Jennicet Gutiérrez had been living in fear most of her life.

At 15, she crossed the border from Mexico to join her mother and eight siblings in the San Fernando Valley, and every time she had to apply for identification, she was terrified her undocumented status would be discovered.

But that was just one of her problems. She also identified as transgender, so she shrank further from anything that would draw attention. She wouldn’t raise her hand in class in high school and college, and she asked friends to order drinks for her when they went to bars.

“I have been so patiently waiting for change

All that changed last summer, when Gutiérrez decided to no longer live in hiding. She made national headlines in June when she interrupted President Barack Obama at an LGBT Pride event at the White House, demanding the release of all LGBTQ immigrants from detention.

“I have been so patiently waiting for change, and change never came,” she says. Wearing a chic, color-blocked dress and blazer, Gutiérrez smiles easily as she speaks over the construction noise and sirens wailing through the window of the 12th-floor office of Familia, a trans queer Latino rights organization in downtown L.A. “I’ve been part of this country for a while, so I have every right to raise my voice and demand dignity for myself and for the community.”

In 2014, Fusion reported that on any given day, about 75 transgender immigrants are held in detention by U.S. immigration officials. Many of them are asylum seekers, and these transgender detainees are far more likely than others to be sexually assaulted.

Gutiérrez felt that she was just a breath away from becoming one of those statistics, so when a handful of activists with Familia and GetEQUAL were looking for someone to interrupt the president, Gutiérrez readily volunteered.

Credit: Photo by Danny Liao

Credit: Photo by Danny Liao

The interruption didn’t just draw attention to the plight of transgender immigrants imprisoned by ICE; it also revealed the rift between the gay rights and transgender rights movements. Many of the Pride event attendees booed Gutiérrez, and some media reports referred to her as “the heckler.”

“A lot of the organizations at the White House were prioritizing same-sex marriage, but marriage wasn’t a priority for undocumented trans women,” Gutiérrez says. For them, she says, the priority is simply survival.

Since the interruption, Gutiérrez has been jetting around the country to speak at colleges and conferences about the intersection between the LGBTQ and immigrants rights movements — even as she continues to struggle with permanent housing and long-term employment herself.

“We need to fight for liberation of our community, racial justice, economic justice, trans justice and also family acceptance,” Gutiérrez says.

Gutiérrez does have her family’s support. She says her mother always cautioned her to stay out of trouble for fear that she would be detained — the same fear that used to haunt Gutiérrez herself. But now, she says, her mother is proud to see her speaking out.

“She says to make sure that everywhere you speak, they all know that we love you and support what you do,” Gutiérrez says. 

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