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There’s no LGBTQ Pride without immigrants

Safeguarding immigrant rights is intimately related to advancing LGBTQ rights.

Demonstrators with the group GetEQUAL hold a protest with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals affected by the country's immigration policies during a rally outside the White House in 2014. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
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Six years ago, an undocumented transgender woman from Mexico named Jennicet Gutiérrez attended an LGBTQ Pride event at the White House where President Barack Obama was delivering a speech on equality and inclusivity.

Obama told the crowd how he was “so hopeful about what we can accomplish.” He continued, “I told you that the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans …” But then Gutiérrez boldly interrupted him, asking the president to bring an end to deportations and detention centers. “I’m a trans woman! I’m tired of …" she pleaded with him, before boos and laughs silenced her and security escorted her from the premises.

Like so many other LGBTQ activists before and after her, Gutiérrez knew there was no such thing as a Pride celebration that did not include liberation for those most vulnerable among us, including LGBTQ migrants and would-be immigrants.

Immigration has been and always will be an LGBTQ issue. For the past century, government officials have adopted homophobic and racist strategies as a way to justify harsh immigration policies. In response, immigrants have long taken great risks to forge necessary paths to help liberate those seeking the freedom to express their gender and sexuality.

The rebellion at Stonewall, in fact, emerged out of this longer fight against all forms of state violence and policing. Pride celebrations would do well to focus on fighting against the violence at the border, the incarceration of migrants and others, racially motivated policing and surveillance and the separation of families — both biological and chosen. Only doing so can provide true LGBTQ liberation.

The connection between immigration and gender and sexual liberation goes back over a century. Among many other things, Lithuanian-born radical anarchist Emma Goldman strongly defended free love and homosexuality in the early 1900s, understanding any attack on those forms of intimacy as government overreach. Most famously, the notorious case in Britain of Oscar Wilde, in which the government prosecuted him for being gay, had exposed how these attacks subverted individual liberty. (He was convicted of “gross indecency.) Like many other outspoken and radical immigrants, Goldman was deported by the U.S. in 1919 following an arrest that stemmed from her opposition to the military draft during World War I.

Immigrants helped build institutions that created the visibility and community needed to catapult a formal LGBTQ movement decades later. For instance, in 1924, a military veteran and Bavarian immigrant named Henry Gerber started the first known LGBTQ organization in the United States, the innocuously-titled Society for Human Rights. The short-lived group soon got in trouble with the law and was shut down, but its very existence — with its own publication to boot — offered a glimmer of hope to a growing community of people in search of others who were like themselves.

During the postwar period, the U.S. witnessed what has become known as the “lavender scare.” Amid the harassment and persecution of lesbians, gay men and others read as “subversive,” all of whom were viewed as threats to national security, Congress passed a law that barred LGBTQ foreigners from the United States.

And so, when people like Sarah Harb Quiroz attempted to cross the border in 1960, she faced harassment and was subject to removal. A Mexican native, she regularly crossed the border between Juarez, where she still had family, and El Paso. An immigration official detained her because she presented herself as what he imagined a lesbian looked like. During an interrogation, Quiroz at one point admitted that she had had sexual relations with women in the past. That proved sufficient to justify her deportation.

And indeed, these tensions over policing both immigration and sexuality were part of the gay liberation movement that Stonewall helped to spark. Less than a year after the raid at the Stonewall Inn, police raided another New York City bar called the Snake Pit. They arrested 167 people, including a young man named Diego Viñales, who was born in Buenos Aires and was residing in the United States on an expired visa. Officers took him and dozens of other patrons to the police station. While there, Viñales, mindful that his arrest could lead to his violent removal and deportation, sought to escape by jumping out a second-story window. An iron spiked fence broke his fall and impaled him.

That event mobilized the recently formed Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in New York, which then distributed fliers that read: “Any way you look at it — that boy was PUSHED! We are all being pushed.” LGBTQ activists took to the streets and conducted a “death vigil,” something that AIDS activists would routinely do beginning in the 1980s. AIDS policy, in fact, was another area that exposed the ties between repression of LGBTQ Americans and harsh immigration policies. By 1987, the United States adopted a new policy that could keep a foreign national with HIV/AIDS from entering and settling in the country.

By 1990, as the LGBTQ movement made significant advances, the official policy of barring lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer immigrants had ended. And while many restrictions and hurdles remain, the policy of barring HIV-positive people from entering the United States officially ended 20 years after that, in 2010.

Yet, the fight for both LGBTQ and immigration rights persists today. LGBTQ people and many others are still harassed at our borders, held in detention centers, denied access to resources and much more.

Just two days after Gutiérrez interrupted Obama’s Pride speech in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that bans on same-sex marriages were unconstitutional, ushering in massive celebrations for many LGBTQ activists across the nation who had fought long and hard for this goal. Although generally overlooked in the celebrations that followed, marriage rights are also an immigration issue that can permit binational LGBTQ couples a pathway to legal status and citizenship.

But the critical gains made by the LGBTQ community threaten to obscure the risk still faced by LGBTQ immigrants. Too often their stories are erased or obscured when we think of LGBTQ rights, or Pride month. Yet, safeguarding and expanding immigrant rights is intimately related to advancing LGBTQ rights. Often LGBTQ immigrants have borne the brunt of repression, and often still face more precarity than many other LGBTQ Americans. Until their rights are safe, neither are LGBTQ rights.