Jennicet Gutiérrez made international headlines when her voice rang out in an attempt to talk over President Obama at an LGBT pride month reception at the White House on Wednesday.
But when she spoke to PEOPLE, there were no interruptions, only polite, soft-spoken responses – which is not to say she didn’t stand her ground.
In fact, Gutiérrez has no regrets about raising her voice in the name of her “trans sisters,” many of whom are now hailing her as a hero for their cause.
“I believe I was not disrespectful in any sense,” she tells PEOPLE. “I believe I did the right thing by speaking up. To me, more disrespectful is the fact that we don’t want to acknowledge the violence that we’re facing and the mistreatment that many members of my community are facing.”
So is Gutiérrez a heckler – or a hero?
The president was quick to silence her at the White House on Wednesday.
“Listen, you’re in my house,” he warned as she called out his name again and again in a less than apparent effort to protest the detention and deportation of gay, lesbian and transgender immigrants.
The crowd booed Gutiérrez and applauded Obama’s snappy shutdown. He threw in another before she was escorted out of the White House by security: “Shame on you,” he said. “You shouldn’t be doing this.” The president himself later labeled her a “heckler.”
“So as a general rule, I am just fine with a few hecklers,” he said. “You know, my attitude is if you’re eating the hors d’oeuvres … and drinking the booze…” (Gutiérrez admits to drinking a glass of champagne at the event.)
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Gutiérrez, a 36-year-old transgender woman and undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was invited to the White House because of her activism on behalf of the LGBTQ rights group GetEQUAL. She is also a founding member of FAMILIA TQLM, which was “established to advocate for LGBTQ immigrants often excluded in the immigration debate,” according to a statement obtained by #Not1More.
When she demanded President Obama’s attention on Wednesday, Gutiérrez was acting on behalf of “seventy-five transgender detainees [who are] still being exposed to assault and abuse in [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” the statement reads.
Her interruption wasn’t planned, she says. She was pleased to be one of the few undocumented trans women who were invited to the White House for the event. It was a “historic” moment for her “to be able to participate and listen to what the president had to say,” adds Gutiérrez.
“But when he started getting into the speech and saying how much progress the LGBTQ community is making, I just couldn’t resist but to think about my conversations with my trans sisters who have been released from detention centers, and the abuse that they’re facing and seeing their faces with so much pain and agony.”
“My emotions were just all over the place. I was upset, I was angry, I was sad,” she explains.
And then, when she heard President Obama’s reproachful response to her plea – his “No, no, no, no” – she was “surprised.”
“It was a very disappointing way to handle the situation,” she says. “I think he had an opportunity to engage in a productive conversation, respectfully, on both ends. But the fact that he wanted to completely shut me down I had no choice but to continue to interrupt. It was clear that he wasn’t going to listen to my demands or the message that I wanted him to hear. So I had no choice.”
“It was intimidating,” she adds, “but at the same time I knew that I had to stick to my convictions and my beliefs.”
Gutiérrez is still hoping that her message will sink in for the president. Her greatest wish is for him to release all LGBTQ detainees in detention centers and to stop deportations all together. “And in addition to that, to stop the abuse and torture trans women are facing in these centers,” she adds.
“I firmly believe that it was the right thing to do,” Gutiérrez says of speaking out at the White House. “I gave a voice to those people who are suffering and I gave a voice to those who are no longer with us.”