Michelle Obama was in the middle of a speech at a fundraising event in Washington for the Democratic National Committee when a heckler interrupted, causing the first lady to give an ultimatum: "Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving.”
The protester, a gay rights activist for the group GetEQUAL who was identified as Ellen Sturtz, made a scene in an attempt to urge President Obama to sign an order that would keep federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Her plea to get her voice heard, while it left the first lady flustered and was largely inappropriate for the event, was not entirely an unwarranted response given the incessant discriminatory practices that most LGBT individuals still face.
First and foremost, we must take a look at how the Democratic party has fared overall in advancing as well as working against the LGBT cause. Democrats as a whole have made great strides towards supporting equal rights for the LGBT community by taking the initial step of becoming the first political party to endorse LGBT equality in 1980. Thereafter, the party largely kept true to its word by voting against a federal gay-marriage ban and passing hate-crime legislation protecting people of both racial minorities and of LGBT identities in 2004 and 2000 respectively.
Despite making much progress for people of the queer community, the Democratic Party has also taken a few steps back, most notably with Bill Clinton’s decision to sign the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law in 1996. Although Clinton publicly expressed his regret for giving the highly discriminatory legislation his seal of approval, the harm has been inflicted and attempts to eliminate DOMA have since been an uphill and futile battle.
For people like Ellen Sturtz who have had to live and work, as Sturtz puts it, “hiding who [she] was in order to earn a living," the issue of equal LGBT rights is not all encompassed in marriage equality, a topic that the public often fails to view as a smaller portion of the bigger picture. Furthermore, while political figures such as President Obama have expressed views in favor of equality, the lack of aggressive action to match the level of fervor for progress that is often expressed verbally is immensely disconcerting.
As citizens of the free world and as humans, we must not become lackadaisical and simply accept that there exists a backward and nonsensical hierarchy that makes certain groups second-class citizens. What does it say about us if we work heavily towards obliterating racially discriminatory practices, while simultaneously failing to treat LGBT issues with the level of care they deserve?
Having a means to make a living is a necessity, not a luxury. If anywhere between 15 to 43% of LGBT individuals are discriminated against and harassed at work while another 8 to 17% of these individuals are fired or overlooked during the application process due to their identity, change evidently must be implemented.
The current order that outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, Executive Order 11246, still does not protect LGBT individuals. However, President Obama has the power to mitigate this workplace discrimination by amending the order and including nondiscrimination terms on sexual orientation and gender identity. Such changes in Order 11246 would be of great aid to the advancement of LGBT rights and the president must give this sincere consideration.
Sturtz’ outburst may have been out of place and ill-timed. However, her message is one that must be heard and the American public must stand behind her in advocating for LGBT equality in the workplace.