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Dispatches: A Transgender Activist’s Urgent Plea to Obama

Jennicet Gutiérrez, a transgender activist and undocumented immigrant, made headlines yesterday when she interrupted President Barack Obama’s opening remarks during a White House reception for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month. Shouting over a largely unsympathetic crowd, Gutiérrez insisted on being heard: “President Obama, stop the torture and abuse of trans women in [US immigration] detention centers.” The president declined to debate the issue, saying “no” more than a dozen times, and responding, “You’re in my house.” Gutiérrez, a founding member of Familia QTLM, which advocates for an end to the detention and deportation of LGBT migrants, continued her demands and was removed shortly thereafter.

Activist Jennicet Gutiérrez waves a Transgender Pride flag at a protest organized by Familia TQLM in Santa Ana, California. © 2015 Jennicet Gutiérrez via Twitter

While there has been public debate over Gutierrez’s actions, her concerns are genuine and urgent. This week, Human Rights Watch joined 22 other groups in endorsing a letter sent by 35 members of Congress to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. The representatives pressed Johnson to work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to develop community-based alternatives to detention for LGBT individuals and members of other vulnerable populations exposed to egregious abuses in immigration detention.

For transgender women, the experience can be particularly daunting. Transgender women are frequently housed among male populations, where they often face repeated verbal and sexual assault. This is despite ICE’s own detention standards, which state that transgender people should not be housed “solely on [the basis of their] identity documents or physical anatomy.” Others are sometimes held in prolonged solitary confinement—which the United Nations says may amount to torture or other cruel and inhuman treatment—allegedly for their protection. These practices can add to the psychological trauma for transgender women who migrate to the US to flee violent persecution at home.

Johnson took an important first step this week when he announced “substantial changes” to the Department of Homeland Security’s use of family immigration detention, but no such plans have been announced to scale back the detention of transgender women and other vulnerable migrants. Obama should recognize the importance of protecting vulnerable populations and work with his homeland security secretary to develop alternatives to detention.

Nearly 50 years have passed since New York City’s Stonewall Riots, considered by many the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement in the United States. It was in June 1969 that a group of transgender women of color helped lead historic demands to be treated with dignity, respect, and without fear of violent abuse. “In the tradition of how Pride started, I interrupted his speech because it is time for our issues and struggles to be heard,” Gutiérrez wrote today.

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