Why We Shouldn't Celebrate Obama's "Clap-Back"
“President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention!” declared Jennicet Gutiérrez, an undocumented trans-Latina activist, at Wednesday’s White House gathering to honor LGBT Pride. For some reason, no one wants to hear the important words Gutiérrez shared. Instead, most media attention has focused on Obama’s response. From the back of the room, Gutiérrez continued to call for Obama’s attention. He refused. “Listen. You’re in my house.”
Let’s break this down, shall we?
This wasn’t a clapback. Gutiérrez wasn’t coming for Obama. She was coming for our community of trans siblings, most of them women, who find themselves seeking asylum in places such as the U.S. — Gutiérrez was representing. So why are we, in calling her a “heckler,” pronouncing her assertion of her presence as a threat to that event?
Gutiérrez’s statement was a redress, drawing back the curtain from the shadows of our immigration policies. As has become common in many aspects of America, the myth the country has made of itself as a place of opportunity and as a safe haven has yet to materialize. On any given night, 75 transgender people, most trans women, are detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities and in appalling conditions. For instance, it is not uncommon for trans women to be locked in facilities with men. Additionally, our trans siblings account for 1 in 5 sexual assault cases in these detention centers. None of this should be acceptable, and yet, according to our government, it is.
Indeed, this was an act to reestablish boundaries that Gutiérrez was not supposed to cross. We’re not supposed to know what happens along our national borders. All we are often expected to know, as citizens, is that our borders “need” to be secured. We are not called to investigate how that happens. We have seen this recently in the Dominican Republic as the country “cleanses” itself of Haitians and/or people who appear to seem as if they’re of Haitian descent (i.e. darker skinned). What is happening in the DR is deplorable, but it is not isolated. Beyond just the historical tensions between Haiti and the DR, we also have to recognize the fact that what is happening in the Caribbean is an exploitation of these historical tensions to replicate US border patrol policies abroad. That model has been exported across the globe in order to protect and expand US sovereignty, and if we are upset about what is happening there, we need to remain diligently critical of what is happening right here at home. Here, where, as Gutiérrez points out, our government is holding, mistreating and deporting undocumented trans people who are here seeking refuge.
Information shouldn’t be threatening, nor should it be considered hostile.
This is why it’s dangerous to excuse Obama’s actions by accusing Gutiérrez of being disrespectful. Is there a time and place for everything? Yes. But just as we are asking for people to sacrifice niceties to address racism when it rears its head in even our most intimate relationships, we have to apply this to other aspects of our lives, including our fraught immigration policies. Regardless of what we may think, our various oppressions are interconnected and interdependent. The same power structure that identified Black Lives Matter protestors as “enemy forces” is the same one who violates the basic human rights of our trans siblings at our southern border. Holding on to respectability politics to deny these commonalities, for the sake of Obama, does not change this fact. Rather it forces us into a deeper denial that the present, as it stands, will magically bestow on us a future moment to address our various oppressions.
James Baldwin is noted as saying, “There is never time in the future which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.” Gutiérrez was seizing that “now” moment when she found herself in a room with the President of the United States. If there was ever a time to bring up an issue for which many had been criminally silent on, it was going to be then, in the East Room, as Obama began to make a claim about his attention to the civil rights of LGBTQ folks here in the US. He wasn’t able to finish his sentence, and maybe this was fate. The civil rights of the LGBTQ community should not merely apply to citizens; we have to account for non-citizens also, especially those who are most vulnerable because they are undocumented. While the Supreme Court just made same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, what is a marriage license to those who can’t live anywhere because of circumstances that are beyond their control? What is the worth of a marriage license in a country that touts itself as a global leader in LGBTQ rights, but who mistreats members of our global LGBTQ community when they try to come here for that exact reason? What progress are we actually making?
If the goal of the event was to celebrate PRIDE, Obama should have taken a moment to listen.
That’s the work of allyship. You listen. You use your power to make space for those who have been denied it, so that they might be able to name themselves and their concerns on their terms. But those actions take more than a formal gathering of those in different positions of power. We saw this recently in Hillary’s recent tone deaf statement of “All Lives Matter” in a black church in Ferguson. More concerned with maintaining her momentum on race, Hillary went to a church to talk about black issues only to shatter it by closing with a statement that recentered whiteness. Obama made a similar move on Wednesday. Instead of honoring the history of PRIDE, who are indebted to the rebellions and fights fought by transpeople, especially trans women of color, before and during the Stonewall riots in 1969, Obama erased it. Saying, “You’re in my house,” wasn’t just Obama putting an invited guest in her place. He was pulling rank: on the one hand, he centering himself and his power as a cis heterosexual man to extend hospitality to the LGBTQ community only insofar as they remained LGBTQ in the way he wanted them to be. And that meant, on the other hand, that he was going to exercise a much bolder statement as POTUS to secure the borders of gender and sexuality through the codification of national sovereignty. By saying “Listen. You’re in my house,” Obama was also making a much bolder statement about our national boundaries that, like these detention centers, are all but willing to “tolerate” those who are undocumented, but even more so those who do not fit into our prescribed gender binary.
Every time we celebrate this as an index for second-term Obama cool, instead of holding him accountable for the violent ways he he just silenced Gutiérrez, we do the same. Instead of celebrating our LGBTQ community, we cut them at the roots, sowing the seeds of our own oppression to be subjected to the same policies if we do not step in to change them.
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