A Conversation with Jennicet Gutiérrez, Part II

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 second part of our conversation (find Part I here).

This interview has been edited for flow and clarity.

Anahvia Taiyib: Focusing more on queer communities, and expanding our understanding of gender past the binary, what do you see [as] the role of terms like “lesbian,” “gay,” and “bisexual” when we start to understand gender as not just “man equals penis, woman equals vagina”? Do you think those labels maybe are outdated and we need to find a new way to talk about sexual attraction?

Jennicet Gutiérrez: You know, even in our own circles there’s so much lack of understanding of the gender identity spectrum and sexuality. I think there’s more acceptance [when] you’re just a gay man or a gay woman; anything else in the middle is invalidated. So I believe that even as the transgender community’s making gains and visibility, we also need to acknowledge that there is a group of community members who are not being really included. And they are the gender-nonconforming people, and sometimes they are the ones who really get targeted the most. Some people feel like [they] don’t need to fit into one or the other; you can always be fluid with gender, and to even complicate things more, be fluid with sexuality.

Just because I transitioned and I have an attraction for men, as a trans woman, my community and society say, “Okay, now you have to find a man, and then be faithful to that man and marry him.” But what if that is not what I want? What if I’m attracted to women, too? Why do I always have to restrict myself based on someone else’s expectations or perceptions? There has to be a lot more discussion on sexuality, gender, and acceptance. And not just trying to understand it, but accept it and embrace it, you know, and move on. For example, one time before I came out I met this couple, and they were, it was fascinating because—see, I don’t even know how to say it—

AT: Mhm, we don’t even have the language for it.

JG: This is why we have to have more discussions on this issue. She was a transgender woman who transitioned from male to female, and her partner was a trans man who transitioned from female to male. They both met, fell in love, and married. I remember when she came to show us…their [photo] album, and how happy and proud they were, and the love [they had for each other]. To me, it was like [gasp] “How can that possibly be?” You know, even myself, I had this very narrow understanding of sexuality and gender. The more I’m involved in the community, the more I’m speaking out, I understand that there’s so much grey area that we don’t really discuss. I believe that we need to challenge ourselves and have more discussions and bring in these people who can really highlight the struggles that they’re facing with family, with the community, and then at the end of the day understand how much more work we have to do.

AT: For trans women who want to undergo hormone replacement therapy, how would being undocumented [present additional challenges] in access to treatments? Or trans health care in general?

JG: It makes it very difficult to the point where we won’t be able to go through HRT treatment because we lack a Social Security Number. I used to go to a clinic in LA where they would provide [services] even if you [lacked] documentation. But because the funds were so tied up, they started to ask everyone to show proof that [they] had documentation. So, if you did not, then you had to pay. I was part of this program [at the clinic], and after attending for six months, we were told that now [we had] to fill out a form, provide documentation, and then [we] could continue to receive the services for free. It was still available [for undocumented immigrants], but then [the payment] had to come out of pocket. Employment is another big issue [for us], right, and it complicates things more.

And this is someone who took the initiative to go and seek help. So many people in my communities, undocumented and transgender specifically, are really afraid to even go ask. They feel that any time they fill out any form or application and don’t provide that information, the clinic will turn them in to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and then they will be put into these detention centers. So it is a really alarming concern for many of us, especially the ones who [are in the early stages] in the process and want to get hormones. It’s really a major block in the process.

AT: I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about the bills in Congress attacking health centers like Planned Parenthood and closing down locations. Do you feel that trans health care is being centered in these conversations surrounding Planned Parenthood and women’s health care? Or do you feel like [cisgender] women are just talking about cis women’s access, focusing on abortion access? What can we do to bring trans health care to the forefront of these conversations on women’s health and health clinics?

JG: I’ve been following up, but not in depth. I believe this battle is concentrating heavily on cis women, abortion, and this necessity that these people need access to. Perhaps I’ve seen a few people including our voices and our lives and saying how we can also be affected by the shutting down of these clinics. I think there could be more effort to challenge the main argument and the narrative and start [including trans people in the discussion].

AT: Right, and it’s not only cis women that are being targeted [by those attacking Planned Parenthood]; it’s affecting more people than they would like to acknowledge.

JG: Absolutely. So again, any gains that can bring more support should be discussed, even if it makes people uncomfortable because of [trans people’s] biology. If [they] can get over the idea that trans women are not, you know, “real women” or whatever belief they might have, I believe that we really need to start being more inclusive.


