Op-ed: Focus on the Issue, Not the Protest
There have been countless news reports and articles written about me interrupting President Obama June 24 at the White House Pride celebration. I interrupted the president to demand the release of LGBTQ undocumented immigrants from detention centers and call for an end to all detentions.
I was invited to attend the White House Pride Reception by the organizations GetEqual and Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, after being involved in activism and organizing with my community for some time. It became a critical opportunity to interrupt the president during his speech on behalf of my undocumented trans sisters who are suffering daily in immigrant detention centers. As Pat Cordova-Goff eloquently stated, “The history of social movements stem from the roots of radical activists who take control of a calm setting and turn attention to what is needed.”
Though unplanned, my action was about continuing to place trans immigrant women at the front lines of our movement. It was the result of an urgent need for my community to collectively lift our voices and bring visibility. Then there are pieces like one by The Advocate’s Dawn Ennis, who, instead of uplifting her sisters, brought us down by choosing to focus on my individual action instead of the issues raised.
“If you're in a room and the president of the United States walks in and starts talking,” wrote Ennis, “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.”
Ennis’s piece diverted attention from the real issues at hand — the dire conditions of trans women of color. And this is appalling. The writer missed a tremendous opportunity to inform her readers about the serious injustice that I was trying to bring to light: undocumented trans women facing horrific and inhumane conditions in detention centers. Trans women of color do not live our lives for the general public’s entertainment. We have hopes, we are leaders, and we are an integral part of the movement. The metaphor used by the writer — comparing my act of resistance to a head of state to Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift — trivializes our struggle and further dehumanizes our lives.
I have been an activist with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. I participated in blocking the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles to bring urgent attention to the murders that trans women of color are facing in this country. I became involved with the #Not1More campaign, which fights for the release of all LGBTQ immigrants from detention centers. We organized a civil disobedience in Santa Ana, Calif., during which we blocked two main intersections outside the police department where LGBTQ undocumented immigrants are held and abused. Five queer and trans Latina leaders were arrested that day. Like all civil disobedience, blocking the traffic was rude, disrespectful, and yet highly necessary and effective.
When faced with gendercide, deportation, and rape and abuse in detention centers, politeness is a luxury that trans women of color cannot afford. Authorities have reported in 2015 alone the murders of nine trans women of color. In the United States, there are about 75 trans women in immigrant detention centers at any given night. It is well known by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, and President Obama that these trans women are often sexually abused while in detention. This awareness is largely due to the work of many other organizations and activists who will not allow politeness to get in the way of exposing injustice to the world.
The interruption at the White House was not about just me. It is about the continuous state-sanctioned violence and oppression my community faces every day. It is about the silence inflicted upon us by media and many mainstream LGBTQ organizations.
As Isa Noyola stated here in The Advocate, “The moment we start to engage and raise questions around the state’s transphobic violence, our LGBT community leaders turn their backs and proceed to silence us.”
As trans women of color have battled oppression, respectability politics has been played for many years — and it has not provided any results. We should be concerned about the torture and rape trans undocumented women are facing inside detention centers. We should be concerned with ICE putting out recommendations that do not guarantee anyone’s safety and have failed time after time. As Allyson Robinson said, “Politeness politics ignores the obvious: respectability has already failed, over and over again, to earn the oppressed a hearing.”
It is heartbreaking to see so much energy spent on debating what tactics are appropriate and what places are acceptable and polite to send an urgent message. As Bea Fonseca reminded us, those in our community with privilege often “give themselves permission to be disruptive when they feel it necessary, but they silence and criminalize trans women of color for doing the same when our lives are being destroyed.”
The nation is now finally discussing the detention of trans women of color, an issue that was previously swept under the carpet and rendered invisible. If my organizations had been too concerned with respectability and politeness, our voices would still be silenced, the average person would still be unaware of the seriousness of trans women in detention centers, and trans women of color would still be abused and suffering in detention centers with no one to speak up for them.
Power should always be interrupted when given the opportunity, especially from people supposed to be powerless. I believe that in this act of resistance, I have found my liberation. For many years, I lived in shame — shame of being a transgender woman of color, shame of being undocumented. Now that I have released my chains of shame, I want my beloved undocumented trans and queer community to find their own power and liberation. This is the vision I see for my community.
By interrupting power, we manifest liberation. Being transgender and being undocumented are interpreted to mean powerless. But when we speak truth to power, the powerless have an opportunity to challenge oppression. It is in this rare opportunity of confrontation that I found and regained my strength.
I have a vision that our community will continue to unite and show our power. We all must develop a vision of change and leadership, and commit to acts of resistance. We must not assimilate into a system that wants to destroy our vision. And our movement must be led by the voices who have been constantly ignored: trans women of color.