A lesbian activist had a testy exchange with first lady Michelle Obama at a fundraiser on Tuesday evening over a much sought-after LGBT non-discrimination executive order, leading to the ejection of the activist from the event.
Ellen Sturtz, a 56-year-old D.C.-based activist affiliated with the grassroots LGBT group GetEQUAL, had the exchange with the first lady — which involved not just the executive order, but the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — at a Democratic National Committee fundraising event in D.C.
“I think she was upset by the interruption, no doubt,” Sturtz said. “But I really didn’t feel like there was a lot of anger or felt like I was in danger at all. Even though she was pretty — I would like to say assertive — but obviously it was pretty aggressive.”
According to Sturtz, the exchange began when Michelle Obama began talking about children without delving too much into LGBT issues beforehand. Sturtz said she shouted out to the first lady something about the importance of LGBT children, and Michelle Obama wasn’t happy.
“She cut me off immediately and leaned over podium, sort of her put her big hand towards me and said something to the effect of ‘You don’t do that to me’ or ‘I don’t do that,’” Sturtz said. “Then I made a comment that I’m interested in making sure that we have employment protections, and I’m not going to be quiet any longer.”
Sturtz said things became even more testy as Michelle Obama left the podium to talk to the activist face to face.
“She came down from the podium and got into my face — probably within three inches of my face,” Sturtz said. “She basically took the microphone down, and she said to me, ‘I don’t do this, and if you want the microphone, it’s either I have the microphone or you have the microphone. I said, ‘I’ll take the microphone.’ And she said, ‘If you take the microphone, then I’m leaving.’”
At that point, the crowd called for the first lady to stay and expressed its disapproval of Sturtz as she was kicked out, but not before she concluded that she wants President Obama to sign the non-discimination executive order for federal contractors.
“When I left, I made some comments as they were kicking me out about a being an old abrasive lesbian just looking for full federal equality,” Sturtz said. “And I think I may have said something like, ‘Is there anything wrong with that?’ as I’m sort of escorted out.’”
Sturtz’s account is consistent with what The Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel reported happened during the event in her pool report for the fundraiser:
“One of the things I don’t do well is this,” replied FLOTUS to loud applause. She left the lectern and moved over to the protester, saying they could “listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
Crowd started shouting that they wanted FLOTUS to stay.
“You need to go!” said one woman near the protester.
The protester was then escorted out, shouting “…lesbian looking for federal equality before I die.” (First part of the quote was inaudible.) Pool could not get their name before they were taken out.
The crowd was generally favorable to the first lady. According to a transcript of the first lady’s remarks, Michelle Obama was greeted by someone shouting, ‘We love you!’ at the start of the event and concluded her remarks with applause.
Sturtz, who’s also affiliated with the anti-war group Code Pink, said she’s seeking “full federal equality” and moved to D.C. in December to help make the case after having lived in California since 1986.
“I know it’s probably unrealistic and whatever people think — whether you can get ENDA passed this year or next year, or we have until 2015 — I don’t want to wait anymore,” Sturtz said. “I have the been the nice lesbian; I’m not nice anymore. I’m nice, but I don’t want to be quiet any longer. I don’t want to listen to the non-profit organizations telling me what the timeframe is — how many decades I’m going to have to wait for full federal equality.”
Sturtz paid the ticket price of $500 to attend the event held in Northwest D.C. at the home of lesbian couple Karen Dixon and Nan Schaffer — with the intent of talking with someone at the DNC about the executive order. Sturtz said she donated to the Democratic Party in the previous election cycle.
“They cashed my check … they were asking for more money today,” Sturtz said. “We’re just asking them to do something that’s really simple, and I don’t think we’re really getting many answers about why they’re not willing to do it.”
The DNC and the White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the exchange. The Office of the First Lady didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment late Tuesday evening.
Just hours before the fundraiser, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was questioned about the executive order, but reiterated the line that the administrative prefers a legislative path to addressing LGBT workplace discrimination.
“The president believes that the right approach to this problem is an inclusive piece of legislation, and that’s the approach that we’re taking,” Carney said. “It was the approach that we took with repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and we continue to support this effort.”
Prior to her ejection, Sturtz said she had a conversation with Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz about ENDA and the executive order. According to Sturtz, the Florida congresswoman expressed interest in the directive and was surprised by estimates it would cover 22 percent of the workforce.
“Obviously, she was very supportive, and obviously, like everyone, there’s a lot of frustration about what’s happening in the House,” Sturtz said. “But she understood the strategy of getting the executive order to help fuel the effort of getting it passed in the House.”
Two other GetEQUAL members, college students, were also present at the event along with activist Autumn Leaf, of Columbus, Ohio, who told the Blade she interrupted Wasserman Schultz’s remarks delivered at the same fundraiser.
“I felt very frustrated with the rosy picture of what was done for the LGBT community, especially when the executive order is something that literally requires the effort signing a piece of paper,” Leaf said. “I called her out, ‘What about the executive order that President Obama promised back in 2008 as a candidate, and she looked over and just glared.”
Leaf said Wasserman Schultz told the audience ENDA would be passed, but only with Democratic control of the U.S. House and urged those in attendance to max out their donations.
According to Leaf — who said she wasn’t ejected from the event, but was watched closely by a Secret Service agent — no arrests were made at the fundraiser as a result of the interruptions.
Sturtz emphasized that her action wasn’t about herself, but ENDA, the executive order and equality.
Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said more protests similar to what happened at the fundraiser will continue if the executive order is withheld.
“We’ll keep speaking up and speaking out until we’re equal — and we hope the president and the first lady have a long conversation tonight,” Cronk said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of article incorrectly identified the day on which the event took place and activist Autumn Leaf as someone else. The Blade regrets the error.