Even after all that the Obama Administration has done to advance the human rights agenda of the LGBT community, it appears as though some members of the community remain unsatisfied by the progress, as indicated by the heckling of First Lady Michele Obama during her remarks at a LGBT fundraiser Tuesday evening in Washington, D.C.
Lesbian activist Ellen Sturtz, who identified herself as a member of the gay rights group GetEqual, began yelling at the First Lady during her address to the crowd, demanding that Mrs. Obama tell the President to sign an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And while as a gay man, I agree wholeheartedly with Sturtz that the passage of ENDA (End Employment Discrimination Act), which would protect the employment rights of millions of hard-working LGBT Americans, is of the utmost importance, I completely disagree with her disrespectful tactics.
Sturtz’s outburst was then immediately met with a swift, decisive, and appropriate response from Mrs. Obama, telling Sturtz she could “Listen to [her] or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
What I find even more disturbing is that after Sturtz was asked to leave by fellow guests, she then proceeds to tell members of the media that she was “taken aback” after the first lady “came right down in [her] face” as if to say the first lady was not entitled to address her blatant disrespect. What some of my fellow gay rights activists and advocates need to understand is that while we should be deeply disappointed by the failure of President Obama to sign this executive order that would protect nearly 1/5 of America’s LGBT workforce, disrespecting the president, much less the president’s wife, in a public setting does nothing to advance our cause.
As a gay Black man, I have the luxury and sometimes downright difficulty of having my foot in the door of both African-American culture and the culture of the LGBT community. African Americans, who view Michelle Obama with a favorability rating of 90 percent, feel like Tuesday’s display of disrespect already adds salt to an open wound.
A sizeable majority of African Americans, myself included, take issue with what seems to be an unprecedented level of disrespect for this president and his family, whether it be a Congressman yelling “you lie” during a State of the Union Address, or Arizona Governor Jane Brewer pointing her finger in the president’s face, it seems as if America has lost their manners and their minds when it comes to the current residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In addition, when we compare the progress that has been seen with issues of importance to the LGBT community to level of progress seen with African-American issues during Obama’s presidency, the LGBT community has arguably seen more victories. From the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, to the signature of the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act that expanded federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity to being the first U.S. president to coming out in support of marriage equality.
President Obama has shown a historical level of leadership in a short period of time on many issues important to the LGBT community, even being labeled by Time Magazine as the “First Gay President.”
And while it can be argued that all of the progression that the LGBT community has experienced, which is made up of a variety racial groups, benefits the larger society, many African Americans have accused the president of not paying the same attention to the social and economic issues plaguing African-American communities, such as the rise in crime in urban environments or the record level of unemployment among Black men. Despite the lack of progress on these issues, support for President Obama among African Americans remains high at 90 percent, which is significantly higher than the 71 percent rate of support the president receives from the LGBT community, a community who has seen a paramount amount of progress in the span of just four-and-a-half years.
I am not suggesting that because President Obama has shown support for the LGBT community, that advocates and activists should remain complacent. We should continue to push the president to take even more meaningful actions on the rights of LGBT Americans, especially when it comes to the issue of workplace discrimination on the basis of sexuality, orientation or gender identity.
But using these over-the-top antics will only distract the public and policymakers from the pureness of our fight for equality. Furthermore, after all President Obama has done for the LGBT community, the most any president has done in the history of this nation, the LGBT community’s support for the president should be unwavering, even when change does not seem to come fast enough.
Because when it boils down to it, the opposing right has made it abundantly clear that the rights of LGBT Americans is not of concern to them. In essence, President Obama, along with the efforts of countless dedicated activists, is all that we have and we should value this committed partner of equality.
Devin Barrington-Ward is a 23-year-old Atlanta-based Political Strategist, Human Rights Advocate & Racial Politics Commentator. At the ripe age of 18, Devin was selected to served as the campaign manager to Georgia State Senator Ronald Ramsey (D-43rd) and was instrumental in a decisive victory in the November 2008 general election, securing nearly 84% of the vote. Due to his work on Senator Ramsey’s re-election campaign, Devin received the distinct honor of being nominated by U.S. Representative Hank Johnson (GA-D) for the 2009 Congressional Black Caucus Political Boot Camp at the National Labor College outside of Washington, DC