First Lady Was Right to Heckle a Heckler

Michelle Obama at a May 28 event (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Michelle Obama at a May 28 event (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(The Root) — If you're a politician, accepting that you are going to be heckled by critics and learning how to handle being heckled are part of the job. But for those married to politicians, the rules of engagement have always been less clear. That may now change thanks to Michelle Obama.


It was recently reported that while speaking at a fundraiser, the first lady responded to a heckler by threatening to leave if the heckler continued. The Washington Post recounted the scene this way: "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 that Mrs. Obama "left the lectern and moved over to the protester." The pool report quoted the first lady as saying, "Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice."

Various outlets report that the audience cheered for her to continue and advocated for the heckler in question, Ellen Sturtz, to leave. Sturtz was ultimately escorted out of the event. The first lady's reaction has raised eyebrows, particularly in comparison with her husband. Last month, despite being interrupted multiple times by a heckler, the president remained calm, kept a smile on his face and actually said of the woman doing her best to distract from his important national security speech that "the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to."

But often the voices of hecklers are not. Sturtz is an example of one such voice. Sturtz is an activist with the LGBT rights group Get Equal. She apparently was heckling the first lady in an effort to pressure the president to sign an executive order to prohibit contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

Here's what makes Sturtz's heckling sound particularly tone-deaf and borderline ridiculous: I can only assume that she doesn't own a television or have access to the Internet, because if she did, she would know that President Obama has done more to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights than any president before him. He has accomplished so much, in fact, that as I have previously written, his legacy will likely be remembered for advancing the cause of LGBT equality in the same way President Lyndon Johnson is remembered for advancing the cause of civil rights for African Americans.

An abbreviated list of the Obama administration's accomplishments on LGBT rights includes the following:

* Appointed more openly gay officials than any of his predecessors

* Signed the repeal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy

* Directed the Department of Health and Human Services to permit visitation and health-proxy status for LGBT couples (a primary concern of those unable to marry)


* Used federal resources to press for LGBT rights abroad 

But perhaps most noteworthy, he became the first president to publicly support same-sex marriage. 


In other words, there is a lot to criticize the Obama administration for, but the president's record on LGBT issues is not one of them.

Additionally, I'm not sure Sturtz is aware, but as first lady, Michelle Obama does not sign executive orders or sign laws. That's her husband's job, which makes Sturtz's behavior seem all the more silly and misdirected. But the main reason I love how Michelle Obama handled the situation is that she did precisely what her husband can't with his critics: She got in the woman's face and set her straight.


Maybe the president should send her to handle Republican leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter