This activist declined to attend White House Pride event to protest detention of trans immigrants

“If I stayed quiet, I feel like I would be complicit in that violence, right?”

When Jennicet Gutiérrez received an invitation to the White House’s Pride celebrations in late May, she had an immediate, gut reaction: No.

But instead of privately turning down the invitation, Gutiérrez used it as an opportunity to raise awareness about the abuse and mistreatment of LGBTQ2S+ immigrants. On June 15, she published an open letter to President Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, calling attention to the migrants and asylum seekers currently held in detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—often in centres that do not align with their gender identity.

“Based on what’s happening to the undocumented LGBTQ2S+ community across the nation, I had to make a really conscious decision to not attend and celebrate that,” Gutiérrez told Xtra over the phone this week. “If I stayed quiet, I feel like I would be complicit in that violence, right?”

In the letter, Gutiérrez wrote that “there should be no White House celebration” when the Biden administration was detaining and harming LGBTQ2S+ people. In particular, she criticized the administration’s use of Title 42—a Trump-era regulation that has allowed the U.S. government to deport people for COVID-related reasons—even as travel restrictions were relaxed. 

“There have been over two million deportations since you took office, setting you up to be the next deporter-in-chief,” she wrote in the letter. “We are still seeking justice for Victoria Arellano, Roxsana Hernández and Johana Medina, trans women who died because of the negligence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”

LGBTQ2S+ people face unique problems in detention centres, she said, and detaining immigrants is never the answer. A 2018 report found that LGBTQ2S+ migrants were 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other detainees while in ICE custody.

“This is a community that desperately needs support. We need care and protection, and the administration has the power to give it.”

“Trans people are harassed when their IDs don’t match their presentation; there’s homophobia, transphobia, neglect,” she said. “Trans women are put in male prisons. We don’t need to detain people. There’s space for everyone, and there are organizations willing to help people meet their basic needs once they come here.”

Gutiérrez told Xtra that she was surprised to be invited to the White House, and it’s easy to see why. The activist made national news in 2015 when she interrupted former President Barack Obama’s speech at a White House Pride event, calling on him to “stop the torture and abuse of trans women in detention centres.” 

The action attracted backlash, but that hasn’t stopped Gutiérrez from continuing to fight for the rights of LGBTQ2S+ people. Gutiérrez, who is the co-executive director of Familia: TQLM, said that the LGBTQ2S+ immigration advocacy group is mobilizing in states like Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, California to draw attention to the ongoing abuse LGBTQ2S+ immigrants face.


“You could easily stop their suffering by instructing the Department of Homeland Security to implement a policy of liberating trans people, people living with HIV and other medical conditions, as well as other vulnerable people,” she wrote in her letter to Biden. “The reality is that as this celebration is taking place, trans people currently in ICE custody will be in unsafe conditions.”

“Ending trans detention and using your executive powers to protect LGBTQ people would have a greater impact on our community and would save many lives rather than hosting an event to deliver a well-crafted speech with broken promises,” she added.

Gutiérrez emphasized that the letter wasn’t about her but about drawing attention to the fact that countless LGBTQ2S+ people are still being detained. Many will stay confined for months to years at a time—threatening their health and potentially their lives. Johana Medina, a 25-year-old migrant from El Salvador, reportedly passed away after ICE officials refused her medical treatment after she fell ill in a Texas detention centre—where she was held for six weeks prior to her death.

“This is a community that desperately needs support. We need care and protection, and the administration has the power to give it,” she said. “Johana should still be with us and fighting for their dreams and living a beautiful life. She died in June 2019—the first day of Pride Month that year.”

Jackie Richardson is a freelance writer based in Western New York. She has worked at The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, and The Sophian.

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