Open Thread: Michelle Obama Heckled By LGBT Activist

By Arturo R. García

First Lady Michelle Obama. Image via ABC News.

Without having video of this encounter between First Lady Michelle Obama and a heckler from GetEqual, an LGBT rights group, here’s how the pool report says it went down:

When Mrs. Obama was roughly 12 minutes into her 20-minute remarks at a home in Northwest Washington, a woman at the front of a crowd of about 200 people began shouting for President Obama to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But where Mr. Obama, more accustomed to such interruptions, typically waits in place for the protester to stop and perhaps acknowledges the complaint, his wife chose direct confrontation.

She left the lectern and moved toward the heckler. “One of the things I don’t do well is this,” she said, to loud applause. She said the protester could “listen to me, or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

The crowd yelled for Mrs. Obama to stay, with one woman nearby telling the protester, “You need to go!” Attendees escorted the protester out as she yelled further, at one point identifying herself as a “lesbian looking for federal equality before I die.”

The group’s co-director, Heather Cronk, confirmed to Buzzfeed Tuesday night that the group had planned for the protester, Ellen Sturtz, to be there, along with other members of the organization.

[Full disclosure: I have interviewed GetEqual's other co-director, Felipe Sousa Rodríguez on two occasions to comment on immigration-related stories for my other job as an editor at The Raw Story.]

Sturtz specifically called for President Barack Obama to sign the Employment Non-Discrimination Act into effect with an executive order. The bill has been taken up in both the House of Representatives and the Senate but has stalled.

However, Sturtz’s response to being directly addressed by the First Lady was the source of the heaviest debate on social media Tuesday night:

Sturtz was escorted out of the room. She said in an interview later she was stunned by Obama’s response.

“She came right down in my face,” Sturtz said. “I was taken aback.”

Sturtz said she told Obama she was happy to take the microphone to plead her case, which, Sturtz said, appeared to fluster the first lady.

“I said I want your husband to sign the executive order,” Sturtz said. “Her husband could sign this order tonight and protect 22 percent of the work force in this country.”

On the surface, part of that response seems incongruent: Sturtz went to the event specifically to call Obama out, yet was “taken aback” when Obama responded to her. But, as more facts start coming in, let’s get the ball rolling and get everybody’s impressions of the encounter.

Update: I did a follow-up piece for Raw Story today, featuring both GetEqual’s rationale for engaging the first lady at the event and MSNBC contributor and Penn University professor Anthea Butler talking about the reaction online.

  • Miles_Ellison

    She was “taken aback” because Michelle Obama was not going to be publicly bullied. Sometimes just being white isn’t enough.

    • nicthommi

      Pretty much. They also regularly count on being backed up by white men when they start “fights” with black women, and her sense of privilege and entitlement was large enough to think this would occur when dealing with the First Lady. At an event held for the purpose of having the First Lady as the special guest who is the reason for everyone being there. Imagine the arrogance of disrupting the featured guest of an event. Just fathom it for a moment.

      There are many racist white liberals who are defaulting to the “uppity black woman” and “angry black woman” trope, and suggesting that Michelle only put the lady in her place b/c she “could” (as in, she had Secret Service with her).

      But no, Michelle handled that lady like the boss that she is, and she’d have done the same without the crowd although if this was the workplace the white woman tears would probably have worked.

      It’s ironic that a non-feminine white woman who does not have a soft and feminine look would also try to claim that she is afraid of the “big” and “manly” angry black lady being in her face. Why are you still the frightened “lady”/damsel in distress in this situation even if you present more like a man?

      I’m sure Ellen has successfully bullied black women in situations where she had white people who would in fact back her up. That’s why she was shocked here. No one is supposed to side with the black lady over her. Not even if the black lady is the wife of the most powerful man on Earth.

      Apparently we are so “masculine” that they can be butch or larger than us and we are still perceived as the more intimidating one. Black femininity is pretty much NEVER treasted as a real thing. That disgusts me.

      • Tusconian

        This. It’s one thing to be obnoxious, to heckle, to be rude. It’s quite another if you think this behavior is supposed to be met favorably. Nothing terrible happened to the heckler, Michelle Obama just said that she wouldn’t complete the speech over yelling, and the woman was escorted out. I can see someone saying “I don’t care about Michelle Obama’s status or social consequences, this is important to me and I’m going to make noise.” I cannot, ever, understand being inside the head of someone who thinks that making that noise is going to result in a slow clap, turning all attention to the heckler to hear HER point of view, and all requests being granted immediately. She was in an expensive dinner with the First Lady; people doing less have been Tazed and pepper sprayed when nowhere near someone who needs the Secret Service. The immense privilege is something I just can’t wrap my head around.

  • golby260

    Everyone on Buzzfeed said everything I could’ve ever wanted to say and more against that Sturtz lady.

