Mixing Up the Message

The GetEqual heckling of Michelle Obama was the wrong play on the right issue

All’s fair in love and war and, increasingly, politics. That’s not an endorsement of, say, the current Republican political strategy of just making things up and having hearings to try to prove it later, but rather a recognition that it takes all kinds of tactics to make a democracy work.

So I don’t actually have a problem with a GetEqual protestor heckling first lady Michelle Obama at a private LGBT fundraiser on Tuesday evening. Yes, the first lady isn’t elected to any office but she’s still a political actor (hence her schedule of speeches and such). There’s a time and a place for heckling, and a time and a place for inside-Washington checkbook politicking — even if we’ll never all agree on the time and place for either. And as Jonathan Capehart already noted in The Washington Post, both GetEqual and the first lady have valid points to be made.

The problem on Tuesday was that Ellen Sturtz’s political play turned into a fumble when Obama took an approach to being heckled that’s decidedly different than her husband’s, leaving the lectern to speak face-to-face with Sturtz and making it clear that only one of them would be speaking, telling the guests to make a choice. Sturtz’s surprise at that and subsequent mishandling of it discussing it with reporters — calling the first lady ”pretty aggressive” and mentioning her putting ”her big hand towards me” — has almost completely derailed the conversation from employment discrimination against LGBT people that Sturtz was ostensibly trying to start.

Instead, we now have stories about Michelle Obama brooking no bullshit and making fun of a heckling activist who’s shocked by an ”uncivil” response to heckling. And there’s also the undercurrent of race. You can’t ignore the past five years of infamous heckling incidences with the president that many people (rightly) believe would never have happened with a white president. And you can’t ignore the fact that the first lady has been characterized in right-wing media by more euphemisms for ”uppity” than I ever thought I would see, so when you use language like ”aggressive” and ”her big hand towards me” a lot of people are going connect it to those euphemisms.

This, of course, is the risk of using heckling as a tactic against the first lady rather than the president. Not every action is going to be successful. Trying to pretend otherwise not only misses the point, but ensures that the same mistake will be made again.

The sad thing is that non-LGBT media is buzzing about Michelle Obama’s ”don’t mess with me” performance when the LGBT community is trying to focus them on the president’s ongoing, inexplicable decision not to sign an executive order extending nondiscrimination protections to civilian LGBT employees of federal contractors. Even worse, as Metro Weekly‘s Justin Snow reports, one year after attempting to placate LGBT proponents of the order prior to the election by promising a study on the issue, it’s apparent that no movement’s been made.

The Obama administration deserves full credit and accolades for the positive steps it’s taken on a wealth of LGBT issues, culminating in its support for marriage equality. But that credit is no shield from accountability for inaction on employment protections. GetEqual and Sturtz are right to demand accountability, but they also need to acknowledge the fumble and move on to the next play.

Sean Bugg is the co-publisher of Metro Weekly. He can be reached at sbugg@MetroWeekly.com. Follow him on Twitter @seanbugg.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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