June 4, 2013 at 11:21 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Meet the lesbian who heckled Michelle Obama
Ellen Sturtz, GetEqual, gay news, Washington Blade

Ellen Sturtz heckled Michelle Obama at a DNC fundraiser. (Washington Blade file photo from a previous protest by Michael Key)

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.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • Larry

    Ellen, there’s a time and a place and a proper way to effectively achieve your goals. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that? And it sounds from this report that you are actually upset that Michelle had the chutzpah to confront you. While I agree with you 100%, my mother DID teach me that brash in-your-face rudeness (to which seem to have a natural tendency, myself!) usually does more harm than good. I think Mom was right. You may have set us back a notch, rather than propelling us forward.

    • G

      When IS the appropriate time and place for a good citizen to express their disagreement in public? This is nothing new to politics or politicians. And, this was pretty tame. What is new, is FLOTUS’s confrontational and over-the-top response. Frankly, her response is more disappointing than the heckler (which, are to be expected).

      • chris

        WOW…A Hillary Clinton supporter! LOL!

      • No, that’s not the point. Code Pink could not and would not be Filipino.

      • chris

        Stephen then PRESSURE THE WHITE REPUBLICANS!!!!!! Be a real brave activist!

  • I’m Just Sayin’

    “Old abrasive lesbian?” My guess is that pretty much sums up the perspective of 90% of the people reading this account of what happened. What did Sturtz think, that Michelle was going to run back to the White House and demand that Barack sign an ENDA order or she was moving into the Lincoln Bedroom? Is there a single instance to which GetEqual can point, where showing disrespect to the First Lady has led to a change in national policy regarding LGBT Americans?

  • Mike

    It was a private affair in a private home and other people paid good money to hear the First Lady and meet with her. The hosts and other guests were certainly within their rights, as was the FLOTUS, to tell this woman to silence herself or leave. This woman is a typical bully, who is ready to shout anyone else down, but cries like Nancy Kerrigan when anyone stands up to her and tells her to shut up.

  • Pupster

    You pick your moments. You try to win hearts and minds. Ms. Sturtz rude and hostile behavior set back the cause. She was as destructive, with the same crazy optics, as right-wing jerks who behave like animals. She’s in the same class as Joe Wilson yelling, “You lie” during the State of the Union.

  • The 2012 election is over. Unless you can pay $35,000 to attend a dinner or $10,000 to attend a speech along with other plutocrats, you are no longer useful. Now shut-up, go to the back of the bus and sit down. Or risk being entered on The Enemies List like so many of your fellow citizens.. The Monarchs will not tolerate being disturbed.

  • Seattle

    I get SO annoyed at these juvenile, “junior-high school level” antics staged by pseudo-angry muppets who are obviously attention-starved trying to undo all the hard work done by so many people over the last several years. To show such utter disrespect for the First Lady- who, frankly has done more for the “community” than ALL the previous First Ladies combined- just to attempt to coerce her into wrangling an action from her husband is not only extremely rude and insulting, it is counterproductive and downright offensive and stupidly aggressive. Knock it off!!!

    • syrupsales

      If I said that I am tired of hearing from the black community, would that be racist? Yes? Then you’re a bigot.

      • chris

        Was your comment necessary or is that how you really feel?

  • brian

    Attacking a family member of POTUS or any other elected public official is just wrong on its face– anytime, anywhere and over anything. What fools in our movement for equality and justice don’t get that?

    As to the issue itself, GetEQUAL ought to stop shooting itself in the foot. SCOTUS essentially took this related federal issue OFF the floor for about seven months– as it relates to actions by everyone else, i.e., President, Congress and LGBT activists alike– when it agreed to decide DOMA. The ball on this related issue is now in SCOTUS’ court. Period.

    It’s called “Supreme” for a reason. Any action by anybody is utterly wasted effort until SCOTUS clarifies the status of the federal DOMA.

    Fortunately, President Obama is smart enough to know what idiots at GetEqual don’t– whether it’s a President of the United States or LGBT activists, never squander the political capital available to any given issue.

    Now, assuming DOMA is struck down (in less than 3 weeks, btw), the president (Congress, too) then has the political wind at his back providing enormously stronger support of a federal ENDA-like EO, and he can make a stronger pitch at the same time for a full ENDA law, too.

  • Kathy

    Get Equal is so effin’ tone deaf. Wrong person to direct this at – wrong messenger – wrong tactic – wrong place.

    Flying out one rich person from LA to heckle the President’s family??? Nuts……obviously have no depth in or grassroots to the org.. If there was an appropriate target – maybe you could get a few hundred people from DC? Oh – that’s right – you haven’t done any real organizing.

    Lot’s of money wasted with this org.

    • chris

      Dumb racist!

  • Sam Kestu

    I think direct action can be effective. But this doesn’t appear to have been well thought out. Ellen Sturtz certainly does not speak for me with this action.

    We should all have a close look at GetEQUAL. I think that direct actions like this one will set LGBT people back.

  • jack mcmahon

    This was a replay of Rosie O’Donnell vs Elizabeth Hasselbeck…the bully met her match.

      • chris

        Ellen is an punk maybe she should try talking to those GOP women who doesn’t want her getting equality Michelle isn’t her enemy. And if you all really think Obama has not been an ally to this community then just wait and see how much your QUEEN Hillary Clinton thinks of you should she be the next President and God forbid if the white man Chris Christie wins. You’ll miss all the things that happened during this administration and if you think YOU the LGBTQ community is the cause that it happened. Then prove that under a Christie administration! Then it won’t considered as HYPE!

  • Mary

    Time, place and manner. No placing blame when you’re the one who was rude. While I agree with you on the issue, this was bad form and bad for the cause.

  • Edward Santiago

    This message is for the ““Old abrasive lesbian”. You actually paid money to attend an opportunity to enhance your stupidity and give reason to the many who oppose your biased views. Lets face it….Homosexuality is what has destroyed this nation; with its overall disrespect for anything beautiful. You are UGLY….Go to HeLL

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