A week and a day ago, the Supreme Court granted me and countless other Americans the right to get married in any state in the union. And there was much rejoicing.
I try not to be a progressive buzzkill all the time, and I do think it is important both for our sanity as individuals and our ability to collectively organize for change to sometimes take the time to celebrate victories like this. And I am excited about both of these things. I was in the chamber at the Supreme Court in 2013 when they overturned DOMA, and hearing the decision read gave me chills.
But…the day before marriage equality became the law of the land, there was a “Special LGBT Pride Event” at the White House. While President Obama was speaking on the accomplishments of the past year, he was interrupted and challenged (or “heckled,” if you think calling out hypocrisy on the part of someone with enormous political power is equivalent to mocking a stand up comic whose jokes are bombing,) by Jennicet Gutierrez, an undocumented transgender immigration activist.
Gutierrez, in her own words, “spoke out to demand respect and acknowledgement of our gender expression and the release of the estimated 75 transgender immigrants in detention right now,” pointing out that one out of every 500 immigrants currently being detained is trans, but these trans individuals account for one of of every confirmed case of sexual abuse that takes place in ICE custody. As Gutierrez rightly pointed out, there is no pride in this treatment of trans detainees.
Ironically, at what was supposedly an LGBT event, an attendee reportedly told Gutierrez after her interruption, “Enough! This is not for you. This is for all of us.”
In other words, someone legitimately felt justified in telling an immigrant trans woman that pride was not for her. She is not included in “all of us.” What a perfect microcosm for how the mainstream gay rights movement operates.
Part of the success of the push for marriage equality can be tied to the way it makes people in same-sex relationships less threatening and more mainstream in themselves. It is a way for those of us in those relationships to assimilate.
Meanwhile, those who do not assimilate so easily (or do not wish to assimilate at all,) are simultaneously expected to support movements like the one for marriage equality and to refrain from criticizing a movement that inherently, sometimes very explicitly, excludes them because they are trans, because they are not white, because they are poor, because they are non-binary, because they are not the model minority that has been judged palatable to the majority. But when they try to make their voices heard at events that are ostensibly about equality, they are silenced and accused of undermining the movement.
Beyond that, “allies” and others in positions of privilege cast themselves in the role of victim when they are criticized. Before having his armed security remove Gutierrez from the event, Obama lectured her on how rude it was to come into “his” house (actually, you are a tenant of the people of the United States when you live in that house, as was every other president,) and interrupt him.
This called to mind another time during his presidency that Obama was “heckled” during his presidency: when Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin repeatedly interrupted him during a counterterror speech, and was repeatedly silenced (although she was not removed after her first interruption, like Gutierrez. Just FYI, Benjamin is white. Gutierrez is Latina.) Obama responded by referencing the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, and reminding Benjamin that he had that right too.
Here’s why that response is so galling.
- The constitutional guarantee of the First Amendment is against government censorship, not against other people arguing with you. Benjamin does not have the weight and force of the U.S. government behind her (if she did, we would presumably have a much saner foreign policy.)
- As president, Obama has a press secretary, a full communications team, and as previously mentioned, an armed team of guards who prevent people not only from physically attacking him, but also speaking out against him in public venues. Protesters do not have the capacity to infringe upon his right to free speech. He does have the capacity to infringe upon theirs.
Obama is not a victim when someone interrupts him. The LGBT detainees Gutierrez was speaking on behalf of are victims. The civilians killed by American drone strikes are victims. And a gay rights movement that does not recognize intersectionality or care about these struggles is one that values privilege for some over the extension of full rights to all.
This is not to belittle the achievement of the passage of marriage equality. It is simply to put it in perspective. We have achieved one small victory, but even as we celebrate it we must renew our commitment to the many struggles that still lie ahead.
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