June 4th, 2013
09:42 PM ET
10 years 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. Blinded by the republican lie

    That is still no reason to be rude and disrespectful...

    June 5, 2013 08:34 am at 8:34 am |
  2. cc423

    Good for Ms. Sturtz. The First Lady is a public figure in a country that was founded by men and women who were not afraid or intimidated to speak up about the causes that mattered to them. Mrs. Obama seems a tad entitled to me and I voted for her husband twice.

    June 5, 2013 08:36 am at 8:36 am |
  3. From Atlanta

    In another interview Ms. Sturtz said that she was, "taken aback" that the First Lady approached her. She was taken aback because she didn't expect that reaction. The President and First Lady have taken A LOT of criticism for their stance on gay rights. The steps that have been taken so far help to ensure a better life for their community. It's going to take time. Ms. Sturtz said, "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." Well so are they, but just by penning words on a piece of paper will not change the minds of small, narrow-minded people. That will only come with time.

    June 5, 2013 08:37 am at 8:37 am |
  4. Kenneth the VI of Minneapolis

    Power Puff Michelle......can't take a little heckling......lol

    June 5, 2013 08:37 am at 8:37 am |
  5. L.J. Rhodes

    I'm gay, and even I think Ellen Sturtz was completely out of line. Michelle Obama has been a staunch ally, as has her husband (albeit a bit flaky and non-committal at times, but they've always come through in the end), and I'm incredibly embarrassed Stutz did this. We can't very well demand fair and dignified treatment from people if we're not willing to afford them the same.

    Shame on you, Ellen Stutz.

    June 5, 2013 08:38 am at 8:38 am |
  6. Bill D

    I'm not an Obama supporter,l but I would say the First Lady handled the situation in a very professional manner. Good for her!

    June 5, 2013 08:42 am at 8:42 am |
  7. DL

    I'm SURE that all those people who paid $$$ to hear Mrs. Obama were delighted to hear YOU.


    June 5, 2013 08:43 am at 8:43 am |
  8. wayne dooley

    "I simply couldn't stay silent any longer ..." Well, yes, you could. There's a time and a place, and this was neither.

    June 5, 2013 08:43 am at 8:43 am |
  9. Anonymous

    well let me just say, that this lady is wanting equal right? But she does not understand the human right of equal respect! There is a place and time for all things! Show some respect!

    June 5, 2013 08:44 am at 8:44 am |
  10. JackBriss

    The protester was identified as Ellen Sturtz of the gay rights group GetEQUAL.

    Gee, Why am I not surprised.

    June 5, 2013 08:44 am at 8:44 am |
  11. Peniah

    Listen or leave. Go sponsor your own event to air your views. It's as simple as that!

    June 5, 2013 08:46 am at 8:46 am |
  12. Lee Raleigh, NC

    Mrs. Obama's problem here is that she is accustomed to being in the company of sycophants, who instantly applaud everything that she says or does – without question. She lives in this bubble – and becomes awkward, defensive, and a primadonna when she is confronted with outside differing opinion. If she wants to perform on the BIG political stage, she needs to learn to role with the punches – or her critics will multiply, and confront her more often.

    June 5, 2013 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  13. beth

    Just because she refused to be rudely interrupted does not mean she doesnt share your concern, Ms. Sturtz. Perhaps you'd be more effective in getting your message out there if you chose the right venue for it. At a gathering where the topic was about children, is not the time to force the issue of discrimination in the workplace. If it were a summit on employment legislation, then I would be able to see where you would feel you could no longer keep silent. Instead you interrupted her and now make it sound like because she told you to be quiet that she doesnt care. Grow up.

    June 5, 2013 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  14. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I understand your concern but you were being rude.

    June 5, 2013 08:48 am at 8:48 am |
  15. Boo

    You go girl!!! Go Michelle Obama!!!!

    June 5, 2013 08:49 am at 8:49 am |
  16. The GOP need to pack up and leave

    She is a great first lady. 🙂

    June 5, 2013 08:49 am at 8:49 am |
  17. silent jay

    instead she kicked her feet and threw her arms in the air if you aint gonna isten im leaving, sounds like my 3 year old... god this nation is doomed

    June 5, 2013 08:54 am at 8:54 am |
  18. William Demuth

    Forget Hillary!

    This woman needs to run in 2016.

    Zero Tolerance of nonsense is an admirable quality

    June 5, 2013 08:54 am at 8:54 am |
  19. kemikal

    First, it was just plain rude for this woman to interrupt a speech by the First lady at this fundraiser; it'd still be rude had it been someone else. Second, why is it that everyone else in the world HAS to accept and support those that choose a homosexual way of life? Obviously you know there is something aberrant about it if you're trying to force lawmakers to instill laws that condone your way of life. Who gives a toot that you're gay, lesbian, or whatever else; that's your choice. But trying to force everyone to agree with and support it, is indeed wrong. I'm sure you'll label me as a homophobic person, but that's ok; I don't treat homosexuals any different than the next person. If you believe in Christ; why do you think Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed? I don't mean to be judgmental; pardon if I am. A sin under God's law is a sin period, but you don't see murderers trying to force the government to form laws that would make being a serial killer legal ; or a pedophile tearing at the government to make it legal to sexually prey on children? Live your life, everyone doesn't have to agree with it; you, and only you can answer to God for your time here.

    June 5, 2013 08:55 am at 8:55 am |
  20. libtard

    Stay classy Ms. Sturtz!

    June 5, 2013 08:55 am at 8:55 am |
  21. W.G.

    I know one organizattion that I´m not going to support and that is getequal . if they are so myopic as
    to bite the hand that feeds them , the only hand that would stand with them then maybe they are
    to rabid for anybody to stand with . To not have any respect for the first lady and to interupt her
    is deplorable .

    June 5, 2013 08:55 am at 8:55 am |
  22. Notarichboy

    Awww, can't take a little criticism so she is going to pout and stomp out of the room, boo hoo!!

    June 5, 2013 08:57 am at 8:57 am |
  23. JUSTJAMES92104

    Mrs. Obama,

    I admire your way of handling the rude individual. I know she was taught better.. To interupt a speaker.
    Children are our future. She certainly wasn't setting a prime example by interupting you...

    I am sure the group she represented is embarrased.

    June 5, 2013 08:58 am at 8:58 am |
  24. tiscali.it

    sorry but regardless of cause.... show some respect...Ms Strutz...you were wrong...you didn't like to be forced on ...so why did you feel it was ok to do this to the first lady of the US at a private event.... No one like to be strong armed.

    June 5, 2013 08:58 am at 8:58 am |
  25. JC

    Is there anyone that gay extremists aren't unhappy with?

    June 5, 2013 09:00 am at 9:00 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42