Is 'Heckler' the Right Word for Jennicet Gutiérrez?

06/26/2015 05:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

I awoke to news this morning of Jennicet Gutiérrez's interruption of President Obama's remarks at the White House reception to celebrate Pride month.

My first thought, because I'm a word nerd, was: is "heckler" the right word?

I guess I tend to associate 'heckler' with stand-up comedians, or, rather, with those who interrupt their acts. So, like any word nerd worth her/his/their salt, I went to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to try to find the word's definition and to an etymological dictionary to learn its origin.

This is what I found:

The third definition for heckle, the verb from which the noun heckler is derived, in the OED is "To catechize severely, with a view to discover the weak points of the person interrogated. Long applied in Scotland to the public questioning of parliamentary candidates." The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that the verb heckle (early 14th c.) originates from a noun heckle (circa 1300), which was a comb used to tease out flax or hemp fibers. Heckler, then, became in the mid-15th century, one who uses a heckle. By extension, it was applied in the 19th century to one who treats politicians roughly, as the person who used a heckle treated the hemp or flax fibers, according to this association described by David McKie in The Guardian:

The leap across to the secondary meaning -- to interrupt political speakers with awkward or embarrassing questions -- was made in Scotland, and specifically perhaps in Dundee, a famously radical town where the hecklers who combed the flax had established a reputation as the most radical and stroppy element in the workforce.
By 1800, according to an account by Graham Ogilvy in Billy Kay's anthology The Dundee Book, they were already operating as a powerful trade union. To some extent, a local employer noted in 1809, they controlled the trade, dictating wages, conditions and bonuses (mostly taking the form of drink), all enforced by combination and strike.
The heckling shop, said another observer, was frequently the arena of violent harangue and ferocious debate. One heckler would be given the task of reading out the day's news while the others worked. What they did when they moved from factory floor to public meeting had a second relevance. "Heckling" then was a method of firing off questions designed to tease or comb out truths that politicians might wish to conceal or avoid.

(Full disclosure, I got that article in The Guardian via a citation in Wikipedia's entry on heckler.)

So, heckler is precisely the right word, and it has a wonderful labor connection to boot. None of this, of course, gets to the question of whether what Jennicet Gutiérrez did was right or wrong. I firmly believe the following, in no particular order:
• It is imperative to speak truth to power in order to change a status quo (e.g. the detention, incarceration and abuse of LGBTQ migrants),
• To heckle the President of the United States at the White House as an undocumented trans woman is incredibly courageous,
• The White House belongs to the people of this country, most of whom are or come from a history of migration, not to any one President or administration,
• Just as FDR is reported to have told organizer A. Phillip Randolph "I agree with everything you have said. Now, make me do it." when he spoke to him about the conditions of Black and working people in the U.S., so has President Obama told progressives to do the same ("Now the Work of Movements Begins"), so it is dishonest to criticize people for doing so,
• To attempt to sully the image of someone (e.g. an activist, a victim of police brutality, a woman who is raped or assaulted) and engage in ad hominem attacks in order to distract from the very real problem or issue at hand is dishonest, irresponsible and intellectually weak,
• The celebration of Pride was originally a political statement, and it should continue to allow for political statement, even alongside its wildly consumerist and bacchanal elements (read almost anything about the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in 1970, even this short blog piece from Contagious Queer, if you're really pressed for time),
• It is shameful and embarrassing when people who have acquired a position of power thanks to the activism of others (or even their own past activism) choose to criticize others who use the same tactics to fight for their rights or very existence. Where would any of us but the most privileged be if everyone who managed to open a door of opportunity, shut it behind themselves so that no one else could pass though? (I know there is a great quote about this out there that I can't think of right now),
• Anyone from the queer community who believes there is a correct "time and place" for protest should remember or learn about ACTUP and the strategies people used to call attention to the life-and-death issue of the HIV/AIDS (maybe start with the ACTUP Oral History Project).

In other words, I firmly believe that "well behaved women seldom make history" should not be a cute bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan quaintly describing a past reality that is no longer true today; it is just as relevant today as it was in the Early American Puritan setting it originally described (see "We're No Angels"), and acting up (even behaving 'badly' according to some) in order to try to bring attention to an issue that is literally life-and-death for members of the LGBTQ community who are detained, incarcerated and subjected in inhumanely abusive conditions is all right with me.

I, for one, am thankful for and proud of Jennicet Gutiérrez, the Trans Queer Liberation Movement, and others who are speaking out and refusing to let queer people who are unauthorized migrants in this country be treated as less than deserving of our support.

So, to return to my original question, heckler is the right word. But so is hero. Heckle on, Jennicet Gutiérrez, HECKLE ON!