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. Sarah/VA

    She should have been polite with the first lady ,Shultz was just rude & the first lady was right to be angry

    June 5, 2013 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  2. Tim Morris

    Most hecklers are never listened to and what ever they heckle is soon forgotten. Better to organize puplicity event and fund raise for cause with tax exempt status. Heck, the tea bagging teapartiers want tax exempt status, why not the gay cause too. No political cause should get tax exempt. Regardless of weather you are holier than though or what side of the fence your on.

    June 5, 2013 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  3. trek 820

    It all depends on who you are. Some people are not good to be around because of who they are.

    June 5, 2013 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  4. ellid

    She could have spoken privately, or stuck to her original plan.

    June 5, 2013 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  5. clevercandi

    ROCK ON, Michelle!

    If I (or any of you) had been speaking and someone started heckling, I'm sure the reaction would have been the same.

    June 5, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  6. Booger

    In the beginning there was nothing. Then god said let there be light. And there was still nothing, but now you could see it.

    June 5, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  7. Robert Ortiz

    The President doesn't make laws. Congress does. Ms Sturtz, this is not an executive order issue. Grass roots this issue, it's getting there, but stunts like this may detract it. Take the high road as civil rights and women's suffrage did.

    June 5, 2013 09:41 am at 9:41 am |
  8. S Kyle

    There is a time and a place for everything. Dear heckling lesbian, the middle of DNC fundraising event in a private residence during the middle of the First Lady's address isn't the time to stand up and shout about equal rights for the GLBTQ community. At a DNC fundraiser, you're already among supporters and like-minded individuals. Why scream? You won't earn any respect or support for your cause by looking like a loon and shouting at probably the first presidential wife in history to believe as firmly in equality for everyone as you do... Wake up.

    June 5, 2013 09:41 am at 9:41 am |
  9. jungleboo

    Rude gay people (coconut bra types) do very little to advance our cause of equality and respect. Shame on this Sturtz woman.

    June 5, 2013 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  10. Farmer

    First lady sez: Let them eat cake.

    June 5, 2013 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  11. Hamburger Jones

    Thanks for making Get Equal look like a bunch of crazies. Go attack someone who isn't already on your side maybe? Just a thought. Freakin drama queens are everywhere these days.

    June 5, 2013 09:43 am at 9:43 am |
  12. al

    Fine, the lady wants to make her voice heard but this is not the way to do it. Why people think they have some sort of right to be rude always amazes me.

    June 5, 2013 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  13. Kel

    This is so contradictory! Sturtz wanted compassion and respect for her concern, but lacked to respect that the First Lady was addressed an audience regarding a different matter at the time. Down right rude!

    June 5, 2013 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  14. Anonymous

    "Living in the closet" to make a living, was her choice. Why spend the money to get a ticket to this event, because you're angry at the world about your own personal choices. There's a way to accomplish your agenda, and a way not to. This is not the way.

    June 5, 2013 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  15. Evelyn White aka Miemaw

    In my opinion, The First Lady handled the sitution in a brilliant manner. Seems as if, at least one person has found the perfect way to avoid being subjected to crude and rude heckling. People cannot listen to two people talking at the same time. The people, at this particular event, paid their money to hear The First Lady of The United States. I believe in equal rights for every one. I do not believe the way to achieve that goal is by being rude and disruptive. The audience was given the opportunity to choose who they wanted to hear. They made their choice.

    June 5, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  16. Fair is Fair

    Awwwwww... poor Michelle just realized that not EVERYONE fawns over her. Too bad.

    June 5, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  17. EVN

    And the way you get influential people to "share your concerns" is by being a rude,obnoxious, and disruptive boor, Ms.Sturtz..

    June 5, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  18. Jules

    The president and first lady have done more for equal rights for gays than this women could ever do by making a fool of herself at an event like this. Michelle Obama handled herself with class and integrity for who she is and the role she has as First Lady.

    June 5, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  19. contraryjim

    It's MY way or the highway for both husband & wife. they don't listen, they don't negotiate. Dictatorial??

    June 5, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  20. johnsonj3

    Great job Frst lady enough is enough The Frist family has been disrespected every day they have been in the white house. NEXT

    June 5, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  21. Sharon Taker

    I think Mrs.Obama handled this situation concerning the heckler/gay rights issue perfectly! The gay rights activist has no business bringing private issues into the public arena,as far as I'm concerned. I DON'T CARE ABOUT BACKLASH EITHER!
    Who gives a fiddlesticks about someone else's sexual orientation? I'm sick of these kinds of discussions! Stop trying to make me feel GUILTY for not being gay!!!!!!!!!!

    June 5, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  22. Justin

    CNN takes a really long time to write that it was a liberal who created the outburst. It would be in the headline if it was a Tea Party member. It's so fun to see how news organizations emphasize the particular parts that they want you to notice.

    June 5, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  23. CommonSense

    Let me get this straight... So she thought that yelling at the First Lady would get her to stop and share her views? i'm sure the First Lady does believe in that equal protection, but one thing we can all agree on here is her method of delivery. Grow up lady. Have some respect. If you want to be heard, write her a letter. Hold your own rally. Don't interrupt someone in the middle of the speech. This heckling stuff needs to stop. It's rude. It's immature. It's beneath who we are as a country.

    June 5, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  24. AnthonyT

    It is doubtless disconcerting to be interrupted by a heckler. Handling it must take practice and poise. This particular heckler had a very valid concern, however. Any injustice that can be remedied by executive decision should be remedied. The only excuse not to do so is politics, which is a poor excuse for allowing any injustice to continue.

    June 5, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  25. rockysfan

    "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."

    Really? Not buying it. You wanted your 15 secs and that's it. Please!

    June 5, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
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