June 4th, 2013
09:42 PM ET
9 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. Carol

    You go, Michelle! The heckler was way out of line and disrespectful.

    June 5, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  2. CJ

    "Sturtz was escorted out of the event, held at a private residence in northwest Washington."

    There are plenty of appropriate foums for a protester, but a private function at someone's house is not one of them. It's perfectly OK and expected for an obnoxious guest to be asked to leave. I don't see the news here...

    June 5, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  3. dawnbrowneyes@gmail.com

    Ellen Sturtz needs to be respectful. She wants respect she needs to give it first. shame on her!

    June 5, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  4. CB


    How about making tickets cheaper to these things, all I'm seeing is people paying outrageous prices to hear a woman's opinion. If you are concerned about the future, stop limiting speeches like this be only allowed to people that can afford to throw 500 dollars for a ticket.

    It's a fundraiser. I guess you were complaining about Romney's $50,000 a head country club soirees too?

    June 5, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  5. Ann

    I wouldn't support this kind of behavior no matter how much I agreed with the issue the heckler was trying to scream about.

    June 5, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  6. Cece

    LOL This amuses me. If Mrs. Obama puts herself in the public eye, she's going to be scrutinized. If she can't handle it, she shouldn't be speaking at large events. Guess that's another thing the Obamas should have been taught.

    June 5, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  7. TP

    I don't understand-This is one of the administrations that has done the most for LGBT in terms of bringing their issues to the fore front and not taking a hidden stance in its support for LGBT issues yet people like this heckler act the fool. Was Rome built in a day? You cannot get all the answers to all LGBT issues in one administration but make continued progress to a better nation. I feel like even those who empathize with LGBT are getting sick of this excessiveness. FYI: LGBT equality is not the only issue facing the nation grow the f up.

    June 5, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  8. ALong

    RESPECT is very important and the FLOTUS should be RESPECTED at all times. I don't blame her for the reaction she showed during her speech. She is not made of stone and she should not have to deal with straight up foolishness from hecklers or anyone else. Michelle Obama has more CLASS than any FLOTUS has ever witness and she is tired of all the silliness that some people bring to these type of events. Michelle is all about business and helping all people become better citizens and productive people in this world. Good for you First Lady Obama. You did the right thing and I am very proud of you. Keep doing what you are doing and don't allow ignorance to slow you down. You are a GREAT Woman and I admire you too the highest degree.

    June 5, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  9. paul; grennan

    why is this news? another distraction from actual news...meanwhile in the real world...drones, depleted uranium, illegally held 'terrorists', Syria, iran, Libya... don't mention those whatever u do

    June 5, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  10. Alpha

    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 |


    Well said Robert.

    June 5, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  11. Larry L


    Looks like Michelle is as prone to temper tantrums as her husband is.

    If you can't take the heat.....
    Name a time when the President has thrown a "temper tantrum". Hate and ignorance go hand-in-hand. Put your sheet on and go back to your meeting...

    June 5, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  12. Bob

    how does one's expression of sexuality have to be protected in the workplace? ,,,somewhere it doesn't belong to begin with... I never ask my coworkers if they're straight or gay, and I don't care. If you want to express your gayness, do it outside the workplace. If you want to express your straightness, do it outside the workplace. What role does sexuality play in our offices that it has to be protected?

    June 5, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  13. Carrie O'Key

    Worst.President.And.First.Lady.Ever.–why is anyone surprised?

    June 5, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  14. Kfaz

    Brovo! First Lady. Obviously this "heckler person" was ill informed of what the Obama Administration has already done to help equal rights. Like I tell my kids "do your homework before you open your mouth."

    June 5, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  15. BrianMemphis

    Too funny watching the left slap each other around of this one. What to do, what to do? I'm a lefty but I looove Michelle O but.....I support gay rights, blah, blah, blah. Too funny.

    June 5, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  16. Bob Dobalina

    When a member of the public openly says something negative about the President it becomes front page news.

    Shows how biased the media is, and how powerful the prescribed culture of embracing all things Obama is.

    Heckling is wrong, rude, and ineffective, but the Obama's seem to not understand how people might just not like them.

    June 5, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  17. Dave Richman

    Michelle Obama is correct, in that she doesn't handle these situations well. My speculation as to why is that her political positions just about everything are for the most part indefensible.

    June 5, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  18. Lorena Francis

    I like our first lady. I think she is fair,concerned,and has a lot of class. I have never seen her confrontational,and I am very happy that she handled herself the way she did in this situation. She did exactly the right thing........It definitely took the wind out of this woman who obviously came there to stir up trouble and cause a confrontation.

    June 5, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  19. Lost

    People are ungrateful, no matter what. The Pres. has done so many forward things for gay rights, but there are still agents of discontent pressing against him (even from among those he's trying to help). Sounds like either a set-up by those who oppose him, or a gay heckler who hasn't watched or heard news updates in the last 4 years.

    June 5, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  20. archie page

    .........can we all just stop and reflect just for a few seconds if Mitt Romney had won the election. Now, I ask you all, can you even fathom Romney's response to the LGBT community. C'mon, ...Romney would treat the gay community as if they were leppers.......c'mon, people, use your brains

    June 5, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  21. reternoe

    dj80X6 You lost me, buddy. I mean, I assume I get what youre saying. I recognize what you are saying, but you just seem to have forgotten about that you will find some other people within the world

    June 5, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  22. Helene

    In my opinion, Mrs. Obama was absolutely correct and handled the situation very well. We have a growing lack of respect and civility which masquerades as "exercising one's first ammendment rights." Mrs. Obama drew the line in the sand without resorting to similarly inappropriate behavior.

    June 5, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  23. Xib

    This is just not front and center first page news...

    June 5, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  24. Rebecca

    What happened to freedom of speech!!!! She did not handle this well! If she cannot handle the situation well then step down as first lady! I don't care if you don't do this well.

    June 5, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  25. No support

    As a supporter of Gay rights, I honestly believe this woman probably did more harm than good. What is the president to do now? Should he sign this bill and show that all you have to do is heckle during a speech? Hell no, he will leave it to the next guy. What the woman did was pure stupidity and she should be called out by this organization.

    June 5, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
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