On Tuesday evening, at a private Democratic National Committee fundraiser, first lady, Michelle Obama was interrupted by Ellen Sturtz, a heckler with the pro-LGBT rights group Get EQUAL. Sturtz demanded Obama to urge her husband to sign an executive order to bar discrimination by federal contractors based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The first lady left her lectern and approached the protester telling her "listen to me, or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice." The crowd then literally cheered the heckler down until security escorted her out. Her final words? Federal equality before I die.
So this is a bit awkward, especially if both Michelle and Ellen are reading this. After this incident most people began taking sides. They either thought Michelle was a rock star for standing her ground...or that Ellen was the quintessential activist unfettered by power and authority. Me? Well, I just can’t decide. I think I’m in love with both.
Why I Love Michelle
Because she demanded respect. Critics portrayed Obama as overly aggressive and attacking, but I saw a strong, vocal woman who wasn’t about to stand back quietly and let someone rudely hijack her time or the time of the people who paid (some up to $10,000) to hear her speak. What exactly was Ms. Sturtz expecting to happen at this DNC fundraiser? That Ms. Obama would stand quietly during a formal program, smile, and just let her spout out her rhetoric? What if everyone decided they were entitled to not listen, and interrupt someone simply because they had something passionate to say? Wouldn’t we soon just turn into a nation of people constantly yelling at each other? Maybe Ms. Sturtz thought that by interrupting the first lady’s prepared speech in front of a room full of people, she would return to the White House that night, crawl in bed with her husband and whisper, Honey, maybe you should pass that Executive Order. Could critics of Mrs. Obama’s reaction simply feel uncomfortable seeing a woman, much less a black woman, confront someone and actually demand respect? Might they be more used to someone in Mrs. Obama’s role offering the typical polite smile, pause, head nod, before continuing with her speech? I say that if you are bold enough to infiltrate a private event with a political agenda, you should also be ready and willing to accept the challenge of.....well, being challenged.
....But Still Have Feelings for Ellen
Because she had something important to say and no one was listening anymore. And she was incredibly courageous (and maybe a bit desperate). Imagine what it took for her to walk into a room full of top Democratic Party leaders and supporters and demand them to make good on a promise that was made to the LGBT community when President Obama needed (and benefited) from their support for election. As a candidate in 2008, Obama told a Houston advocacy group that he would support a non-discrimination policy for federal contractors. In the spring before his November reelection, he publicly refused to sign such an executive order, stating that he would instead lead a multi-pronged effort to urge companies, federal agencies and others to oppose discrimination. Supporters thought that Obama might delay acting on the order until after the November election, but that didn’t happen either. The White House cited that the president has long supported an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) -- but who are we kidding folks? Realistically, no one expects that legislation to pass anytime soon. During the 2012 election, 75% of voters who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voted for Obama. One out of every 16 of Barack Obama’s “bundlers” – those who organize super fundraisers – was openly gay. The Democratic Party’s national platform states: "We oppose discriminatory federal and state constitutional amendments and other attempts to deny equal protection of the laws to committed same-sex couples who seek the same respect and responsibilities as other married couples." To her critics, Ellen might have appeared to be a rude, untamable heckler. To me, she was simply someone courageous enough to demand that the President and his party keep an important promise.