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. crossbreed

    Another crazy left wing gay liberal..whats new?..

    June 5, 2013 01:01 am at 1:01 am |
  2. Terry

    Did she do the "talk to the hand" move combined with the ghetto head bob ?

    Can't imagine Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, or any other First Lady acting in such a low-rent manner. But hey, she is what she is.

    June 5, 2013 01:02 am at 1:02 am |
  3. rob0rah

    Awwwww. Poor Michelle.

    June 5, 2013 01:05 am at 1:05 am |
  4. yolanda

    Perfect. Not until the next-to-last paragraph does CNN mention that the heckler is a gay activist.....not convenient, huh?

    June 5, 2013 01:05 am at 1:05 am |
  5. ralphco

    Man she paid 500-10,000 bucks to get kicked out of somebody's house – I can do that for free any night of the week. I guess there is actually one gay person in America who see's the lies from the president "I support gay marriage" 4 weeks before re-election as only a way to buy more votes – he has done nothing, nor will do anything to really help gay people. But I bet most gays voted for him.

    June 5, 2013 01:05 am at 1:05 am |
  6. Klaark

    Something tells me this wouldn't have been news had Obama not attacked the AP.

    June 5, 2013 01:06 am at 1:06 am |
  7. Codestud3

    Quick to anger. It always has been known about her. I wouldn't bu surprised if she has the president send the IRS on the heckler.

    June 5, 2013 01:07 am at 1:07 am |
  8. Adak95

    Lost her place on the teleprompter?

    June 5, 2013 01:08 am at 1:08 am |
  9. Michelle fan

    You did well Michelle. Look, not a soul is saying another word. YOU ARE THE BEST FIRST LADY EVER. Love what you do and your support for your family is amazing.

    June 5, 2013 01:10 am at 1:10 am |
  10. Bamador

    No one has touched this? Shocking.

    June 5, 2013 01:13 am at 1:13 am |
  11. Con baby

    Oh sad. You mean first lady Obama has a hard time answering her husbands mistakes? Common first lady call ur husband out on this. I'm a big republican and even I'm upset that Obama won't stand up for gay rights.

    And gezz mrs Romney could at least stand up for her man instead of just clapping during a debate. Now who had nothing to say????

    June 5, 2013 01:17 am at 1:17 am |
  12. blaze562

    Should have held the event at the I R S office, she would have been with a more favorable group of tards.

    June 5, 2013 01:19 am at 1:19 am |
  13. Reckless

    I don't get protesters not respecting anyone else's voice. Free speech works both ways, if they're just yelling they're not going to get many to listen.

    June 5, 2013 01:23 am at 1:23 am |
  14. Blib

    Way to go, First Lady!

    June 5, 2013 01:29 am at 1:29 am |
  15. Seth Crane

    Thr heckler was way out of line. Its one thing to voice ones opinions to ones head of state and other policy makers, but its quite another to startle and heckle the spouse. As a gay man, I feel that this wacko did absolutely nill to aid the community. Theres a time and a place for everthing lady.

    June 5, 2013 01:29 am at 1:29 am |
  16. azsett

    Heckling the person you want to help pass legislation for you? Yeah, Ellen, you're really helping your cause...

    June 5, 2013 01:32 am at 1:32 am |
  17. Anonymous

    way to go Mrs Obama!

    June 5, 2013 01:41 am at 1:41 am |
  18. bankrupt1

    maybe they need to have a section in the speech where people can ask questions (that's not what they want probably...more like an activist that believes in using bad manners to get what they want).

    June 5, 2013 02:03 am at 2:03 am |
  19. Scott

    Ok I'm a gay man and this embarrasses me. Ellen Sturtz you did gay people no favor today.

    June 5, 2013 02:04 am at 2:04 am |
  20. Fill

    Did she really think heckling is a sure way to get a President to sign an Executive Order? Crazy.

    June 5, 2013 02:05 am at 2:05 am |
  21. bankrupt1

    they could just diffuse them and move on rather than get into a little match with them. but quite frankly, it would be scary to deal with people these days. i remember a video of someone being weird in a reception line with princess diana...worth watching if you can find it. she didn't skip a beat really...secret service or whatever they call their aids took over and she pretty much just kept doing what she was doing.

    June 5, 2013 02:06 am at 2:06 am |
  22. bankrupt1

    seems kind of extreme to threaten to leave. people should be able to voice their concerns (appropriately), but she wasn't doing that evidently. some people would just incorporate that into the talk and let it go. but there must have been some tone there that we aren't picking up on here.

    June 5, 2013 02:08 am at 2:08 am |
  23. Brian Gardner

    Wow, I'm not sure how I feel about this. Although I know her husband is the politician I think she could've handled this a little better. Obviously she has security and could've simply had her removed. However, I do appreciate the fact she stood up for herself – even as a member of the LGBTQ community I understand her frustrations with the heckler.

    But yes, President Obama please ban ANY discrimination for ANY reason in any way YOU can...because that is what a leader does.

    June 5, 2013 02:22 am at 2:22 am |
  24. Marc Florida

    Kudos for the First Lady. No high profile figure should have to put up with abuse. Whether it's photographers, the media, or abusive citizens, there are appropriate forums to offer opinions – respectfully.

    June 5, 2013 02:24 am at 2:24 am |
  25. joshua

    Why was the lady even protesting? The Obama administration has been the most pro-gay administration to date. I just do not get people these days!

    June 5, 2013 02:24 am at 2:24 am |
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