    If people want shit like protections against being fired by their federal contractor employers for being gay, they need to go through Congress like everyone else has to. Your beef is with Congress, (as is everyone else’s beef nowadays,) not with the fucking First Lady. What can she do? Come on, now.

  • Just_A_Thought1218

    Apparently, there was more that happened than the activist heckling FLOTUS and FLOTUS’s response. An alleged first-hand account has been posted saying that an earlier heckler was hushed by the crowd, and complied. The same tactic was attempted with Ellen, but she pressed on with her interruptions. This garnered the response that everyone is talking about. An account can be found in the comments section here, posted by rikyrah: http://goo.gl/YkA3F

    • dfw2ord

      Interesting! Thanks for linking to that.

  • dfw2ord

    I’m all about civil disobedience (though I don’t now if I’d call heckling that–perhaps some term with a less weighted history is more appropriate), and I do support Sturtz’s cause wholeheartedly. Yet, merely from a PR standpoint, I think going after Michelle is misguided because a. she’s not a politician even though she’s here fundraising and play the political game, as first ladies do, and b. everybody loves her. You’re not going to win any points for you or your cause by ridiculing one of the few universally loved public figures in the U.S. It’s like heckling Betty White, for heaven’s sake.

    Again, I don’t disagree with the cause and I’m fine with activists being vocal at inappropriate times–Bush 43 got his share of interruptions and I was more than fine with that. But he was the president and policymaker.

    I’m less inclined to feel that she specifically was heckled with the same racist undertones that Barack has received, particularly the Joe Wilson incident during the SOTU. That shows a markedly different reverence for the seat of POTUS that magically disappeared once a black man was in the role. I think Sturtz was just…well, wrong here. That’s my two cents, at least.

    • nicthommi

      I think heckling the first lady and then being scared b/c she was “in your face” is chock full of racist undertones. I would say not even undertones, just straight up racism.
      I find that some white women like to start battles with black women and then hide behind the stereotype that we are masculine, scary, and intimidating. They want to hit us and then start crying at the the thought that we might respond in kind.
      And there is no WAY I’d be allowed to be so disrespectful to Laura Bush or Hilary Clinton as a black woman, and certainly I would not be permitted to hide behind this idea that I was fearful of them or intimidated by them. I’d have been not so gently handled out of there by the Secret Service.
      You heckled someone and they responded. Don’t start battles with black women and then say you are afraid of them when they rightfully put you in your place.
      I think the white women are not used to their causes coming after efforts aimed at black women or black people. I think this woman’s privilege was showing in this incident.
      The racism directed at black women does in some cases differ from the racism directed at black men, since you compared FLOTUS to POTUS in this case. However, it is still racism, still ugly, still uncalled for, and it shows a lot about how privileged white people are in this country that they are regularly and openly so disrespectful to the first couple.
      I personally think FLOTUS should have had that lady hoisted out there in the literal sense. How dare you heckle the first lady and then not so subtly suggest you feel threatened by her (big, scary, angry black lady).

      • Medusa

        I 100% agree with your assessment here. These aren’t even undertones; she did something racist (and disrespectful), and when was met with a completely reasonable response, she reacted, again, with racism, specifically, White Women’s Tears (even if she wasn’t literally crying).

      • SomeBraveApollo

        Everything and then some. Brava.

  • J. Lee

    I feel like people seem more eager to interrupt Barack Obama and his Michelle on the basis that they’re black and the person feels taken aback because I’m betting they didn’t expect the black lady to not call her out on it. I don’t believe in silencing people, especially on important issues like these but this was not the appropriate venue.

    • Naishee

      It was a fundraiser, and according to the linked article, Michelle talked, among other things, about gay rights, apparantly. Would that not be the appropriate venue to bring up, well… gay rights, if she brought that up as a positive her husband’s administration has done?

      • Tusconian

        It was not the appropriate way, though. She felt the need to get up and shriek in the middle of the speech that hadn’t even been completed, and issue that has happened a lot to Obama, in a way that it hasn’t to previous administrations. She’s also borrowing a tactic previously mostly used by people who frankly would like nothing more than to force her into being a second class citizen. Most of the people I’ve seen supporting her are not saying “you go and get your rights,” but “I will temporarily put aside my homophobia to stand behind this gay woman specifically because she’s speaking against a black woman.” It can’t really be denied that white people in general don’t have a good track record with treating black people, especially black people in positions of power, as deserving of equal respect as a white person in that same position. Gay white people are not immune from this white privilege attitude.

        I’m also wondering what she was planning to accomplish. Michelle Obama may have some political pull in theory, but the fact stands, she is not the president, and she is not a lawmaker. It’s not like she can say “I’m sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom until you sort out gay marriage, Barack.”

    • pitbullgirl1965

      I agree. I don’t recall people heckling Laura Bush. And Michelle Obama has been dehumanized by the Right Wing. Give her the respect she deserves.