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. Stella M. Wingard

    Recognize and respect a LADY when you see one; especially THE FIRST LADY! Also, always observe your surroundings and the ambiance of the environment before you open your mouth and make a fool out of yourself!
    If the heckler wanted to make a name for herself, she did – "Big (disrespectful) Dummy!"

    June 5, 2013 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  2. HaveBikeWillTravel

    The woman has shown arrogance from day one." I'm finally proud of my country" "All this for a damn flag?" " I'm leaving" Pure gutter trash.

    June 5, 2013 08:37 pm at 8:37 pm |
  3. Alex

    I agree that gay couple should have equal rights. But i do not believe it can be achieved via an Executive Order like this woman wanted. It can be achieved via legislation, or a SCOTUS ruling. That's it. The President is not a dictator, even if what he wants to dictate is the right thing to do.

    June 5, 2013 08:48 pm at 8:48 pm |
  4. Brittney

    It's sad to read all of the negative and racist things people write about President and Mrs. Obama (Notice I write "President" and not "Barack" or "Obama"-we are not friends. I don't know them personally). One thing that helps me deal with such BLATANT disrespect by fellow Americans is this: 99.9% of the people saying/typing negative things will never be known, popular, famous or important. So there! They don't matter. Meanwhile, every history book until the end of time will mention President and First Lady Obama and the great contributions they have made to our Country.


    June 5, 2013 08:50 pm at 8:50 pm |
  5. rs1201

    Wow...I really can't stand the arrogance of the obamas....

    June 5, 2013 08:52 pm at 8:52 pm |
  6. retiree

    I recall seeing an event featuring then President Clinton in 1997 or 1998, where he was "heckled by an LBGT fellow.

    President Clinton said to the effect, "How could I have an event or give a speech without you showing up to heckle?"

    The heckler then stated that the Clinton administration was doing nothing for the gay community.

    Clinton asked anyone in the audience who was LGBT and who worked in any level of the American government or the Clinton administration to stand. Many in the audience stood up, and basically cat-called the heckler to shut up.

    I'm not convinced that the LGBT community does itself any favor by these rude outbursts, although the LGBT enjoys the various parades and coming outs, etc.

    June 5, 2013 08:59 pm at 8:59 pm |
  7. fayray11x

    classic GOP ranting. they think that if they throw their hate, lies and insults enough and loudly it will matter. some day with help, they will figure out that the voices in their head aren't real.

    June 5, 2013 09:02 pm at 9:02 pm |
  8. cebundy

    While I understand the protestors view point, there is a right way and a wrong way to get your point across. Being disrespectful to someone who has no say in the matter is not the way to be heard or respected. I believe to get respect, you have to give respect. I have never seen such disrespect to a presidency as I have seen shown to the Obama presidency. The Bush administration was full of liars, cheats, and law-breakers. They cost thousands of people their lives. The Obama presidency as worked to right the wrongs of the Bush presidency all the while having to deal with unprecedented opposition and slander from the right wing. I am embarrassed for us as a nation. I applaud the First Lady and the President for being so graceful under such extreme ignorance,

    June 5, 2013 09:04 pm at 9:04 pm |
  9. tom

    Sounds like a crybaby to me! Wow things sure haven't changed much since the Civil War now have they?

    June 5, 2013 09:04 pm at 9:04 pm |
  10. Odie

    There's free speech and then there's rudeness. First Lady nailed it.

    June 5, 2013 09:05 pm at 9:05 pm |
  11. Jo Black

    "...I simply couldn't stay silent any longer," Sturtz added".

    Sure you could have. You didn't because you are thoughtless, rude and utterly self centered. You hijacked a fund raiser for children for two minutes of rubbish. Your cause is valid, your method puerile. Shall we divert anything else going to children or other worthy causes to Gay rights? Maybe school funds or or Medicare?

    Go back to the closet bully. You are not fit to discuss issues as an adult. Seek help. Join Hecklers Anonymous.

    You are a bully.

    June 5, 2013 09:07 pm at 9:07 pm |
  12. Megapril

    Yeah I don't like hecklers either but the way Princess Obama comes off in her remarks reflect the pretentious, I live on a different plane than you, cocky attitude that the Obama's have in general. They think they are royalty (and they live far richer than royalty)...

    June 5, 2013 09:09 pm at 9:09 pm |
  13. dave green

    I'm all for freedom of speech, but there is a difference between exercising your right to free speech and interrupting someone else who is speaking, to do it. This kind of behavior is more about getting 10 seconds of fame then it is about getting across some message.

    June 5, 2013 09:22 pm at 9:22 pm |
  14. Californian

    The heckler was way out of line! But what do you expect, this is the way of the lgbt!

    June 5, 2013 09:24 pm at 9:24 pm |
  15. Asmodeus Belial

    Thanks to this angry, aggressive lesbian for showing for the whole world what classless, nasty people they almost always are.

    June 5, 2013 09:27 pm at 9:27 pm |
  16. Journey

    Goes to show the real nature of the Code Pink, LGB movements...no loyalty to anyone or anything but disruption.

    June 5, 2013 09:30 pm at 9:30 pm |
  17. Woman In California

    @ Oh For Pete's Sake
    Poor Michelle – she ONLY demanded respect after all! And SHE was the classless person who wore a button uo CARDIGAN to meet the Queen?

    Just so you can get some sleep tonight:
    1) the "queen" as you suggest in your FEAR of her – is just another old white woman, not a savior or a deliverer by any means.

    June 5, 2013 09:34 pm at 9:34 pm |
  18. scranton

    Of course she couldn't stay quiet, she's "spashial".

    June 5, 2013 09:35 pm at 9:35 pm |
  19. Casey

    I do not like this administration... voted for Mr. Obama the first time... but not the second... regardless, these rude and obnoxious people who try to shout down the President, and first lady should be unceremoniously given the ole heave ho. The LGBT community seems to want to shove their sexuality down our throats at every turn. I don't care what you do, or who you do, but I don't want it flounted, advertised, or held up as some great way to live. Just be yourself, whether that be hetero or gay, and just shut up about it. Quit whining, and shouting down others. Please just try to be a respectful and decent person.

    June 5, 2013 09:35 pm at 9:35 pm |
  20. The Film Professor

    What a jerk the protester was .... lots of us are sympathetic to the cause, but do not condone rude, in your face behavior.

    June 5, 2013 09:41 pm at 9:41 pm |
  21. Richard

    Had this been a right-winger complaining about government interference in business, you'd have 2000 comments from outraged libs asking how dare he question her highness. Now all I hear are crickets chirping.

    June 5, 2013 09:43 pm at 9:43 pm |
  22. Namejdb

    All for hecklers when involving any Obama speech..yes I'm not a fan..

    June 5, 2013 09:46 pm at 9:46 pm |
  23. sparky

    "I was unable to keep silent" is semantically equivalent to "I am unable to shut up".

    June 5, 2013 09:51 pm at 9:51 pm |
  24. Jim Weix

    The protester did not help gay rights or GetEQUAL. If anything, she may cause President Barack Obama not to sign an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors. The woman was either dumb or just seeking publicity for herself.

    June 5, 2013 09:54 pm at 9:54 pm |
  25. Pablo

    If everyone in the audience before a speaker starts talking about their own agendas, the speaker may as well not participate. It should just be a free-for-all conference. Then everyone can talk and be happy.

    June 5, 2013 09:55 pm at 9:55 pm |
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