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Op-ed: I Stand With Obama Heckler Jennicet Gutierrez

Op-ed: I Stand With Obama Heckler Jennicet Gutierrez


There once was a time when disruption was seen as revolutionary -- like in the ACT UP days -- but now many LGBT people think we should play nice. Jennicet Gutierrez and this writer are not those people.

At Wednesday's White House LGBT Pride event, Jennicet Gutierrez, a transgender Latina, voiced her opinion about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers and the far-too-common sexual abuse of transgender immigrant women in these centers by people who work for the US government. The president shut her down with a quick "You're in my house."

The crowd, a venerable who's who of the LGBT establishment in the United States, responded with a chorus of applause and clapping that drowned out many of the transgender woman's important words. As she continued on, they booed so loud, her voice was barely audible.

Which is a damn shame, because what she had to say was beyond important, and I am proud that she said it.

There is no shortage of irony that at an event honoring Stonewall, Gutierrez was told by a room full of LGBTQ citizens that her voice did not matter. The people in those room had made it to the White House because in 1969 at the Stonewall riots, transgender women like Sylvia Rivera refused to be told that they didn't matter. Unfortunately, nowadays, in a time when friends of mine share pictures of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, with a healthy dose of "Yaaas," there is no room for brave souls like Gutierrez.

The room full of LGBTQ leaders booed their transgender sister when it was her transgender brothers and sisters who started the revolution for queer rights by throwing the first bricks and resisting the cops in the streets for days. Do you know why transgender women had to resist the cops in the streets for days? The streets were their homes.

The crowd's boos made it clear that her voice was distracting from the larger issue. That her voice was worth less than the straight ally speaking, 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.

Jennicet-gutierrez-at-the-white-house-x400_0Right: Jennicet Gutierrez at the White House Wednesday

Interruption and heckling have saved lives. It wasn't too long ago that ACT UP used interruption and heckling to keep politicos accountable -- even ones that we liked! Do you know someone living and thriving with HIV? Thank a heckler. This transgender woman was asking for a quality of life and a right to a healthy, valued body like those in our community demanded only a few short decades ago.

The degree to which people have to shout is often directly correlated to the degree to which they have been silenced. I myself have been in situations where I should have been as brave as Gutierrez, and I was not. I've stared into the eyes of people with power and chosen politeness. In that moment, she spoke for her transgender family, her queer family and her Latino family. She spoke because LGBTQ detainees who face physical and sexual harassment by the U.S. government do not have a voice.

Perhaps some in the community have forgotten what it means to shout. What courage it takes, what oppression a person must face in order to use their outdoor voice when they are indoors. Perhaps, after the exchange of rings between hands and a calm, whispered "I do," we forget that there are still members of our own communities who are worried about basic needs, like the right to have a body that won't be violated by people who serve the U.S. government.

And the people in the room, who at that moment could have had this woman's back, turned their backs on her quicker than you can say "We're just like you."

Let's take a moment before we move on to the next paragraph to thank Jennicet Gutierrez 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.

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. In that sense, Obama received a fitting response to the fact that he has deported more immigrants than any president in United States history. Perhaps people don't yet realize that immigration is an issue that many in our LGBTQ community face personally. Maybe some people in our community need reminding that people of color are not just a preference on Grindr.

I am disappointed by my brothers and sisters because I feel in my bones that if someone had shouted "Love is love!" during his speech, there would've been a positive thunderous applause, rather than the booing that followed what the media deemed "heckling" but what I heard as a cri de coeur - a cry from the heart. Gutierrez knew that she may never have the attention of the leader of the free world and she took her one chance.

It baffles me how quickly respectability politics and feelings of propriety have invaded the same community who revels in spanking in the streets during Folsom or Gay Pride. The same community that threw ashes of loved ones on the White House steps to demand a voice now asks that we maintain decorum once we've gotten inside. Once, our lifestyle was deemed not worthy of respect or value, and I guess I know now how many in the community feel about transgender women, people of color, and undocumented people in the struggle.

How quickly we use the respect we earn to push down people in our own community! I understand getting a seat at the table is important, but the table is not a game of musical chairs at which we must elbow into others to be heard.

The White House is President Obama's house because we put him there. And with our taxes, we keep the lights on. When President Obama told the transgender woman this was his home, she could have responded with "Yes, it's my home, too, and I want to make sure you make room for the people I love." I am not interested in leadership that goes unchecked. I am interested in leadership that soars in the face of a challenge, something I did not see on Wednesday. I don't expect Obama to forgive or hand her the mic, but I do hope that if he wants to be an LGBTQ ally that he is not only an ally to the parts of our community with the most money or those who stay the quietest.

Let's actually address what she said. Let's remember that immigration is an LGBTQ issue. Let's give this squeaky wheel some grease.

Yes, we should respect people in their homes. But this wasn't just any home. This was perhaps the most iconic home in America. And like America, it is a house with many rooms. And to prepare a place there for our transgender brothers and sisters means listening, even when we have a microphone in front of our mouths.


MATHEW RODRIGUEZ is the community editor for as well as an essayist and activist. You can follow him on Twitter at @mathewrodriguez or visit him on his personal website.

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