White Noise: Ellen Sturtz’s Failed Protest

A lesson in how not to advance the conversation on workplace discrimination.

Cliff Owen, File / AP

If you listen to the recording of Ellen Sturtz heckling the First Lady, you can hear Michelle Obama speaking, then reacting to indiscernible shouting. The crowd voices its support for the first lady, Sturtz is ushered off the premises and Michelle Obama, ever a marvel of poise and relatability, eases right back into her passionate speech. Basically, you can hear everything and everyone except what Ellen Sturtz herself was saying. The lesbian activist attempting to shout down the First Lady and, by proxy the President, registers merely as white noise. To quote the pool report, “A pro-LGBT rights individual standing at the front began shouting for an executive order on gay rights. (Pool did not hear exactly what.)” That, ultimately, is the real failure here.

Heckling, when done effectively, cracks the imposed façade of civility that so often stands between political side-stepping and tangible action. And President Obama’s inaction on workplace discrimination certainly makes me want to holler.

It’s been more than a year since he decided not to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from LGBT workplace discrimination. When President Obama made this decision, he couldn’t even say it to the LGBT community’s face. Instead, White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett was left to sit down with LGBT leaders and explain why the President wouldn’t be signing an order that would impact 1/5 of the nation’s LGBT workforce. This decision has since allowed companies like ExxonMobil, one of the federal government’s top contractors, to continue to discriminate against LGBT employees.

So, yes, if there was ever an LGBT issue worth harassing the President about, it’s this one. But heckling the first lady about a policy decision only her husband can make is short-sighted. And it’s more than a little awkward to do so at a DNC fundraiser hosted by a prominent lesbian couple. Instead of driving forward a much needed conversation on the difference between symbolic statements (which the First Family is so fond of making) and tangible action on LGBT rights (which seem to inspire quite a bit more knuckle-dragging), Sturtz and Get Equal have succeeded only in becoming most unfortunate distractions.

Get Equal describes Tuesday’s incident as a planned “interaction” between Sturtz and the first lady. Presumably Sturtz wanted everyone listening to empathize with a “lesbian looking for federal equality before [she dies] but she has instead been outshouted by the memory of another heckler: Rep. Joe Wilson screaming “You lie!” Sturtz, who claims she was “taken aback” by the first lady’s reaction, perhaps should’ve considered what it would look like for yet another white person to interrupt a member of the current First Family.

And so, here we all are, talking about Ellen Sturtz’s foiled effort and Michelle Obama’s impressive handling of the interruption. Meanwhile, that fateful executive order is still sitting in a desk drawer somewhere, unsigned.

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