A Conversation with Jennicet Gutiérrez, Part I

Anahvia Taiyib ’16

On Oct. 19, Jennicet Gutiérrez gave a keynote speech at Harvard University entitled “A Call for Justice” on the state of transgender detainees in U.S. detention centers. After gaining notoriety for her interruption of President Obama at a White House reception, Gutiérrez has continued to work with Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement, advocating for awareness of issues affecting the transgender community and its many intersections. I had the chance to sit down with her to discuss identity, relationships, trans healthcare, media representation, and self-care. This is the first part of our conversation.

This interview has been edited for flow and clarity.

Jennicet Gutiérrez: Thank you for this interview. My name is Jennicet Gutiérrez. I’m an organizer with Familia TQLM.

Anahvia Taiyib: My first question is, and I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times before, was the incident at the White House a heat-of-the-moment decision, or had you been thinking about it for a while?

JG: The interruption at the White House was intentional. We [Familia TQLM] had like a week of planning, but it was kind of left up to me at that last moment how I should deliver the message. So once I went in and looked at the space, looked at the people…when President Obama came out, I felt in order to be heard, I needed to do the interruption right at the beginning of the speech.

AT: How have things changed since then, with backlash and everything? Is there maybe a small part of you that regrets doing that considering all the backlash?

JG: The backlash was huge the first day, and the criticism was really harsh, especially from my own LGBTQ community. You know, the mainstream. But I really don’t have any regrets. I believe that this issue is critical; many trans women are suffering inside these detention centers. So if I regret it, it’s like saying their lives are not valuable. That’s why I don’t think I have any regrets. And I would do it again until conditions improve or they are all released.

AT: Were you worried at all about ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] contacting you or threatening you in any way after the interruption, since you made it known that “Yes, I am a trans Latina. Yes, I am undocumented”?

JG: Absolutely. I was nervous; I knew I was taking a big risk by speaking out. I knew I was taking a big risk by challenging power at the White House.

AT: Of all places.

JG: [laughs] Right. Even before that, this other organization that was involved said, “You know, you’re going into federal grounds and you might risk arrest, and the charge might be higher than at any other place.” So they were trying to discourage me at the end. But it wasn’t about me, what benefits or disadvantages I was going to receive. It’s about a community that’s still suffering as we are here having this interview, being mistreated and in horrible conditions. So to me, any risk, whether denying my immigration case, whether I risk arrest—it was worth taking the risk so we can have these conversations. To me, that is a big win.

AT: Thinking back to when you were a teenager, did you ever imagine that you’d be doing what you’re doing today? That you would be semi-famous?

JG: [laughs] Um, no. I never really thought—I was dealing with so much at that time—

AT: Right, in-the-moment stuff, you couldn’t even—

JG: Think so much ahead, right, exactly. I was going through my own transformation and transition and who I am today as a transgender woman, and I always used to be inspired by people who have challenged power: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta. You know, all these amazing people who have joined movements—actually worked tirelessly to make a change in society. So I always used to read and get really inspired. And I would be very fascinated by their work. I would read articles about people making some kind of impact and I would wonder, briefly, but I would wonder, “What would one have to do to be recognized at that level?” And then this opportunity came to work with Familia TQLM, and now I’m getting all this attention, but it’s more important to focus on the issue versus “What is Jennicet doing?” or, “What gain or loss came about from this action?” I think we need to really go back to the issue here, and this is people suffering, especially trans and queer people in detention centers.

AT: Do you identify with any labels like “feminist” or “liberal”? Why or why not? Do you think these labels are even important for us to identify as?

JG: I acknowledge the labels, and I know they have a role to play in society, especially for groups who don’t understand what we’re fighting for—that don’t understand the oppression that we live [with]. I think it’s important to bring those labels in, but in an ideal world, if you could remove the labels, it would be better. At the end of the day it’ll be like, this person stood up for these injustices regardless of what [they] identify with, right? But after being ashamed of being trans and undocumented, I take a lot of pride at a personal level in owning that identity. I’m very proud to say that I’m an undocumented trans woman. As far as any other labels, I try not to make that a centerpiece of the discussion because it’s really not highlighting the struggles that we’re facing.

AT: Right, it doesn’t really say anything. People say, “Oh yeah, I’m a feminist,” but what does that mean?

JG: Right, and you know, I do understand the significance of the labels even like “LGBTQ.” We have to have this term for people who aren’t part of the community to understand where we’re coming from and what we are doing. I try not to put so much emphasis on that, but I welcome any label that will truly transform our lives in society.

AT: What have your experiences been like working with your cultural/ethnic community and then trying to bring in those other aspects of your identity? I remember an incident a couple of years ago—every year, the black community on campus hosts a “relationship meeting” and people look forward to it. It’s really fun and a great bonding event. But it’s also incredibly heteronormative: we have a Black Men’s Forum and an Association of Black Harvard Women as two major black student organizations, and they co-host the event. A friend of mine made these flyers that talked about the need for inclusion of black trans and queer people in that space and left them in the room before the event. Well, when the meeting started, all the papers were gone, and the person who was moderating basically said, “We understand that there are black queer people who want to talk about these issues, but most of us are straight and cis so we’re not going to talk about that,” and they just continued with the discussion. No one else said anything about it. I find it discouraging trying to identify with my cultural community in these movements when they’re not accepting of all these other identities that are as important to us as our race is. They can’t be separated.

JG: It’s a major issue, too, with the Latino/Latina community—the fact that these heteronormative people don’t want to acknowledge or be inclusive of our struggles. You know, that’s why as an activist I am a strong believer [in] civil disobedience, that we cannot wait while we are facing a high volume of violence, while we are being denied access to healthcare, while we’re being denied access to education. That’s why we need to be disruptive, and if [they] don’t want to listen to us, we’re going to make [them] listen to us. So that in itself, just writing those flyers, that is already an act of resistance, an act of challenging, and they even acknowledged it. They didn’t give you the results you wanted, but it still started a conversation. I think we are in a time where we cannot be forced into the shadows; we have to continue to come out of the shadows and force difficult conversations.

AT: Out of the different parts of your identity—your ethnicity, sexuality, gender—do you ever feel pulled by any one group in advocacy to only identify as one thing? Say, in fighting for rights for undocumented people, and then trying to speak out about trans undocumented women and having people say, “No, no, no, don’t, that’s not our issue.” How do you reconcile the different parts of your identity with each other?

JG: I think it’s one of the biggest challenges we have in our time with movements. I think we’re coming to a point where you cannot separate [the parts] of your identity. I cannot separate me being undocumented, I cannot separate me being a trans woman of color. I think that intersectionality is picking up, and I think that in order to truly make change, we need to challenge the communities that we are a part of. If I’m going to a rally against violence against trans women, [I should] take a moment in that window to also bring in the undocumented community who identify as LGBT that are also facing violence—inside of the detention centers and outside—and try to make [others] understand the connection. The fact that I’m bringing the other part of identity to this specific trans rally, I think it’s starting to open the doors for people to really challenge our views, to connect the oppressions and say at the end of the day, “You know what, we need to support each other,” even in ways that you probably didn’t think you could.

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