Respect! The Hemispheric Fight for Trans and Queer People of Color

At a Pride Reception this past month at the White House, Latina Trans organizer Jennicet Gutiérrez of Familia TQLM and GetEqual interrupted an all too jovial speech from President Obama about what his administration has done for the LGBT Community in the U.S. The interruption led to him dismissing her and ordering she be escorted from the reception. He said, “No, no, no, no, no….you are in my house… Shame on you! You shouldn’t be doing this… Can we escort this person out? If you are eating the hors d’oeuvres, know what I’m sayin’? And drinking the booze…” and some other nonsense, undoubtedly in a failed attempt to be cute and funny.

When I saw his response to Jennicet Gutiérrez’ brave call for ending LGBTI deportation and detention, immediately the connections to my home country of Honduras and the issues facing Trans organizers there after the U.S. endorsed coup d’état in 2009 became crystal clear.

It reminded me of Mónica Shakira, a Trans woman who was filmed being beaten in public view of the military police and Channel 6 camera crews in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in August 2014. The video of her beating played on the Channel 6 TV station for days, in restaurants, in offices, in living rooms throughout the city and country, without consequence.

Trans people face the most heinous disrespect in the Western hemisphere, and all of this happens under our governments’ noses—yes under the U.S. government’s nose as well. How we as Hondurans wish to tell Obama, “Hey, this is my house, don’t come here and eat our food and destroy our economy. Hey Obama, your free trade is killing our economy.” But we can’t, because the biggest power in the world has no time to listen to the real people, those of us that do not possess the resources and money to contribute to PACs, or own corporation(s) that can finance campaigns. The only power we do possess is our ability to organize, to march and to vote for what we believe.

Obama’s comment about “his house” —if you don’t like it get out — is not just a faux pas for his administration (which less than a month ago hosted the first ever LGBT People of Color Summit, expressing concern for our issues), but it is also a blatant disrespectful act in Latina/o culture. In Latina/o and Latin American culture, to throw someone out of your house is the most disrespectful act you can commit against anyone. It all goes back to the time when Jesus’ parents were seeking housing, while knocking on all doors in the village (Las Posadas). That image of seeking shelter was crystallized during Latin America’s era of military dictatorships, when students fleeing from police after protests knocked on doors and hoped for someone to open one and save them from immediate capture or the risk of disappearance.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said that an amigowas one who gave you a key to their house, because that key could save you from a police beating, interrogation and possibly death. Regardless of each country’s particular history, for Latinas/os to be kicked out of someone’s home is a violent and disrespectful act. President Obama, a dignitary and a world leader acted like a regular brute in U.S. and Latina/o culture, not unlike his country’s foreign policy in Latin America.

The 6th anniversary of the Honduran coup d’état was on June 28, 2015. That 2009 event in history was endorsed by Obama’s Department of State under Hillary Clinton. Given that there have been over 200 murders of LGBTI people in Honduras since the coup, most of whom are Transgender, I find Jennicet Gutiérrez’s call for justice a hemispheric call for all LGBTI and Queer people of color whose fates are linked across borders.

2009 anti-Zelaya protesters (Roberto Brevé)

2009 anti-Zelaya protesters (Roberto Brevé)

LGBTI people migrate because of the situations they face in their home countries, from lack of jobs, homelessness, absence of family acceptance, violence in neighborhoods, intolerance in schools, persecution from police and military and fear of death.  The attitude Obama displayed is not very different from themacho attitude of men in power in places likes Honduras, where Trans people are denied their very basic rights and are expected to stay out of sight from people, children and schools.

Despite these discriminatory practices and lack of protections, Trans organizing is gaining speed and people are making their voices heard. During the 2013 elections the new political party in Honduras, LIBRE, ran two congressional representative tickets with Trans women candidates. And Transgender organizations are growing, even in small towns and villages, because Trans people are everywhere and they are organizing and making their collective voices heard.

The same month as Gutiérrez’ call for justice, Angy Ferrera, a Trans woman activist form Grupo de Mujeres Transexuales Muñecas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was shot dead. The police refused to call and get her immediate emergency response services and she bled to death. This happened amidst the protests of millions of citizens marching in the streets of every town in Honduras demanding that the president, Juan Orlando Hernández, resign for corruption.

