June 4th, 2013
09:42 PM ET
10 months ago

First lady clashes with protester; threatens to leave event

(CNN) – First lady Michelle Obama had a rare run-in with an audience heckler Tuesday during a fund-raising event in Washington for the Democratic National Committee.

The outburst from the crowd distracted Obama at a point in her speech when she was speaking emotionally about children and their futures, prompting her to threaten to leave if the woman wanted to keep speaking.

"One of the things I don't do well is this," she said, according to a pool reporter who attended the event. Television cameras were not allowed inside.

Obama walked toward the protester, saying she could "listen to me or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice," according to the pool report.

The protester was identified as Ellen Sturtz of the gay rights group GetEQUAL. She was calling on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors.

Sturtz was escorted out of the event, held at a private residence in northwest Washington. Tickets for the fund-raiser ranged from $500 to $10,000.

The White House, as it does with many events, released a transcript of her remarks Tuesday night. While the transcript includes the beginning of the first lady's response to the protester–"One of the things that I don't do well is this. Do you understand?"–the transcript does not quote the exchange between the two, which happened away from the microphone.

Early Wednesday morning, Sturtz said in a statement released by GetEQUAL that she had "lived and worked in the closet, hiding who I was in order to earn a living."

"I had planned to speak tonight with DNC officials but, as the First Lady was talking about our childrens' future and ensuring that they have everything they need to live happy and productive lives, I simply couldn't stay silent any longer," Sturtz added. "I'm looking ahead at a generation of young people who could live full, honest, and open lives with the stroke of the President's pen, and I was hoping that the First Lady would share my concern for all of our young people."

The interruption came less than two weeks after President Obama faced a Code Pink protester who loudly advocated for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison during the president's national security speech.

The president, who was making his remarks before cameras and a large audience, handled the situation differently than his wife's confrontation Tuesday night.

"This is part of free speech, is you being able to speak but also you listening and me being able to speak, alright?" Obama said upon the interruption. The president has used the tactic before when interrupted.

The woman, peace activist Medea Benjamin, kept up her protest, which also included a rebuke against American drone strikes that have killed civilians. Obama eventually diverted from his prepared remarks to address the situation head-on.

"The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to," he said. "Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said and obviously she wasn't listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong."

READ MORE: Obama heckler: 'Don't call it heckling'

As with most controversial moments, the first lady's exchange with the protester was met with mixed reviews on Twitter, but many embraced her approach.


Filed under: Gay rights • Michelle Obama
soundoff (1,039 Responses)
  1. Chris

    There is a time and place and platform for expressing yourself and that was not it. It does not help her cause but only hurts it.

    June 5, 2013 09:58 pm at 9:58 pm |
  2. are122

    "lived and worked in the closet, hiding who I was in order to earn a living." <~~ Go back in the closet. Lock the door. Destroy the key.

    June 5, 2013 09:58 pm at 9:58 pm |
  3. nytw

    Obama and his wife won't rest until freedom and liberty are memories.

    June 5, 2013 10:00 pm at 10:00 pm |
  4. Complete ignorance

    The mentality to heckle & demonstrate against an Administration that has allowed the gay community to progress by leaps & bounds is baffling. A thank you card in the mail would be more appropriate.

    June 5, 2013 10:00 pm at 10:00 pm |
  5. No support

    All these conservative comments coming to the aid and defense of a lesbian, it is truly heart warming.

    June 5, 2013 10:03 pm at 10:03 pm |
  6. kg

    "As with most controversial moments, the first lady's exchange with the protester was met with mixed reviews on Twitter, but many embraced her approach."
    Thanks CNN, for balanced reporting, as always, when it comes to the Obamas. I also noticed how quickly the article deflected away from Michelle and turned to how well her husband handles hecklers.

    June 5, 2013 10:04 pm at 10:04 pm |
  7. Larry L

    The heckler isn't a student of psychology. When you piss-off the very people who have supported your cause for five years, just because you think they've moved the whole system to slowly, you risk losing an advocate. Maybe she should have thrown a shoe at the First Lady. (This is where you insert a joke about her shoes...)

    June 5, 2013 10:12 pm at 10:12 pm |
  8. Judy75201

    I do wish people would quit thinking that the entire world revolves around their sexuality.

    June 5, 2013 10:27 pm at 10:27 pm |
  9. Cmu

    Would have been a better event if her majesty had left...

    June 5, 2013 10:29 pm at 10:29 pm |
  10. Fr33th1nk3r

    The woman had a legitimate point to make. This administration talks a big game about equality, but they aren't doing much to ensure it happens.

    June 5, 2013 10:31 pm at 10:31 pm |
  11. Frank King

    Sturtz is a rude,self absorbed jerk...and how many straights are LEFT OUT of gay dominated businesses?......obnoxious,defensive people like Sturtz are no help to anyone

    June 5, 2013 10:31 pm at 10:31 pm |
  12. Ed

    I get so tired of people who come to an event that is focused on a particular issue and decide they can hijack it to focus on their issue instead. Gay rights is an important issue, but this was neither the time, nor the place to discuss that issue. The heckler was rude and in my opinion, harmed her own cause by further polarizing people with her behavior.

    June 5, 2013 10:34 pm at 10:34 pm |
  13. SDCinNS

    It says Michelle was "she was speaking emotionally about children and their futures" – a more appropriate question from a heckler is "why does your husband advocate killing children in the womb? Are you not emotional about their future – that your husband snuffs out?" Speak about that emotionally, Michelle. End the hypocrisy if you want my support for your cause.

    June 5, 2013 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  14. carlos silva

    she's a jerk ... who ? the protester

    June 5, 2013 10:41 pm at 10:41 pm |
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