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GetEQUAL vs. Michelle Obama: What Really Happened Last Night?

by David Badash on June 5, 2013

in News,Politics

Post image for GetEQUAL vs. Michelle Obama: What Really Happened Last Night?

Last night, depending on the news reporting you happen upon, GetEQUAL heckled Michelle Obama and got tossed out of a fundraiser, or a social justice group advocating for LGBT people and an executive order on ENDA challenged the First Lady who was aggressive, angry, and dismissive.

So what really happened last night at the DNC fundraiser?

First, some quick background.

GetEQUAL has been working to get President Obama to sign an executive order essentially mandating ENDA for all who work for federal government contractors. This would cover over 20 percent of the U.S. workforce. Since Congress refuses to pass ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — which has been introduced into every Congress but one since 1994, and similar legislation before that since 1974 — the President could protect some Americans “with a stroke of his pen,” but he has refused to do so. In fact, the White House when this issue was heating up over a year ago, specifically stated the President would not sign the order, and refused to state why, but finally promised to convene a study group an report back.

Still waiting.

So, last night, GetEQUAL did what they do best: draw attention to an issue in an uncomfortable way for the White House. Uncomfortable for the administration, very effective for the LGBT community.

This is how Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell got repealed.

Amanda Terkel, who was at the event, reports at The Huffington Post:

About 12 minutes into Obama’s 20-minute speech, a woman standing at the front of the crowd began yelling for an executive order on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

“One of the things that I don’t do well is this,” replied Obama to loud applause. She left the lectern and approached the protester, inviting the woman to “listen to me, or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

The crowd shouted that they wanted Obama to stay, and one woman near the protester said, “You need to go!”

The protester was then escorted out, saying she wanted “federal equality before I die.”

Heather Cronk, co-director of the pro-LGBT rights group GetEQUAL, said the protester was Ellen Sturtz, 56, one of the organization’s activists.

In an interview later with The Huffington Post, Sturtz, a divorced lesbian, said she didn’t go to the event intending to interrupt Obama. She said she instead planned to reach out to someone from the DNC about her concerns. But as the first lady urged the audience to make the country a better place for the next generation, Sturtz said she decided to speak up.

“I want to talk about the children,” she said. “I want to talk about the LGBT young people who are … being told, directly and indirectly, that they’re second-class citizens. I’m tired of it. They’re suffering. … We’ve been asking president to sign that ENDA executive order for five years. How much longer do we need to wait?”

Sturtz donated to the DNC in 2008, she said, in large part because she believed the president would fight to end workplace discrimination. She said she was disappointed in the first lady’s response at the fundraiser.

“Basically, I was asked by the first lady to be quiet, and I can’t be quiet any longer. … I was surprised by how negative the crowd seemed to be. It was actually a little unsettling and disturbing,” said Sturtz.

“She obviously thought she was going to make an example of me or something. I wasn’t scared at all,” she added.

Cronk said there were three other GetEQUAL activists at the event.

One was Autumn Leaf, 22, who interrupted DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s (D-Fla.) speech beforehand, also calling for the executive order.

Leaf said Wasserman Schultz replied that the way to get ENDA passed was to help Democrats retake the House.

He said he was “disappointed” in Obama’s reaction to Sturtz and surprised she “approached Ellen as aggressively as she did.”

GetEQUAL issued a press release. Here’s an excerpt:

Activists interacted with the First Lady tonight after lobbying President Obama directly over the past year to sign the federal contractor Executive Order. The First Lady employed similar tactics when she was a law student, advocating for causes close to her heart:

One year ago a similar event was held by the DNC and — following vocal frustration from the LGBT community about delays from the Obama Administration on the Executive Order — DNC Treasurer Andy Tobias suggested that advocates wait a year to push for it ( That year has come and gone, and the Executive Order has still not emerged as a priority for the Obama Administration.

Recent research has found that LGBT workers have a difficult time finding and keeping a job because there are no federal protections in place to ensure that employers cannot discriminate in the hiring, employment, and firing process: Because the Obama Administration has refused to take action on an Executive Order that would help address these problems, some LGBT donors have cut off funds to the party in recent weeks:

Here’s the audio, albeit hard to hear, via the Washington Post:

So, what do you think?


Image, top via Flickr

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Alex_Parrish June 5, 2013 at 11:03 am

I hate it when people heckle speaker of any ilk — BUT — I also know that 'the squeaky wheel gets the oil.' The LGBT community has supported the Obama administration admirably but on this vital issue they turn a blind eye. I don't understand why. If they would explain why, that would go a long way to help us understand, but as it is I think we have no recourse but to protest — loud and long — whenever and wherever possible. As much as I hate the idea of heckling the First Lady or anybody else, I think there needs to be more of this until the administration comes-clean with the LGBT community about why they won't protect us in the federal workplace.

