LGBTQ+ trans activists protest outside the White House holding signs in the trans flag colors reading "No Pride in Detention"
(Courtesy of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement and HOPE For TGNC NY)

June is usually a celebratory time for the LGBTQ+ community, but trans immigrant organizers have spent the month attending parades and marches to issue a stark reminder: There is no Pride in detention.

Groups like Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (FTQLM), Mirror Beauty Cooperative, and HOPE For TGNC NY are part of a coalition fighting to end trans detention. Their work includes the #NoPrideInDetention campaign, which has used Pride month events to draw attention to the deadly conditions experienced by trans migrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. 

ICE did not respond to Prism’s request for comment about the current number of trans people in detention, but according to recent numbers Familia obtained from the agency, there are currently 20 trans people detained in federal immigration facilities across the U.S. While this is a significant decrease from October 2018 when ICE had about 300 trans people in custody—the highest number since 2015 when ICE began tracking this data—Jessica Guamán told Prism every trans person in detention is at risk of serious harm. 

Guamán is the founder of HOPE For TGNC NY, an organization in New York City that provides practical support to trans women and gender nonconforming people newly released from detention, such as helping them navigate the shelter system and access health care. Guaman is also an asylee who spent time in detention.

“It’s very important to me that people are aware of the inhumane treatment our sisters go through in these detention centers,” Guamán said. “One woman we worked with was put in [solitary confinement] for 202 days. Some of our sisters have HIV, and if they are placed in these centers, they are at risk of death. It is very common for girls to experience abuse and medical neglect.” 

The 2018 death of Roxsana Hernández and the 2019 death of Johana Medina Leon still weigh heavily on trans immigrant communities. Both were trans asylum-seekers living with HIV who died under questionable circumstances after they were detained by ICE. Joselyn Mendoza, an undocumented trans organizer and the co-founder of the trans-owned beauty co-op Mirror, said that she can’t celebrate Pride knowing that Medina died during the same month in 2019 and that there are trans women currently in ICE custody. 

“This is why we’re raising visibility for our trans sisters right now. How can we celebrate when there is so much abuse—abuse in detention and abuse in the streets? We are criminalized by the police and by immigration. This is what I want people to think about when they are celebrating Pride. We fled our countries because our sisters were being killed. The U.S. is supposed to be a free country, but we can’t even walk down the street here and be safe,” Mendoza said.

In various states, undocumented trans activists have interrupted Pride festivities with demonstrations demanding an end to trans detention. According to Angel—an undocumented trans activist who is only using his first name for safety reasons—these actions aren’t always well received. 

“People come to these events and are maybe annoyed; they just want to party and have fun, but people die in detention, and we want their stories known. We want their voices to be heard,” Angel told Prism.

Communities Unite

Abuse against trans people—inside and outside detention—is well documented. At least 17 trans people have been murdered this year, many of them Black and Latinx. There has also been an unprecedented slate of anti-trans legislation in recent years. 

Angel said that learning about organizations like Familia made him want to fight for the liberation of his communities.

“I got so sick of hearing stories about attacks on our community that never led to any action,” Angel said. “You hear that somebody died or they were abused or they were denied medication, and then it’s silence. Immigration acts with impunity, and that’s why it’s powerful to raise our voices. We have to close these detention centers.” 

Information from ICE is notoriously hard to come by, but human rights groups have spent years cataloging the unsafe conditions, medical neglect, and sexual abuse experienced by detained LGBTQ+ migrants. A 2016 report found immigration officials regularly deny migrants medical services, causing interruptions and restrictions to necessary health care. A 2018 report found that LGBTQ+ people in ICE custody are 97 times more likely to experience sexual abuse than cisgender and heterosexual people in detention. A 2019 report about the abuse experienced by detained asylum seekers included accounts from trans women who said they were raped in custody and denied treatment for HIV.

