On Wednesday, June 24, 2015, a very daring woman interrupted President Obama during a reception of LGBT leaders he was hosting in the White House. As the lady continued pressing her case, the President (initially started) chided her for a lack of decorum, then directed security to escort her out of the premises. Having built a track record of vigorous support for Latina trans immigrants and against violence targeting all trans people, Jennicet Gutierrez is no hot-headed rabble rouser. She is focusing on the plight of LGBTQ immigrants held in detention centers, especially on those self-identifying as trans. Numerous interviews of detainees have shown they have been subjected to various forms of violence (including sexual assaults) by staff. Give the dire, life-threatening situation each of the detainees face daily, Jennicet took the bold step of speaking out of turn.
The impact of the action taken by Jennicet Gutierrez has been swift, strong, and far reaching. Immediately it set off a firestorm in the trans community. Staunch supporters sometimes questioned the commitment of her detractors to trans rights. For their part, critics (trans and cis-gender) have argued from a host of positions: that Jennicet was impertinent and out of turn, that her action mirrored the right wing's long-standing personal attacks against Obama, that she didn't consider all the advances President Obama has brought to LGBTQ people, and that the trans movement has been grievously harmed by this brief protest.
Likewise, the media broadcast, print and digital--have seized upon the incident. Since the story first broke, it's been virtually impossible to pass a newsstand, watch the evening news, listen to the radio, or surf the Internet without noticing a report or a comment centered on Jennicet Gutierrez and her act of speaking out of turn. For their part comedy shows, such as "The Nightly Report" with Larry Wilmore, have also weighed in. Indeed, one would have to hide in a remote place, lacking any form of communication, to have not heard about "the heckler in the White House."
As someone who has been a strong supporter of Barack Obama for over a decade (even before his first inaugural in 2009) and a friend and peer of Jennicet, I felt torn apart by her action and by the controversy she stirred up. Imagine my shock and outrage when I found out the person in the news was a good friend of mine. All of this caused me considerable anguish for the next two and a half days, an ordeal from which I have fully emerged in good shape.
Everyone has their own take regarding last Wednesday's interruption during the White House reception. Mine, which has evolved with lightening speed over the past few days, is based on personal factors, a careful reading of history, and the outcome of increasing awareness (even for other trans people) of immigrant detainees who are trans. My connection with several key members of the Trans Lives Matter movement began on Oct. 3, 2014, the day after Aniya Parker was shot to death during a transphobic attack on a Hollywood street. It continued on the steps of L.A. City Hall last October during a protest that was (in my estimation) insufficiently attended.
But it mushroomed on Tuesday, November 18, 2014, a workday in which a few hundred activists staged a die-in, blocking the intersection of Santa Monica and Vermont Ave. for approximately thirty minutes. A supportive L.A.P.D. and very curious media were out in force. All of us who didn't put living bodies to the concrete (myself included) were witnessing a social movement that had found new life. Obligations centered on taking care of a very elderly parent prevented me from participation in this (and two other) actions to which I had been invited.
Nevertheless, it was at this November 18 national day of action that I first began to gain personal connection to Jennicet Gutierrez, Johanna Saavedra, and the incomparable Bamby Salcedo, all of whom have climbed high in the trans rights movement. Ever approachable and humble, Bamby and I began networking after the early December 2014 march and rally in front of the South L.A. home where Deshawnda Sanchez drew her last breath after being robbed and shot. I saw footage of Jennicet and other activists during the protests on Nov. 18, early December (for Deshawnda) and the Spring into Love campaign (March 20), another die-in that blocked the intersection of 3RD and La Cienega and gained considerable coverage in print and television media.
Fortunately, destiny permitted me to participate in two events in which Jennicet, Bamby and Johanna played leading roles. On Feb. 8, 2015 ("Super Bowl Sunday") a goodly number of us attended a rally and marched down a Van Nuys street in order to bring media attention to the violent attack that ended the life of yet another black trans woman, Yazmin Vash Payne. And on May 17, Bamby invited Jennicet, Johanna, and numerous others to march in Bamby’s Trans Lives Matter contingent as part of the Long Beach Pride Parade. The Pride Parade organizers had tapped Bamby to be one of several grand marshals. But this veteran of the movement did not accept the honor in order to sit and receive the accolades of the thousands that lined the parade route. Bamby was determined to make a statement, a bold one that no one would miss. In other to challenge cis-gender gays, lesbians and bisexuals to get involved in the trans movement by speaking out against trans violence, Bamby had us do three die-ins during the march. Again, Jennicet, Johanna, myself and several others symbolized the real victims of recent trans murders.
