Something unexpected happened yesterday when President Barack Obama gathered top gay, lesbian and transgender activists at the White House to pat itself in the back during Gay Pride Month. As the president delivered a speech about all the advancements in civil liberties for gays, lesbians and transgender citizens during his term, one person in the crowd attempted to point out that Obama's executive branch doesn't exactly have a spotless record in the treatment of certain minorities, even now.
Jennicet Gutierrez, an undocumented transgender immigrant, interrupted the president at the start of his speech to point out that LGBT immigrants are being abused in detention centers and to call for their release.
There are a lot of ways the gathered activists in the presidents could have responded to this. Certainly, nobody likes a metaphorical turd in the punch bowl (or, one imagines, an actual one), and given the seismic cultural shift in attitudes toward the gay community, I doubt anybody would argue that celebrations are inappropriate. Nobody likes having ugly things pointed out to them on a happy occasion.
But the response was very telling, and much uglier than having some heckler point out that problems still exist. The gathered activists loudly attempted to shush her, then they booed her, chanted "Obama" to drown her out, yelled "Shame on you!" at her, and cheered when she was escorted out.
Obama himself also said "Shame on you," to the heckler like she was a small child having a temper tantrum at a grocery store. He added that he was fine with hecklers, but not when they were in his house "eating the hors d'oeuvres" and "drinking the booze," which is has some amazingly awful subtext if you think about it for just a few seconds. The president gave you food, so you should be nice to him!
Watch the encounter below:
The press largely seemed uninterested in engaging in the issue Gutierrez raised, focusing on the president's "not in my house" response and shaming. Over at CNN, Wolf Blitzer described the heckling as "an awful situation," and then later as "an ugly situation" that the president "handled well," as though something potentially dangerous had happened and not just a person yelling across the room.
Gutierrez was identified as an activist with Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement (TQLM). Reason contacted the organization and spoke to National Coordinator Jorge Gutierrez (no relation to Jennicet) to follow up over Jennicet's comments and the crowd and president's reactions. Jorge Gutierrez noted that the crowd's response was indicative of the gap between the interests of some mainstream lgbt community leaders and the needs of immigrants and minorities within the community.
"Knowing that we have trans women of color incarcerated and put into detention centers," Jorge Gutierrez says, "those priorities have not been part of the mainstream LGBTQ agenda. This is clear proof of that disconnection." At one point, somebody in the crowd yelled, "This is not for you. This is for all of us," at Jennicet, a response Jorge describes as "very disheartening."
When Obama was able to get to his speech after Jennicet was escorted out, he did speak about how transgender people face "terrible violence and abuse and poverty here at home and around the world." But he didn't touch on what Jennicet or Familia TQLM is talking about. Jorge sent to Reason a sample letter for citizens to send to the president to call for an end to the detention of gay, lesbian and transgender people by the Department of Homeland Security. One of the statistics they note in the letter is that 20 percent of substantiated sexual assaults that have taken place among those detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were against transgender detainees, according to a government report. Their letter notes:
"Detained LGBTQ people continue to experience extraordinary rates of pervasive physical and sexual abuse in ICE custody. New rules calling for 'individualized' housing decisions and use of solitary as a 'last resort' have not led to any perceptible changes from actual conditions facing detained LGBTQ immigrants. They are still subjected to prolonged, damaging isolation that fails to protect them from abuse, and transgender women continue to be housed in all-male jails and detention centers."
The letter also points to a study showing that transgender women held in men's prisons were 13 times more likely to be raped than the general population.
Asked whether anybody from the administration attempted to speak to anybody from Familia about their concerns and activism after the event, Jorge said they did not. He is hoping that, if the Supreme Court's upcoming ruling on gay marriage favors the gay community, the treatment of LGBT individuals detained by ICE is treated as more of a priority for other activist groups.
And in conclusion, here's a paragraph from Obama's prepared speech, read out completely without irony after shaming a Jennicet for challenging the administration's record:
And the truth is that courage comes in a lot of forms. There's courage in the moment of danger — the kind our troops show in battle. There's the courage of resilience and perseverance — what we see in our brave wounded warriors. There's moral courage of the sort we saw in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harvey Milk, who fight for their ideals. And then there's the kind of courage it takes to be true to yourself even if society doesn't always accept or understand you.