Jennicet Gutiérrez and the Politics of Pride

President Obama scolding Jennicet Gutiérrez at the White House Pride reception.

Still from White House video.

On Wednesday, the White House hosted an LGBTQ Pride reception to which a range of activists, journalists, and community leaders were invited. The event was intended to be a low-key celebration of the achievements of the past year—and, of course, to shore up the Obama’s administration’s credibility on queer civil rights issues. But when the president began to deliver his address to the audience, the cocktail party quickly became a dramatic portrait of deep-seated disagreements within the community over how activism should be carried out.

With Obama only a few lines into his speech, Jennicet Gutiérrez, a undocumented trans woman involved in queer and immigration activism, called on the president to end the confinement and deportation of LGBTQ undocumented immigrants. “President Obama,” she cried out, “release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations.” Gutiérrez’s protests were quickly met with shushing from the crowd, which, according to multiple reports from the room, consisted largely of white, cisgender, gay men. Obama, clearly exasperated by the interruption, scolded Gutiérrez: “Hey. Listen. You’re in my house,” he said as the crowd cheered. “You know what? It’s not respectful when you get invited to somebody. You’re not going to get a good response from me by interrupting me like this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. … Shame on you, you shouldn’t be doing this.” Gutiérrez was eventually removed from the room, and Obama finished his speech.

The reaction to the incident online was swift and heated. Many LGBTQ news organizations framed the exchange as a heckler being “shut down” by the president; others viewed the situation as a legitimate protest, especially once Gutiérrez herself had shared her intentions about the plight the undocumented trans immigrant population faces in a post for 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. 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.

The debate over the incident has settled into somewhat predictable camps—those who feel that Gutiérrez violated basic decorum in an unproductive way, and those who view her decision to take advantage of a rare encounter with the president as a righteous move. (There’s also a somewhat secondary fight over whether a bunch of bigoted cis men were actively silencing a trans woman of color; that question relies on troublesome assumptions about who could “tell” she was trans and whether the shushers could even hear what she was saying, so I’m going to leave it aside here.) Given that this all happened just days before the hallowed anniversary of the Stonewall, you know, riots, I find it almost impossible not to side with the latter view.

As many have pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the very existence of a Pride reception at the White House owes itself to decades of activism in which queer people often ruined nice events and made bystanders uncomfortable. Queer activism must, by its very nature, be disruptive. That does not mean, of course, that every action led, or will lead, to immediate, efficacious change. But the buildup of those voices of dissent in the ears of the powerful over time does make a difference—and I can guarantee you that more people are talking and thinking about trans immigrants today than were before Gutiérrez took her stand. She may have failed by the standards of good manners or respectability politics—social norms that can be incredibly hard to overcome, by the way—but by the metric of impactful activism, she clearly won.

Putting Gutiérrez’s specific cause aside for a moment, there’s another aspect of this worth considering. You can bet that Obama and at least some of the attendees were irritated not just by the interruption of a speech, but also by the inconvenient reminder that many of the LGBTQ movement’s biggest achievements thus far—coming marriage equality, military service, federal contractor protections—mean little to the most marginalized people in the community. They have far more pressing concerns on the order of basic freedom and survival.

I’ll be honest: When I first heard about the exchange, I was viscerally annoyed—do we really need to be bothering the most queer-friendly president of all time? (Also, it’s just not my style … which is really just a way of saying that I’m not nearly as brave as Gutiérrez.) But you know what? That feeling is the complacency that comes with the privilege of my position as a white, middle-class, documented, cis gay man. I’m constantly writing against that kind of complacency, especially as I fear it will manifest in the wake of national marriage equality; and yet, in this case, I easily slipped into it. It took hearing Gutiérrez’s voice to shake me back to reality—a reality in which queer people still have far more to fight for than we have to toast with cute cocktails.

If Obama’s little party was really about celebrating pride, Gutiérrez was the only person who followed instructions. Kudos to her. And to anyone who can only conceptualize her actions as rude, a final thought: The moment we value politeness more than speaking out in this movement is the moment we can be certain that our quest for liberation has failed.