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The Time Michelle Obama Yelled at a Gay Heckler


Will GetEQUAL's message be drowned out by first lady's reaction?


All of last night and for part of this morning, conservative aggregator Matt Drudge's website led with this image and headline. Portraying First Lady Michelle Obama as petty and testy, it linked to a story about her exchange last night with an activist from GetEQUAL, the progressive gay rights group that's perfected the art of getting headlines to raise its profile. Dan Choi chaining himself to the White House fence to protest Don't Ask, Don't Tell come to mind.

GetEQUAL's goal last night was to get Michele Obama to address her husband's remarkable inaction on a federal employment non-discrimination order. Though he can't solve anti-LGBT employment discrimination everywhere, he does have the power to issue an executive order ban federal contractors from discriminating based on sexuality and gender identity. It looked for a moment last year that Mr. Obama would sign that order, but then he didn't. It was as baffling as it was disappointing.

Thus, GetEQUAL activist Ellen Sturtz attended a Democratic fundraiser at a Washington home last night and shouted at Mrs. Obama that the president needs to sign that order. "I'm a lesbian looking for federal equality before I die," she's quoted as saying.

Those words and Sturtz's others not only fell on deaf ears but are almost entirely drowned out by news coverage of Mrs. Obama's reaction: "One of the things that I don't do well is this. Do you understand?" As the crowd jeered a yelling Sturtz and cheered the feisty first lady, Mrs. Obama reportedly "left the lectern and moved over to the protester" and lectured, "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 and Mrs. Obama continued to discuss the importance of taking care of our children and the press has since spread the word, "Mrs. Obama dissed a heckler," something that doesn't look good for an administration that's looking increasingly imperious and disconnected. And it will look even worse when the story becomes about how the official White House transcript of the event fails to include Mrs. Obama's threat to leave. GetEqual's message has been almost completely eclipsed by the first lady's behavior.

Perhaps, though, this controversy will help Sturtz and GetEqual and LGBT people in the end, because she can now use this controversy to help spread her message, which she did with the Washington Post: "I said, 'I want your husband to sign the executive order.' Her husband could sign this order tonight and protect 22 percent of the work force in this country."

Will those words be able to drown out the shock and awe over Mrs. Obama's reaction or will last night be remembered as that time the first lady shouted at a heckler?

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Andrew Belonsky