Over the past two weeks there have been two incidents that have reinforced my belief that many of us in the LGBT community are sore winners. The first was evident in the discussions relating to the future of the movement post-Obergefell that I discussed in my last column, where the national advocacy organizations are continuing to ignore the real, substantive protections already in place. We have federal employment protections, and few acknowledge the win, let alone celebrate it.
The second relates to the incident of the White House heckler, Jennicet Gutiérrez. Jennicet is the woman who interrupted the president 20 seconds into his speech in the East Room of the White House during the annual Pride reception on June 24. Her “heckling” was shouting out to the president, “I am a trans woman! … No more deportations!”
The president, after Jennicet wouldn’t stand down, responded, “Listen, you’re in my house. … Shame on you. You shouldn’t be doing this. … You know, my attitude is: If you’re eating the hors d’oeuvres — you know what I’m saying? — and drinking the booze….”
This incident then blew up, as things do today, over Twitter and beyond, as the usual activist rift was once again on full display. There was the debate between the insiders and outsiders — the insiders who felt that a reception with the president of the United States demands respectful behavior, and the outsiders who believe that it’s always a ripe opportunity to press the cause with direct action, even in the East Room of the White House. There were those who felt that “there is a time and a place,” and that this was neither, versus those who felt that the cause is so important that no risk is not worth taking.
There was also a secondary conflict, between those who eventually took to booing Jennicet when she wouldn’t stop (and it should be noted that she began within 20 seconds of the start of the president’s speech and continued for two minutes) and those who felt that since she’s a trans Latina and the room was full of predominantly white gay men, this was clearly an act of transphobia and racism. Of course, the latter is usually the case for some people of a Bolshevik mindset, who condemn an entire class of people by virtue of their class, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or ethnicity/race.
The wheels came off, and a rational debate became impossible. My opinion was, and still is, that there really is a time and a place, which may include a White House Pride reception, but in this case there was a way to accomplish the goal without alienating the rather influential person you’re trying to persuade. My sense after watching all the videos is that the crowd was neither transphobic nor anti-Hispanic and was driven to their response by Jennicet’s refusal to stop after she had made her point.
I’m also just as uncomfortable with shaming the crowd as I am with shaming her for speaking out. Janet Mock tweeted that the booing reminded her of Sylvia Rivera’s experience in 1969. Except that Sylvia Rivera spoke out against the gay community in New York in 1973 when they wouldn’t let her (or many lesbians, for that matter) take to the stage during the Pride festivities. The greatest president the LGBT community will probably ever know is not the equivalent of the New York gay community of the early ’70s. And the great lesbian activist and agent of social change, Urvashi Vaid, then the Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, interrupting President Bush in 1989 during his only speech about the AIDS crisis, which he and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had refused to confront, is not the same as heckling President Obama.
I’m not the only one willing to say so. Trans Latina Amada Briseno, who was also at the White House, agrees. She also spoke out, but in a positive manner, and the president responded that hers was the kind of heckling he can always accept.
Evidence matters to me. Jennicet wrote:
I was fortunate to be invited to the White House to listen to President Obama’s speech recognizing the LGBTQ community and the progress being made. But while he spoke of ‘trans women of color being targeted,’ his administration holds LGBTQ and trans immigrants in detention. I spoke out because our issues and struggles can no longer be ignored.
Jennicet claimed that her outburst was spontaneous, yet she launched into it before the President got warmed up. She couldn’t have been responding to the president’s words, including his acknowledgment that “transgender women of color are particularly vulnerable,” because he had barely gotten to “hello.”
More importantly, she claimed that she was planning on writing a letter to the president but only decided to speak out when the president didn’t address trans detention issues. As I noted above, she didn’t let him speak, so she couldn’t know. She also said she was invited to the reception by the White House, but she was actually the plus-one of Angela Peoples, GetEqual’s co-director. GetEqual is rightly known for its guerrilla tactics, and Jennicet’s actions fit the mold.
Angela Peoples told MTV News:
Jennicet, who is a trans woman of color, wanted to use [the White House Pride reception] as an opportunity to bring the message of stopping the detention and torture of trans women in immigration facilities to the president. I was so, so proud of her for what she did.
According to a statement from Not1More:
As a transgender woman who is undocumented, Gutiérrez said she could not celebrate while some 75 transgender detainees were still being exposed to assault and abuse in ICE custody at this very moment.
Angela has since confirmed to me that this was indeed a GetEqual action, but they chose not to announce that, allowing Jennicet to speak out and be the face of the action. I have great respect for GetEqual, but that doesn’t get to my fundamental problem with this incident.
Jennicet had been active for seven months in working to stop the deportations. She was working with GetEqual. GetEqual knew that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was working on the problems with detention, because the LGBT community, along with allies in the immigration reform community, had been working on this issue for years. They knew that there was a positive new memo on the issue dated June 19, five days before the Pride reception. And Secretary Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security released a new policy on June 24, before the Pride reception, to speed up the release of all immigrants in detention, another of Jennicet’s concerns.
What this tells me is that the activists who are doing the hard, arduous work of
influencing the administration and moving the bureaucracy, often for little pay and recognition, are actually winning this fight for us. And there are some who are willing to ignore the ongoing progress that is occurring to grandstand for personal reasons. People who don’t know the facts will credit Jennicet’s actions with bringing about this recent change, when that is not the case at all. I’m told that Jennicet repeated her performance two days later at the Stonewall Inn during the New York Pride festivities.
Change never comes quickly enough. As Angela Peoples said, “there’s no ‘right time and place’ to demand basic human dignity.” But there’s a difference between simply making a statement, which may or may not work but is guaranteed to offend many allies, including the most important one of all, the guy at the top, and acting smartly with full knowledge of context and consequences. Angela explained that GetEqual’s goal mirrors that of Not1More, which is to end all detention of queer people — because detention is wrong in general, and because queer people in detention are at risk of grievous bodily harm.
I agree with that goal. However, we need to put that goal in context and not blindside those who are committed to helping the community or offend the ones with the power to help us reach our ultimate goal.
We just don’t seem to know how to win gracefully.
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