Booing Jennicet Was Wrong, But Was What She Did Worse?

Booing Jennicet Was Wrong, But Was What She Did Worse?

“I’mma let you finish, Mr. President, but your immigration policy is one of the worst things since Beyoncé and Jay Z’s Tidal music streaming service flopped.”

Kanye West did not grab the microphone from President Obama last week and say those words. But was what undocumented immigrant and transgender Latina demonstrator Jennicet Gutiérrez did all that different?

Six years have elapsed since jaws dropped when West stormed the stage and grabbed the mike from Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, to give a well-deserved but totally inappropriate shout-out to Beyoncé. Swift was in the midst of accepting the award she had won, and Beyoncé had lost. Six years later, I have to wonder, am I the only one who still thinks the rapper was rude, obnoxious, self-aggrandizing, ego-driven, and rude. Did I say "rude"? 

If you're in a room and the president of the United States walks in and starts talking, I would think most of us would be so stunned that we wouldn't know what to say, never mind start shouting his name, interrupting his speech, and trying to engage him on another topic.

I'm guessing, of course. I don't really know how anyone is to behave in this post-Kanye world. 

The central questions to me are, Does it make it right if that topic is related? Or if that room we're in is a public place like an arena or a convention center or a hotel ballroom, or even if it's my house: Does that make it right? 

What if it's our house? What if we threw a party, put out some cheese and crackers and enjoyed a few glasses of wine, then, as I stood up to address you and our guests about the joys of being neighborly, you started calling me out and demanding I do something about the dog doing his business in your flower bed?

I would say, “Uh, hello? I'm sorry about the dog, but can we chat about that another time?" Then if you kept badgering me, maybe I'd say, "HEYYY! Shuddup, you!" And if necessary: "Sit down, shut up, or GTFO.” Or words to that effect. This is why I didn't go into politics.

There are those, like Isa Noyola, who argue quite correctly that Jennicet Gutiérrez is the first transgender person to publicly call out the president around immigration, and the torture and rape transgender immigrants often experience inside detention centers. This is indeed horrendous, an outrage that must be addressed — and is being addressed — by U.S. Customs and Immigration, as The Advocate reported. A new memorandum was issued within a week of the demonstration by Gutiérrez at the White House.

No doubt, this issue would not even be remotely discussed here or anywhere if not for Gutiérrez’s bold move. Achievement unlocked!

I also agree with my friend and fellow journalist Mathew Rodriguez, who was right on target when he singled out Gutiérrez and other trans women for their activism.

"Let's take a moment before we move on to the next paragraph to thank Jennicet Gutiérrez and other transgender women who continue to be revolutionary, who continue to push for more than marriage, who continue to challenge our community in ways that make many uncomfortable."

But why on earth do Noyola, Rodriguez, and of course Gutiérrez, who spoke to The Advocate, maintain that rudeness was justified? Why does no one say, “While yes, that is a terrible thing that is going on and it must be addressed, this is neither the time nor the place nor the proper way to draw attention to your cause.”

Propriety, some say, is irrelevant given what's at stake. I say, let the other side act like assholes.

Gutiérrez told The Advocate her demonstration was spur-of-the-moment, that she did not plan this, and she was not a plant for the group that sent her to the White House, Not1More. My Spidey sense is triggered, but seeing no reason to trust my skepticism over her word, let's give her the benefit of the doubt.  

Both Noyola and Rodriguez are angry at those who not only didn’t cheer on Gutiérrez but turned around and booed her. Says Noyola:

“Gutiérrez was in a room full of national LGBT leaders who gathered to celebrate the many accomplishments of the movement. You would imagine this would be a place to feel seen, safe, and validated. That was not the case.

“As soon as Gutiérrez proceeded to speak truth and ask the president as to why he is not releasing our trans detainees who face violence, the crowd began to jeer, boo, and hiss. As she continued, the crowd then began to drown her and chant, 'OBAMA! OBAMA!'

“A transgender woman of color and undocumented leader in the immigrant rights and LGBT movement was booed and silenced by not only the state, but by the very same movement that purports to uplift and celebrate the transgender community.”

Yes: that was just plain wrong. So were those who reportedly misgendered Gutiérrez. There is no telling how many of those in attendance truly chanted or booed, but enough of them to be seen and heard on the video surely did. Either way, as Benjamin Franklin famously said before signing the Declaration of Independence to start the American Revolution: “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Rodriguez addressed them directly in his op-ed in The Advocate:

"I am disappointed with my LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the room who gave more credence to Obama, an important cishet ally in the struggle, than to this transgender woman whose voice ached for her people. Yes, Obama is correct, respect is a two-way street."

Here's the thing: Nobody should have booed. I'm not sure I would have clapped, but as transgender veteran and activist Autumn Sandeen posted on Facebook, booing, even in the face of rude behavior, was no more correct last week than for someone LGBT to have booed the demonstrators who first rioted outside the Stonewall Inn. 

And people did that day in 1969. Even the late poet Allen Ginsberg was quoted as saying, "The trashing part I thought was bitchy, unnecessary, hysterical."

History has certainly provided other examples of unpopular and illegal yet righteous defiance against oppressive governments and their leaders:

  • The unknown Chinese man seen around the world on CNN as he stood before a line of tanks rolling into Bejing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
  • Rosa Parks, who refused to budge from her seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.
  • The crew of the USS Pueblo, who were held captive for nearly a year by the North Koreans in 1968, and who bravely posed for their captors with their middle fingers extended in their infamous group photograph.
  • And surely American colonial history has enough examples of patriots defying England in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness?

