First lady Michelle Obama experienced a rare face-to-face encounter with a protester late Tuesday – approaching the activist and threatening to leave a fundraiser if the person did not stop interrupting her speech.
Obama was addressing a Democratic Party fundraiser in a private Kalorama home in Northwest Washington when Ellen Sturtz, 56, a lesbian activist, interrupted her remarks to demand that President Obama sign an anti-discrimination executive order.
Obama showed her displeasure – pausing to confront Sturtz eye to eye, according to witnesses.
“One of the things that I don’t do well is this,” she said to applause from most of the guests, according to a White House transcript. “Do you understand?”
A pool report from a reporter in the room said Obama “left the lectern and moved over to the protester.” The pool report quoted Obama as saying: “Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice."
Obama’s suggestion that she would leave was not included in the official White House transcript.
The audience responded by asking Obama to remain, according to the pool report, which quoted a woman nearby telling Sturtz, “You need to go.”
Sturtz was escorted out of the room. She said in an interview later she was stunned by Obama’s response.
“She came right down in my face,” Sturtz said. “I was taken aback.”
Sturtz said she told Obama she was happy to take the microphone to plead her case, which, Sturtz said, appeared to fluster the first lady.
“I said I want your husband to sign the executive order,” Sturtz said. “Her husband could sign this order tonight and protect 22 percent of the work force in this country.”
Sturtz said she paid $500 to attend the fundraiser, part of a protest cooked up by the gay rights group GetEqual, which gained notice in Obama’s first term for hectoring him during speeches and demanding more action on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Sturtz, who gave $5,000 to the Democratic Party and Obama's campaign in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, said she was devoting herself to full-time activism now pressing the White House on the employment discrimination issue.
The proposed executive order that prompted Sturtz’s outburst would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
LGBT activists, many of whom hailed Obama for his vocal support for same-sex marriage rights in the months leading up to his reelection in 2012, have been increasingly dismayed that the White House has not yet acted on the proposed order.
The issue has been building for years, pushed by gay rights advocates who argue that more than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce is employed by federal contractors. Advocates for the executive order have attempted to exert more quiet pressure, highlighting cases of discrimination by some firms and connecting workers to administration officials to make personal appeals.
White House officials have said they back legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but have declined to say whether the executive order is pending.
Metro Weekly, a gay newspaper, reported in 2012 that, as a presidential candidate in 2008, then-Sen. Obama had pledged to a Houston LGBT group that he would support a “formal written policy” of non-discrimination.