’t think the action was appropriate and that choosing to interrupt Obama as a guest for an event he set up to celebrate the LGBT community is “beyond the pale.”
“There is a time and place for everything, even direct action,” Corbin said. “Everyone knows that when you are invited to someone’s home or to a special event celebrating your community, it is disingenuous to accept the invitation to be disruptive. The social media reactions express what many in the LGBT community think, ‘wrong time, wrong place.’ I completely agree.”
Gutiérrez disrupted Obama moments after he arrived at the event and began speaking before the crowd of more than 300 attendees. Within the crowd, Gutiérrez’s remarks were difficult to hear, but as she was escorted out, she could be heard repeating, “Not one more deportation.”
“It’s not respectful when you get invited to somebody [‘s house],” Obama said. “You are not going to get a good response from me by interrupting me like this. Shame on you, you shouldn’t be doing this.”
Obama ordered the removal of Gutiérrez from the event, saying he’s usually fine with hecklers, but not in the White House “if you are eating the hors d’oeuvres…and drinking the booze.” Others in the room chanted “O-bama! O-bama! to drown her out and shouted “love you!” as the event proceeded in apparent response to the incident.
In a subsequent op-ed exclusive to the Washington Blade, Gutiérrez expressed disappointment with the response and wrote, “it is heartbreaking to see how raising these issues were received by the president and by those in attendance.”
Gutiérrez also articulated the reasons for her protest, saying “violence my trans sisters face in detention centers is one of torture and abuse.” Gutiérrez estimated 75 transgender immigrants are currently in immigration detention, citing a statistic that although transgender immigrants make up one out of every 500 people in detention, they account for one out of five confirmed sexual abuse cases in custody.
During the daily news briefing Thursday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest wouldn’t say whether Obama would handle the incident differently in retrospect.
“I think that the president was pretty clear yesterday that we hope it doesn’t happen again,” Earnest said.
Asked again whether Obama would react the same way if it happens again, Earnest replied, “I certainly hope it doesn’t.”
Earnest had even less to say when asked whether Obama was aware of harsh conditions facing transgender people in immigration detention.
“I’m not sure that he’s aware of the issue, but I would refer you to the Department of Homeland Security and they may be able to give some more information,” Earnest said.
DHS didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment in time for the posting of this article.
Improving conditions for transgender immigrants in detention facilities has been a goal for mainstream LGBT groups. The day the White House reception took place, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement on policy initiatives the Obama administration could undertake for transgender people, including ensuring humane treatment and providing proper medical care to transgender detainees.
Although immigration officials don’t keep track of the sexual orientation or gender identity of immigrants in custody, a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress found nearly 200 reports of alleged abuse made by LGBT detainees in facilities from fiscal year 2008 to the time of the report. To avoid sexual assault of these individuals, officials often place them in solitary confinement, which can wreak havoc on their mental health.
A 2013 report from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment went as far as finding the treatment of LGBT immigrants in U.S. detention facilities in violation of the Convention Against Torture.
Bil Browning, a D.C.-based Democratic activist and founder of LGBT blog The Bilerico Project, said Gutiérrez’s efforts were misplaced in confronting Obama.
“Direct action has a definite place in our movement, but it has to be done wisely to maximize the results,” Browning said. “This wasn’t a smart action. Instead of getting attention for the issue, the only thing GetEQUAL accomplished was news coverage that the president stood his ground in his home when an invited guest started harassing him.”
Browning said the White House LGBT reception is intended to honor the activists working to expand LGBT rights. By stealing the moment, Gutiérrez was “disrespectful” to Obama and “incredibly insensitive” to the other attendees, Browning said.
“Activism isn’t about glory seeking,” Browning added. “The goal is to move the ball forward while working in conjunction with your peers and compatriots. Ms. Gutiérrez did neither with this action. Instead, she grabbed a few headlines, disrespected her colleagues, and continued GetEQUAL’s dubious history of attacking our African-American ally while ignoring our white Republican enemies.”
The incident — and reaction among the LGBT community — is similar to one that took place in D.C. in 2013 when lesbian activist Ellen Sturtz, who at the time was affiliated with GetEQUAL, confronted first lady Michelle Obama about an executive order that would bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers. Many advocates praised the attention she brought to the issue, but Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work and champion of the proposed directive, called the action “rude.” Obama would later sign the executive order in June 2014.
Lane Hudson, a gay D.C-based Democratic activist, said Gutiérrez acted appropriately and criticized Obama for failing to respond to the issue presented before him.
“Trans women in immigration detention don’t have a million dollar lobbying firm,” Hudson said. “The criticism I’m hearing is from people who don’t face the kind of sexual violence and discrimination that these women face. It would serve us all well to show a little more empathy and a little less privilege. The focus here should be on the important issues and not on cocktail party rules. Change doesn’t come easy, it must be fought for.”
Hudson, a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, said he would have the same response if the protest was directed at the 2016 hopeful.
“I certainly would say the same thing if Hillary refused to address the issue,” Hudson said. “I also believe that Hillary would have handled it differently to ensure that her voice and her issue were heard.”