Yes. But the freedoms we won through revolution, war, conquest, and — as evidenced by the fight for marriage equality — legal means are not extra lives in a shoot-'em-up video game. I'm one who believes we should resist tossing aside our civility to fight injustice.

Yes, sometimes incivility, even breaking the law, is necessary. 

And yes, as Rodriguez and conservative critics alike have argued, Obama was wrong to refer to the White House as “my house,” since the president and first lady have made it their goal to make their residence live up its nickname, “The People’s House.”

"The White House is known as 'The People’s House' — and since 2009, the Obama administration has made that nickname truer than ever before," states a post on the White House Blog.

But even though Americans don’t have to bow or curtsy to our leaders, we are raised to show respect to everyone. Or at least I was, and I teach my children the same.

When they were invited to a family gathering where I suspected there could be tension or discomfort because I am transgender, I instructed them, “We don’t have to pretend to like how we are treated, but we do have to be polite. If someone behaves rudely, we'll step back, express our thanks for the invitation, and depart with a smile. Manners matter,” I tell them.

Manners matter in the transgender fight for civil rights, too. Still, there are exceptions. 

No, manners are not more significant than the horror of rape. Showing respect to our leaders is not equal to the responsibility of addressing violent crimes of a sexual nature against women, whether they be trans or cisgender, meaning not transgender.

But rape, as horrible and soul-wrenching as it is, does not give one a pass to behave like one is above the law or circumstance or propriety.

Yes, demonstrations do work and can save lives, as Rodriguez says, as in the case of ACT UP, which twice in 25 years targeted the White House.

In 1992 protesters scattered the ashes of people lost to AIDS on the White House lawn, and in 1995, a protest outside the White House was overshadowed by an ACT UP demonstrator interrupting then-President Clinton, much like Gutiérrez did with Obama nearly 20 years later. 

In between, Urvashi Vaid, then-president of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, interrupted President George H.W. Bush March 29, 1990. It was during his first and only speech on AIDS, according to transgender writer Parker Molloy, who wrote about the problems with the current immigration detention policy in The Advocate last year.

She posted a photo of the 1990 incident on Facebook to contrast how LGB leaders are responding to Gutiérrez now with their own actions in the past.  

Rodriguez argues that we are in essence demoting Gutiérrez if we are not holding her high on our shoulders. He wrote in The Advocate that critics felt that "her voice was distracting from the larger issue." He continued:
"That's because we've been trained to listen to the man with the microphone. That her voice was interrupting their attempt to capture President Obama's speech on an iPhone.
"I worry about my community when we begin to prioritize respect for POTUS, a person whose job it is to be accountable to the electorate, over the voice of a woman who believes in bodily autonomy and the right not to be raped. I want to know if you think respect has ever stopped rape.
"To reply to her shouting with 'right place, right time' is to be complacent in the systems that continue to silence the voices of the marginalized. When is the right time to tell your president that your friends are being raped? Should she write a letter? Perhaps a Tumblr page."

I would maintain we can find better solutions than heckling the president when he invites us to the White House. People have been objecting to "the systems that continue to silence the voices of the marginalized" as long as we've been a nation, as far back as when those "systems" involved the scheduling of stagecoaches. 

I'm not advising against challenging those systems, as much as I prefer we find better ways. 

Now, I may be transgender, but I do not pretend to represent or understand the challenges of being trans and Latina in a male-empowered, Caucasian-favored society. I respect and honor Gutiérrez and her struggle and those of every trans woman of color who has it far harder than I have had it — and I have not had it easy, not by a long shot. 

I can only sympathize with the struggles of those immigrants who have come to this country seeking a better life, as my grandparents did almost a century ago. In their time, the Irish were the scourge, the oppressed, a detested race reviled as less than human.

"N.I.N.A.," read the signs in the New York City shop windows where my fresh-off-the-boat, then-13-year-old grandmother hunted for a job.

"Who's 'Nina?'" Mae Harvey asked her new friend and compatriot Kay Brophy.

"No Irish Need Apply," she told my grandmother. These were woman who remember British troops ransacking their homes as children, before Ireland was a republic. Should she have thrown a rock through the storekeeper's window? Would that have led to her employment? Or her incarceration and deportment?

I know, it's not the same, but my immigrant heritage is a place where I can start to find common ground with trans women like Jennicet. 

So do wrong-headed and abusive policies justify acts of civil disobedience? Jennicet Gutiérrez and her supporters say absolutely. Plenty of dead patriots would agree, although I always wondered what their mothers thought of their rebellious nature; I imagine scoldings and waved fingers invoking "those troublemaking friends of yours!" 

In the end, even though you can make three left turns and it’s the same as making a right, two wrongs never make a right. Put another way, if you travel far enough east, eventually you will wind up west — but why would you?

Why not just do the right thing?

And so the trans Kanye West of the moment is Jennicet Gutiérrez. Me? I’mma let her finish her 15 minutes of fame, while I learn how to “Shake It Off.” 


DAWN ENNIS is the news editor of The Advocate, a blogger, and an out transgender woman who in 2013 became the first to transition in a TV network newsroom. Follow her @lifeafterdawn.