WASHINGTON, D.C. — North Carolina grassroots organizer Wooten Gough was among four activists who interrupted First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech at a Democratic National Committee event on June 4. The protest has drawn mixed reactions from the LGBT community and others.
The activists were with GetEQUAL, a national LGBT direct action group, which has held similar confrontational protests and civil disobedience actions in the past. Tuesday’s action was meant to push for LGBT employment protections.
Ellen Sturtz, a lesbian from Washington, D.C., was the first to speak out at the event and interrupt the first lady’s remarks.
“I lived and worked in the closet, hiding who I am in order to make a living,” Sturtz said in a release. “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 first lady didn’t take Sturtz’s interruption kindly, according to news reports. She stopped her speech, walked down from the podium and told Sturtz she could “listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
Sturtz was then escorted out of the building.
Organizers say their purpose in attending the event was to press for an executive order from the president forbidding all companies with federal contracts from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The president promised to sign such an order during his 2008 presidential campaign, but has yet to do so.
The executive order would provide protections for approximately 22 percent of the American workforce, and has support from almost 150 members of the U.S. Congress as well as the LGBT advocacy community.
Reaction to the confrontation has been mixed. Some have supported the group, which held a similar protest at a DNC event last year. Others have said the protest was ill-timed or wrongheaded.
“Did Ellen Sturtz or any of her colleagues…really believe that hollering at the First Lady would result in anything meaningful or impactful,” asked Jezebel.com founder Anna Holmes in a commentary published at Time. That there is a straight line from the ears of the chief executive’s wife to the muscles of her husband’s dominant hand and his fountain pen?
GetEQUAL has defended its organizers — Sturtz, Gough from Yadkinville, N.C., Autumn Leaf of Columbus, Ohio, and Amy Vesper of Albuquerque, N.M. — and said they are treating the first lady as a Democratic Party leader.
“She was the one who went to New York City, stood on a stage and said, ‘Max out, max out, max out,'” GetEQUAL co-director Felipe Sousa-Rodríguez said on Wednesday, according to RawStory, referring to a previous fundraising appearance by the First Lady on May 29, 2013. “Since she’s the one going to Democratic party fundraisers, we are treating her as a Democrat leader.”
The president himself has not weighed in, though White House Press Secretary said in a briefing he thought the first lady handled the situation “brilliantly.”