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.