Why Jennicet Gutiérrez Interrupted Obama

The month of June was marked by dozens of Pride Parades held across the world. From Guadalajara in Mexico to Tel Aviv in Israel, thousands of people gathered to...

The month of June was marked by dozens of Pride Parades held across the world. From Guadalajara in Mexico to Tel Aviv in Israel, thousands of people gathered to celebrate and show support for gender and sexual diversity. June was also marked by the new marriage equality law in the United States that will allow same sex couples to get married across all country’s states. This is, certainly, a huge victory for the legal rights of the American LGBT community and a great example for other nations that still fail to provide their citizens with equal marriage opportunities. Nonetheless, the United Stated still have a long way to go until the LGBT community has the full enjoyment of equal rights and is free of violence and discrimination.

Last Wednesday 24th of June, during Barack Obama’s speech about the civil rights of American LGBT people, the US President was interrupted by the transgender activist Jennicet Gutiérrez who asked for the freedom of transgenders held in immigration centres who suffer from constant acts of violence due to their gender identity. Many people have criticised Gutiérrez’s action of interrupting President Obama. This has led to lots of controversy with some people supporting her and other criticising her.

In an article for the Washington Blade, the transgender activist clearly stated the reasons that justified her behaviour in the White House. As she stated in her article:

The community takes great pride in celebrating our diversity and the progress we have made throughout the years. However, for the immigrant LGBTQ community, progress has not been fully realised because of the continuous discrimination and violence we face in our daily lives. […]In the tradition of how Pride started, I interrupted his speech because it is time for our issues and struggles to be heard. I stood for what is right. Instead of silencing our voices, President Obama can also stand and do the right thing for our immigrant LGBTQ community.

Her intention was in fact to speak out for the many transgender immigrants imprisoned in America and who are disproportionately suffering from violence and discrimination.

In fact, transgender women in prison have to experience awful situations due to the lack of appropriated and comprehensive policies. For instance, transgender women are often put in prisons designated for men, which leads them to suffer frequent acts of violence, including verbal offences and sexual assault. Statistics show that one in five-hundred detainees at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in US is a transgender, however, out of five cases of sexual assault in prisons one has as victim a transgender.

The story of Ashley Diamond portrays exactly that. After being convicted for burglary, she was sent to a high security prison for men, where she was repeatedly raped, ridiculed by security guards, verbally offended and sent to solitary for ”pretending to be a women”. When what should have happened instead was recognising the fact that Ashley is a woman who had been cruelly sent to a prison not meant for her gender. Unfortunately, Ashley is not a single case.

In some cases, transgender inmates are asylum seekers looking for a safe place to live and be themselves. This was the case of Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, a Guatemalan transgender woman who sought asylum at the US border due to fear of being prosecuted for being a transgender in her home country. However, instead of protection, what she found was a cell in a male prison and horrible events characterised by sexual and verbal offences.

Another example was the case of Johanna Vasquez. She is an El Salvadoran transgender women who after suffering from transphobia and being raped in her home country decided to flee to the US where she hoped she would be safe. Sadly, only in her third attempt she was able to legally remain in the country. In her first attempt she was held in an immigration centre where she was raped and in the second attempt she was once again detained in an immigration centre where she was sent to “protective” solitary confinement for seven months until she was deported back to El Salvador.

This solitary confinement according to the Human Rights Watch is a violation of people’s rights for a life free of violence, cruelty, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture as well. What is even more worrying is the fact that transgender inmates are put in solitary confinement allegedly for their own protection. How can a protective measure be so damaging? How can it be claimed that putting someone in a room without recreation, human interaction, for 23 hours, during days, weeks or even years be considered an act of protection? Clearly, something is not right.

These stories are only three of the many that should be carefully heard. In the light of these events, I cannot see where Gutiérrez failed. Some can argue that interrupting the President in not the right way to go but when there is a system that allows the perpetration of rape, violence, humiliation and torture there is no wrong way of asking for help. And we cannot forget that when people such as Gutiérrez who have seen and experienced the suffering and powerless situations that some people are forced to live, interrupting the President to ask for help don’t seem to me to be such a big deal. Unfortunately, any people focus on the lack of “protocol” and “respect” and fail to see or prefer to ignore what tragic events led to Gutiérrez action.

Maybe it is time to give less importance to etiquette and take more action!


Human Rights
Silvie Vale

Passionate about LGBT issues and human rights, Silvie Vale has recently graduated in Development and International Relations from Aalborg University, Denmark. She is specialized in Global Gender Studies and is particularly interested in creating awareness about matters of social justice. She loves travelling, researching and learning new things.
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