President Obama is no stranger to heckling. He was heckled in 2013 when he discussed plans to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. He was heckled last year when he discussed changes to immigration policy. And perhaps most famously, he was heckled in 2009 by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who shouted “You lie!” at Obama during a speech to Congress about what would become the Affordable Care Act.
But rarely do presidential hecklers not legislating on Capitol Hill get a chance to explain their actions — and none in recent memory has been as favorably received by the left as Jennicet Gutiérrez, who interrupted Obama at the White House on Wednesday.
Obama was giving a speech for Pride month celebrating LGBT rights when Gutiérrez tried to cut him short.
“I am a trans woman!” she shouted. “… No more deportation!” There were cheers and shouts of “Obama!” as the president — often adept at silencing rowdy crowds — shut down the interruption and had Gutiérrez escorted out. Obama said he was fine with a few hecklers, but not when he was “up in the house.”
“You know, my attitude is if you’re eating the hors d’oeuvres,” he said, “and drinking the booze … Anyway, where was I?”
But not long after Obama made jokes, some were defending Gutiérrez. She’s a 29-year-old transgender activist from Los Angeles — an undocumented immigrant trying to bring attention to the plight of trans women in immigration detention centers.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Gutiérrez said she was overcome with emotion during Obama’s speech, and that her outburst was spontaneous.
“I had to interrupt,” she said. “I’m very disappointed at this coming from one of the great leaders of the nation. I thought he would have handled it differently — the way he started telling me to quiet down. It was a clear sign that he wouldn’t listen. … I had to say what I felt at that particular moment.”
Gutiérrez elaborated on the interaction in “I interrupted Obama because we need to be heard,” an editorial that appeared the Washington Blade.
“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,” Gutiérrez wrote. “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.”
Gutiérrez would seem to understand those issues intimately. She said she was born in Mexico and came the United States when she was 15, transitioning three years ago. She said she is awaiting the outcome of immigration petition filed on her behalf by her sister, who is a citizen, but is “basically undocumented.”
“I started getting into activism because of the violence trans woman face, especially women of color,” she said. “I wanted to do it for awhile, but I didn’t because I wasn’t embracing who I was.”
It’s hard to pin down how many transgender detainees are in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). One investigative report by Fusion, which is affiliated with Univision, said one of every 500 detainees is transgender; given that ICE has about 34,000 people in detention, that would mean almost 70 transgender detainees. In 2013, meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office reported transgender detainees are disproportionately at risk of sexual assault — in 15 cases of “sustained sexual assault” the GAO documented between October 2009 and March 2013, three victims were transgender.
Gutiérrez said she and Los Angeles advocates were aware of 26 transgender detainees at California’s Santa Ana detention center. She said that there is a special housing unit for LGBTQ detainees, but that sometimes these individuals have contact with other parts of the prison population, are placed in solitary confinement, face harassment from prison staff, and are punished when they speak out about conditions. She also pointed to the case of a transgender woman in Arizona allegedly detained with men earlier this year.
“They don’t want to acknowledge our gender expression,” Gutiérrez said, pointing out that she had never been in a detention center. “… They can start harassing us because our bodies are changing with our hormones.”
Though not immediately available to comment about conditions at Santa Ana, ICE has offered progressive statements about its treatment of transgender detainees in the past.
“We have a special housing unit in the Los Angeles area dedicated to the gay, bisexual and transgender detainees,” Kevin Landy, the assistant director of the ICE office of detention policy and planning, said in January. “Individuals who prefer a transfer even across the country to that facility for their safety rather than being in a general population housing unit are afforded that opportunity, and we have transferred many people long distances at their choice to that unit.”
Moreover, Landy said detainees have access to hormone therapy — a comment that inspired headlines in conservative media such as “Great news! YOUR tax money is paying for HORMONE THERAPY of TRANSGENDER illegal aliens caught by ICE!”
“With respect to treatment while in detention — the medical care standard — the standards guarantees a right to hormone therapy for individuals who need it for treatment, and even in facilities that are not covered by that standard,” Landy said. He said the agency “is very vigilant on that issue to ensuring that individuals receive necessary hormone therapy,” and added that “at any given time on average, only one transgender detainee is in segregation in our entire system for more than 14 days at a time.”
Whatever the merits of Gutiérrez’s complaint, she found friends in corners of the Internet perhaps not used to defending Obama hecklers, including a profile in People.
“I could see myself as a transgender US immigrant in a roomful of LGBT people,” Meredith Talusan wrote in the Guardian, “wanting to celebrate the president’s actions to advance the cause of gay marriage, trans healthcare and trans people serving in the military, but being unable to shut my mouth because of the deplorable conditions that undocumented LGBT immigrants, especially trans women, face.” Subhed: “‘You’re eating my hors d’oeuvres’ is hardly a response to a trans community that is routinely subject to harassment and violence.”
Late Thursday, Gutiérrez explained what she was going to say before she was so rudely interrupted by the president.
“What I was saying to President Obama was ‘release all LGBTQ detainees in detention centers and stop the abuse,'” Gutiérrez said. “Because you know we’re just trying to … contribute to the nation.”