Kiltedbear June 5, 2013 at 11:13 am

"This is how Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell got repealed." – bull shit. DADT got repealed because Congress was convinced — which took a lot of time. How does heckling at a fundraiser accomplish that? Stupid!

TrevorHorton June 5, 2013 at 12:24 pm

What ENDA will do and what the heckler thinks it will do are very different. ENDA is limited to Federal employees. It is not a wholesale recognition of civil rights. It arguably will not have the ripple effect of influencing gay rights as part of Constitutional rights discourse. If passed as an Executive Order, it also can be challenged without clarifying gay rights by any court that focuses on executive powers rather than on the ideas contained in the act. People certainly have the right to protest and to be rude and to be criticized for their behavior but it is all not very meaningful if the purported goal is poorly chosen. Congress and the courts are the most direct way to clarify constitutional rights simply because that is their defined responsibilities. It is not easy to build consensus but decades of effort are beginning to pay off. Why inflate ENDA into the next big stand when its scope is so limited? Why defend the heckler when she mistakenly thinks it will lead to "federal equality before I die?"

JayJonson June 5, 2013 at 12:48 pm

I have decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, this was a small gathering and it was rude to interrupt the First Lady as she was speaking. I don't like that. On the other hand, the First Lady seemed uncharacteristically snarky. I admire the confrontational tactics of GetEqual, but I don't think the First Lady is the proper target.

Trevor Horton, above, is mistaken about ENDA. It is true that the proposed executive order would cover only federal contractors, but ENDA would cover all employers of a certain size.

TrevorHorton June 5, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Jay, you're right about the Congressional legislation, ENDA, covering companies of a certain size, but as you note, an Executive Order would most likely not be able to extend to non-government entities. If the Executive branch asserts the power today, it is on shaky legal grounds without a grant of that power from Legislation or the Constitution. A court challenge to the Executive Order would start by asking where the Executive Branch derived its power from. Court precedent over gender identity as a protected class is mixed at best, and to be honest mostly in the negative at this point. Of course, these are areas where activists are making progress but it's not there today. Again, what's the point of pushing for an Executive Order that will not be able to withstand the first court challenge by NOM and their cohorts?

TrevorHorton June 5, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Must add a little more on Executive Orders. The "stroke of a pen" reference is to Kennedy's famous failure to end Segregation by Executive Order, promised during the 1960 election. Kennedy's admin knew an executive order would not change people's hearts and might actively hurt the movement by giving an entrenched opposition something to rally around. King and protesters sought to show the injustice of segregation at great cost, but the goal was to educate people and inspire them to support the movement, leading to the Civil Rights Act. Executive Orders do not have the same power to educate and they are often perceived as dictatorial (Truman and the Steel cases). Women's right to vote was preceded by the passage of many states laws, which also served to build consensus towards the 19th Amendment. The one Exec order I can think of which may be relevant is the integration of the armed services under Truman, but there was a national defense argument, Liberals dominated Congress after 5 Democratic Adminstrations. But its worth noting that when the Sp Ct overturns Segregation in 1954, about 8 years later, the Executive Order is not mentioned and did not serve as a direct precedent. Demanding an Executive Order does not necessarily lead to progress and rarely has any rights been recognized by the "stroke of a pen" as Kennedy knew when he broke his campaign promise. People's minds and hearts must be won and this is happening now by picking political targets wisely.

BrooksAustin June 5, 2013 at 1:09 pm

As disappointed as I am in the way the U.S. government has stalled on ENDA, the passing of the DADT repealed had as much to do with Log Cabin Repuhblicans' filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government over DADT as it did the silly antics of GetEqual.

TrevorHorton June 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Emancipation Proclamation signed as a War measure by Lincoln. Famously freed slaves in rebel states but not in loyal border states and makes no statement of principle on what former slaves are to become nor does it criticize the morality of slavery, which disappointed Frederick Douglass who hoped for more. Those issues defined by Congress in 13-15 amendments led by Radical Republicans, which contemporary Republicans view as alien life forms. Sp ct have been interpreting these ever since. Again, is an Executive Order really the next big political stand?

Llantha June 5, 2013 at 5:56 pm

I didn't realize that the First Lady could sign executive orders. In that even, I think that the heckler was right and Mrs. Obama should sign that order!

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