Hernández, who came into power through corruption at the ballot box, stole 90 million dollars from the Honduran Social Security Administration (IHSS), hired his family to serve as ministers though nepotism, and refused to adopt an International Commission Against Impunity (CICI-H). This process was recommended as a conciliatory move by the Truth Commission Report of 2012, after investigating the coup d’état of 2009. This corruption has led to thousands of dead in hospitals, to lack of basic resources and salaries for the population, including vulnerable populations such as the LGBTI community. For the millions of indignados (the outraged), the fact that the U.S. backed and supported president engages in corruption, and steals the people’s money is unacceptable.

The organizing to denounce the Honduran situation has included LGBTI leaders as integral to the larger movement. This organizing has led to danger, death threats and death for organizers and human rights defenders. It is within this scenario —a corrupt president that the Obama administration supports— that we see and have historically seen astronomical rises in migration: of all Hondurans, but especially children and LGBTI individuals.

Crossing the border does not end the violence for Trans individuals. While detained, they are placed with the wrong population, at times fatally compromising their safety, or held in solitary confinement, a torture reserved for the worst criminals.

Their crime? Being Trans.

The consulates and courtrooms are just as unfriendly and mentally and emotionally violent for a Trans detainee. The person’s life, gender identity and complicated issues surrounding their lives are not taken into consideration nor understood. For instance, many Trans migrants suffer rape and physical violence in the streets of their own countries, and while migrating they suffer family exclusion and police brutally. This violence is further perpetuated in detention.

Jennicet Gutiérrez was right to demand answers. The LGBTI undocumented community in the U.S is facing incredible injustice at the physical and metaphorical borders from the Obama administration and from their home country’s administration. Last June 2014, youth —including Trans, Lesbian, and Gay youth— crossed the border and faced detention. But all we heard from media was that people are fleeing “violence.” This promotes a form of Orientalism by sensationalizing violence, as if our home countries are isolated from international influence and they are violence-ridden and backward by themselves. This is a convenient yet blind account of reality. No one analyzes where the violence comes from historically and how it is deployed on the bodies of children, LGBTI people and all immigrants.

The United States is complicit in this “violence.” But we rarely reflect honestly, in this “First World Nation,” on how violence has been generated by U.S.-imposed free trade laws on the rest of the Western Hemisphere. This is the worst kind of violence. Free trade laws have destroyed every institution of government that protected the people (like the Honduran Social Security Administration) and have privatized other public resources. These laws and policies have pushed an already cruel government, (like the Honduran one) to be more deplorable, to pay their workers less, to harass and intimidate those who organize unions, to push destructive mono-crop industries for export such as African palm, to build neoliberal model cities akin to gentrification in the poorest dire sections of the U.S. and to make the state for sale. When the state is for sale, it results in elevated opportunities for narcotic trafficking to rule. The free trade laws of the United States, those that people want us to swallow in our homes as “Democracy” have brought violence, hunger and misery, and this is why we migrate.

The violence in detention centers against LGBTI undocumented immigrants, and in particular Trans individuals, is a continuation of the violence in the streets of the cities and towns of Honduras or any other Central American nation. It is dire, it is desperate, it must be spoken and listened to, it must be taken seriously and not “escorted out” of the front door of anyone’s house.

To President Obama and the mainstream Gays and Lesbians in the White House and in the country that were made “uncomfortable” by Jennicet Gutieerrez’ outcry: I invite you to think about the Trans migrants whose lives have been lost and the pain and suffering of their chosen families, their children, the failed dreams of justice, the failed dreams of equality, the loss of love.


ALL those human lives we have lost on both sides of the border, and how that pain is greater than our own.

Is it that worth your discomfort for a few minutes?


Suyapa Portillo is an Assistant Professor in Chicana/o Latina/o Transnational Studies at Pitzer College. Portillo is a co-founder of the May Day Trans Queer Contingent and works closely with organizations in Los Angeles and in Honduras to eradicate homophobia in the Latino/a community and to seek equality and inclusion of LGBTQ and LGBTI undocumented immigrants in larger movement for immigration reform.

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