Six years ago, an undocumented transgender woman from Mexico named Jennicet Gutiérrez attended an LGBTQ Pride event at the White House where President Barack Obama was delivering a speech on equality and inclusivity.
Obama told the crowd how he was “so hopeful about what we can accomplish.” He continued, “I told you that the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans …” But then Gutiérrez boldly interrupted him, asking the president to bring an end to deportations and detention centers. “I’m a trans woman! I’m tired of …" she pleaded with him, before boos and laughs silenced her and security escorted her from the premises.
Like so many other LGBTQ activists before and after her, Gutiérrez knew there was no such thing as a Pride celebration that did not include liberation for those most vulnerable among us, including LGBTQ migrants and would-be immigrants.
Immigration has been and always will be an LGBTQ issue. For the past century, government officials have adopted homophobic and racist strategies as a way to justify harsh immigration policies. In response, immigrants have long taken great risks to forge necessary paths to help liberate those seeking the freedom to express their gender and sexuality.
The rebellion at Stonewall, in fact, emerged out of this longer fight against all forms of state violence and policing. Pride celebrations would do well to focus on fighting against the violence at the border, the incarceration of migrants and others, racially motivated policing and surveillance and the separation of families — both biological and chosen. Only doing so can provide true LGBTQ liberation.
The connection between immigration and gender and sexual liberation goes back over a century. Among many other things, Lithuanian-born radical anarchist Emma Goldman strongly defended free love and homosexuality in the early 1900s, understanding any attack on those forms of intimacy as government overreach. Most famously, the notorious case in Britain of Oscar Wilde, in which the government prosecuted him for being gay, had exposed how these attacks subverted individual liberty. (He was convicted of “gross indecency.) Like many other outspoken and radical immigrants, Goldman was deported by the U.S. in 1919 following an arrest that stemmed from her opposition to the military draft during World War I.
Immigrants helped build institutions that created the visibility and community needed to catapult a formal LGBTQ movement decades later. For instance, in 1924, a military veteran and Bavarian immigrant named Henry Gerber started the first known LGBTQ organization in the United States, the innocuously-titled Society for Human Rights. The short-lived group soon got in trouble with the law and was shut down, but its very existence — with its own publication to boot — offered a glimmer of hope to a growing community of people in search of others who were like themselves.
During the postwar period, the U.S. witnessed what has become known as the “lavender scare.” Amid the harassment and persecution of lesbians, gay men and others read as “subversive,” all of whom were viewed as threats to national security, Congress passed a law that barred LGBTQ foreigners from the United States.