My point here is this: having participated in a few direct actions and viewed a few more, I can attest with my own eyes that neither Jennicet nor any of the other women are hot heads or loose cannons. Rather, they are part of a line of persons deliberately disrupting a political system in order to have the guardians of power take them seriously, ultimately to correct the wrongs and gain equal rights. American Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau articulated well this means of seeking a redress of grievances in his work, "Civil Disobedience" (1849). As a means to secure the universal right of American women to vote, Alice Paul staged acts of civil disobedience which, together with the lobbying of Carrie Chapman Catt (head of the National American Women Suffrage Association, NAWSA), secured the franchise in 1920 through passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Sit-ins were a staple of the anti-Vietnam war movement during the late 1960s. One can also speak about the Defiance Campaign of 1952, in which the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress joined forces to oppose apartheid, or of Indian nationalism under Mahatma Gandhi, or of the American Civil Rights movement.
While laying down some thoughts to paper for a few minutes Saturday night in a club, I recalled an example that most aptly shows a precedent for the outburst by Jennicet Gutierrez last week. One April 4, 1967, precisely one year before his untimely death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made his most controversial (and in my view his most significant) speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." Before a crowd in the Riverside Church, New York City, Dr. King argued (in part) the Vietnam War caused great damage to the United States. It fueled the war machine, while siphoning funding that could have ameliorated America's social and economic woes. At the time, the Riverside Speech was widely condemned. Even Dr. King's closest colleagues in the movement strongly questioned the wisdom of this speech which, they viewed, would cause irreparable harm to civil rights.
Through the passage of time, one sees that the speech did not cause permanent damage, but that the civil rights movement changed for reasons beyond the scope of this article. I must confess my initial disdain for the outburst and my own impression that Jennicet's action would permanently and irreparably damage the trans movement. But when viewed through the eyes of precedent, I conceded my earlier perspective needed substantial modification.
Many persons—friends and strangers, alike--have furnished well-reasoned arguments opposing the planned, out-of-turn protest by Jennicet Gutierrez in the White House last week. I will still say that, had I advance knowledge of her intention, I would have strongly urged her to use another tactic. Be that as it may, all of us who were detractors must confess that the outburst did have the effect she intended: raising the awareness of most trans people and the media about troubling conditions that LGBTQ immigrants face while in federal detention facilities. Indeed, some media outlets are still waiting to interview her. I will leave the political and legal options and ramifications to experts. Through reading sobering accounts on various news websites over the past few years, however, I do know that trans people live very precarious lives in central America and in other parts of Latin America. Fearing for their lives, some flee their countries of origin and seek political asylum in the Unites States.
A well-functioning transgender rights movement runs through the efforts of two types of participants. There are the edgier types, the one engaging in civil disobedience, who deliberately put a wrench in the system by die-ins, sit-ins, pickets, marches, blocking access to official facilities, and the like. They are the ones who challenge the system in order to get arrested and draw media attention to their cause. Then there are the rest, the people who rely on less visible, more mainstream participation in order to correct flaws in the system or gain general acceptance of trans men and trans women, and other gender nonconforming persons. They might collect signatures for ballot initiatives or meet with government officials to persuade them to change policies. In many instances the mainstreamers, through professional excellence or service to their city or area, conduct themselves in such a way as to garner the admiration and respect of the wider world. They may inspire through public talks, entertain as musicians or club operators, or meet basic needs of the downtrodden through local charitable work.
We need the edgier types to show the world that inattention to problems affecting trans people is not an option. We need the mainstreamers to typify trans people to the wider world, one person at a time. So whether your style is edgy or more mainstream, live a life of excellence, of dedication, or commitment and focus to show the world the following: that trans people merit good treatment by reason of possessing inalienable rights, that we belong to the human collective, that we contribute powerfully to the world and that, when all is said and done, our similarities to our typical peers are greater than those attributes that set us apart. We who are trans may not agree on tactics for self empowerment. But one thing is crystal clear: trans people are awesome!! Go out to the world and demonstrate this!