When Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted President Obama at a White House LGBT pride event there were a few seconds where she considered cutting her speech short.
“I felt like my body was going to collapse,” Gutiérrez says now, one month after the incident made national headlines and brought attention to transgender women whom the U.S. detains in men’s immigration detention centers. “My mind was processing the booing and the president telling me to be quiet or leave.”
For two minutes Gutiérrez repeatedly demanded the president “release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention.” She says it was heartbreaking to be standing in a room filled with other LGBT leaders that booed her. None of the guests publicly showed support for her. One man yelled at her and said, “This is not for you. This is for all of us.”
“What pushed me to continue to speak out were the stories I‘ve heard from my fellow undocumented trans women,” Gutiérrez said.
Gutiérrez was dubbed a “heckler” in the evening headlines that last Wednesday in June. Most Americans who watched the story unfold in the news saw the exchange from only one point of view: A camera pointing at a frustrated President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“I’m a person with a message and this is a message that has to be heard,” Gutiérrez said.
The following Monday, immigration officials announced transgender detainees would for the first time be able to be housed in detention facilities that correspond with their gender identity.
“I’m not sure I played any role in the government making that announcement,” Gutiérrez said. “I think it was a coincidence. Many other organization and activists have been working on this effort.”
Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the announcement was a result of a six-month working group that included input from former and current transgender detainees.
“I don’t think these changes will fix any of the real problems of how people are being treated in detention,” Gutiérrez said.
A 2014 Fusion investigation found U.S. immigration officials detain an average of 75 transgender detainees each night. Even though transgender immigrants make up just one out of every 500 detainees, they account for one out of five confirmed sexual abuse cases in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.
In interviews when Gutiérrez has been asked if she’s ever been held in an immigration detention center she always begins by saying, “fortunately, no.”
But she knows that due to her immigration status she runs the risks of being detained and deported in a facility that she’s heard nightmare stories about. She said she’s personally heard stories from trans women who have been abused, harassed and mistreated.
Gutiérrez came to the U.S. when she was just 15 years old. Her family paid a coyote $2,000 to bring her across a U.S. port of entry near the Tijuana, Mexico. Her family settled in North Hollywood and today Gutiérrez is in the process of legalizing her status by becoming a permanent resident.
Gutiérrez says she feels a personal connection to the trans women in detention because once they’re released they face many of the same issues she does.
“It’s 2015 and the LGBT community is suppose to have all these advancements and new rights, but trans women continue to face violence inside and outside of immigration detention centers,” Gutiérrez said. At least 11 trans women have been killed this year in suspected hate crimes.
“Not having access to health care, employment, not having housing, there’s lot of risks,” said Gutiérrez, who is currently looking for permanent work. Her family helps her financially. An LGBT immigrant rights group Gutiérrez co-founded and volunteers with also takes donations to compensate her for her community organizing work.
In the past she’s worked in fast food restaurants, a clinic, and a hospital. She had drop to out of the University of California at Davis just a few units short of obtaining her bachelor’s degree because of financial reasons. She was majoring in Chicana/Chicano studies, studying the history of Latinos in the U.S. She credits her time at U.C. Davis for helping politicize her.
Gutiérrez says confronting the president helped her define her voice even further and now she’s exploring how to organize and inspire others to speak out and call attention to the issues they care about.
“I was afraid of getting arrested and deported, but now that I confronted the president I’ve broken through a chain of fear and shame,” Gutiérrez said.