AT: Thinking back to when you were growing up versus now, do you feel that things have really improved in a meaningful way, or have there been more surface-level changes? You know, mainstream LGBT media has focused on marriage equality, but is that more of a surface-level thing?

JG: You know, there’s been progress. There’s not a doubt about that—we have been through so much as a community. Going back to the beginning of it, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, both trans women of color, were speaking out against the injustices that we were facing, and unfortunately the movement [has become] about same-sex marriage. It is something that interested the community, but it’s not the only issue, and it has taken center stage. Not only did it take center stage, but it also took a lot of resources that could have been used for the transgender community. There’s so much going on in our community, so to me, putting so much energy and putting so much money into just that one issue—it’s a dishonor to the community.

AT: I agree. Going off of that, what do you see as media representation’s role in trans liberation? Do you think that it’s something we should focus on, or is it more of a secondary thing?

JG: Definitely shouldn’t be a primary focus piece in our liberation. I believe that our stories and our voices need so much more and will impact people versus a character on television. Visibility is important, but it’s an issue for me because in media it’s very easy to manipulate and feed these stereotypes.

AT: How do you reconcile the risks of being out, being loud—say with your family—and in certain spaces, having to hide parts of your identity, whether it’s your documentation status, gender, or sexuality? What advice would you give to trans and queer teens who are struggling with, “Do I come out, do I not come out?” And maybe they feel partly responsible, that they have to put themselves on the line at every single point in order to make change. What would you say to them?

JG: I would say, continue to believe in yourself—no one can make decisions for you. Any amount of pressure, any amount of whatever you’re going through in your life, no one can make decisions for you. I mean, I was in their shoes at one point in my life. I felt that: “What kind of risk am I going to take? Am I going to disclose my gender identity to anyone? Am I going to disclose my immigration status?” All these things kept me in fear and kept me from speaking out. So I understand what they’re going through but my only [advice] would be to continue living your life. Unfortunately, our families sometimes will not understand us or reject us and kick us out of their homes. If that is the case, continue to find who you are and surround yourself with a chosen family that will understand you and support you in ways that will make you thrive.

AT: So, on a lighter note—

JG: [laughs]

AT: —do you have any go-to self-care things that you like to do?

JG: This is something that we as activists and organizers don’t put a lot of energy into or consciously think about. Self-care is so critical. Grace Lee Boggs, [a recently deceased activist and feminist], said in our community there’s a lot of action and less reflection, and part of that reflection should include self-care. When I was at this presentation it just dawned on me, you know, that is so true. As we are fighting and bringing very heavy emotional issues to the center of the discussion, we need to really think about self-care. And I never before considered that until I started to get involved in activism and going to different conferences and seeing the healing circles and the self-care brought up. On a personal level I do like to read; I like to read and just process that.

AT: Do you have any favorite authors? Or a genre?

JG: I like literature, I love poetry, you know, just very touching. Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m reading [laughs], but it does something to me. I see you have [a photo on the wall of an author] that I read, Cherríe Moraga. I’ve read her work and Gloria Anzaldúa’s, two Chicana feminists, queer women of color, with amazing work. I like working out and connecting with people that understand me and want to uplift me; I think that’s also important. Make sure to have a good balance of nutrition and exercise because at the end of the day you’re going to face major opposition. Try to be prepared at many levels—mentally, physically, and spiritually—because it can [be] really easy to bring you down. And then you give up and there’s so much more work that needs to be done.

AT: We’re fighting against people who don’t see us as human; we can’t do that to ourselves.

JG: Absolutely. You point out the main centerpiece of our struggles: the dehumanization of our existence, each time, at every turn, by the opposition. And the fact that, in 2015, it’s so appalling to me that we’re still having to fight for our humanity and our dignity. I already went through everything bad that you can think of, right, depression, drinking, drugs—I think I already got that out of my system [laughs] and now I’m in a position where I should know better, and that is to truly continue to prepare myself at different levels. How am I going to continue to challenge myself and challenge the system?

AT: Well, thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you want to say?

JG: Yes, that Familia TQLM will continue to uplift the voices of the most marginalized and we understand there’s many communities being oppressed, but we have to start somewhere, and that’s why we put emphasis on the Latino/Latina community. If people want to find out what Familia TQLM is all about, they can follow us on Facebook or check us out online.

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