While immigrant-led grassroots organizations are well-equipped to provide alternatives to detention for LGBTQ+ migrants released from custody or paroled into the U.S., ICE instead pivoted to LGBTQ+ “pods,” concerted areas in specific detention centers used to detain trans, queer, and gender-noncomforming migrants. Historically, the agency put trans women in isolation or detained them alongside men. But ICE’s pods did little to end the abuse of LGBTQ+ migrants or stop their deaths. Before she died, Medina Leon was detained at one of ICE’s LGBTQ+ pods, the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico. And just a few months before her death, LGBTQ+ migrants went public with allegations about the facility, alleging they routinely suffered sexual harassment from other detained people, that Otero guards regularly verbally abused them, and that ICE violated its own regulations by denying trans migrants hormone therapy. ICE did not respond to Prism’s specific questions about whether the agency still has LGBTQ+ pods, but according to information Familia obtained, trans migrants are currently detained across Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Washington, California, and Pennsylvania.

As attacks on bodily autonomy and gender-affirming care only worsen, Mendoza said it’s important for trans people to be at the forefront of movements fighting for justice. 

“We want to be visible throughout the year, not just during the month of June,” she said. “Our communities are uniting like never before—trans communities, queer communities, gender-noncomforming communities—and we are telling you what our real needs are. We are raising our voices, but will you listen?”

A Moment in UndocuTrans History 

Jennicet Gutiérrez told Prism that sometimes the best way to prioritize the needs of your community is by not showing up to spaces that have done them harm—no matter how prestigious. 

In May, Gutiérrez was invited to a private Pride reception at the White House with President Joe Biden. She was shocked. Gutiérrez is a trans immigrant and the co-founder of Familia. She’s spent years of her life fighting to end trans detention, including participating in a hunger strike that helped shut down a jail in California that detained trans immigrants. She is arguably one of the most recognizable organizers in the country fighting for trans and migrant liberation. The invitation made sense—Gutiérrez just never thought she’d live to see the day she was invited back to the White House for Pride.

Rewind seven years. It’s 2015, and to many in the U.S., the Obama administration looked like progress. But to millions of immigrants, beneath the shiny veneer was a massive deportation machine that chewed up their families and spit them out. Among undocumented activists like Gutiérrez, President Barack Obama was known as the “deporter-in-chief” because of his administration’s record-breaking deportations. When she received an invitation to Obama’s White House Pride reception in May 2015, Gutiérrez consulted her people at Familia. How could they use this invitation to speak truth to power? In June of that year, Gutiérrez boarded a plane to Washington, D.C., with a plan.

“I remember being in that room and feeling worried I wouldn’t have the strength or the courage to speak out,” Gutiérrez said. “I was just so tired and nervous from traveling to D.C. for the first time and from thinking about the action. But something just came over my body, and I did it. I challenged the president on his deportations. When Secret Service escorted me out, I remember walking down these stairs and screaming at the top of my lungs—just screaming and screaming, ‘Not one more deportation! Not one more deportation!’”

The rest is UndocuTrans history. Given that Gutiérrez made national headlines (largely painting her as a disrespectful heckler), she never thought she’d get another invitation to the White House—certainly not from Biden. Not only was he Obama’s vice president, but Biden was standing next to Obama when Gutiérrez took the administration to task. But the invitation arrived last month, and once again, she turned to her people for guidance. It was a mixed bag. Some encouraged her to attend, others suggested another action. Gutiérrez decided to follow her gut and the advice of her most trusted friends.

“I said no because in good conscience, I could not stand in that room and celebrate when I know the issues facing our people are life and death,” Gutiérrez said. “The immigrant community is always the scapegoat and always a target of both white nationalists and politicians alike, and the attacks against the trans community never stop. There is legislation in over 32 states that is trying to erase us. We are being murdered in the streets and deported because of who we are. I can’t listen to the most powerful man in the world say he is our ally when his words don’t translate into any policy that really protects our lives.” 

Gutiérrez declined to attend the White House’s Pride reception by publicly sharing her response to the invitation. It was a small but powerful act that uplifted the names of Hernandez, Medina Leon, and Victoria Arellano, the first known trans woman to die in ICE custody in 2007. Arellano was detained in a men’s facility when her health deteriorated after immigration officials denied her treatment for AIDS. She later died at a San Pedro, California, hospital shackled to a gurney. 

“Our members across the country are marching and protesting this Pride month with the same

demand of ending the violence and killings of trans people,” Gutiérrez’s letter said. “There have been over 2 million [apprehensions and] deportations since you took office, setting you up to be the next deporter-in-chief.”

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.