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Jim Downs: The History of Mrs. Obama's Heckler, or Caught Between Civil Rights and a Hard Place

Jim Downs is an associate professor of history and American Studies at Connecticut College, specializing in African-American studies and nineteenth-century American history. His book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, was just published by Oxford University Press.

On June 4, 2013, Ellen Sturtz, a gay rights activist, heckled first lady Michelle Obama at a meeting of the Democratic National Convention. Ms. Obama allegedly responded by saying that she would leave if the heckler did not stop. The audience, however, cajoled the first lady to stay and the gay rights activist was purportedly escorted out of the venue. Mrs. Obama continued her speech by talking about the future of children.

As a historian of African-American history and gay liberation, this moment gives me serious pause. On one level, I recognize how this is a highly charged political throw down between two oppressed groups that rarely get the national microphone. I then worry about activists, regardless of their political stripes, disrespecting Mrs. Obama more than other first ladies. Unlike Laura Bush or even Nancy Reagan, the popular press in both the U.S. and throughout the world has caricatured Michelle Obama as a beast, as a slave, and, as an angry radical. I worry about how this cultural context enables and almost encourages this type of disavowal of the first lady.

But then I also worry about Ellen Sturtz who tried to have her voice heard when it seemed like no one was listening. And I worry that in all of this hype about gay marriage, gay athletes coming out, and more gay people on Glee, that in spite of all these signs of so-called progress, Sturtz believes that the only way to have her voice heard is to yell out epithets of equality. And I certainly worry that given the aforementioned social context, Sturtz will become summarily marked as a racist at worse, or at the very least as disrespectful.

Yet as a historian I want to try to pull myself out of this twisted conundrum and turn to the past in order to make sense of it. Having studied the raucous political debates that led to the War for Independence, the creation of the Constitution, the first party system, and even down until the election of Andrew Jackson, I feel that I can stand on pretty solid ground by stating that heckling formed a crucial, if ill-mannered, form of political discourse since the founding of the nation. So, I began to wonder about the history of political expression that we have inherited that asserts claims to respect and propriety over the rather cacophonous debates that characterized much of political discourse throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Calling the heckler disrespectful is fine, but we must also not sanitize political expression in the process; this nation was built on hecklers. When Tom Paine published Common Sense in 1776 and empowered over two million colonists to question British authority, did these readers lineup like choir boys at meetings of their local assemblies, meetinghouses and taverns? Or did they rise up from their pews and heckle British authorities each time they spoke, rehearsing a few lines they learned from Paine and spiting them out, often with a mouthful of tobacco?

A few decades later, I can only imagine the hecklers that swarmed to hear President Andrew Jackson speak in the first political meetings that invited common men to participate. Did these men sit and listen, hands politely folded like they were at sermon delivered by Charles Finney -- the Dr. Phil of the 1830s? Or did they stand up, yell out something incendiary about the then bank crisis, Jackson's Indian Removal policies, or his support of slavery?

In other words, heckling, outside of the polite confines of 19th century drawing rooms where little women wrote letters to their fathers, formed a crucial part of American political exchange. And we all know this. None of what I am writing is brand new or revolutionary, so why are we so flummoxed when it erupts in our own era? Why does it hit a nerve so deeply?

Because Ellen Sturtz was disrespectful to the first lady?

She may have been, but then how do you categorize Sturtz's plea as "a lesbian looking for federal equality before I die?" Does disrespect matter in this context? How do we balance manners with a political system that openly denies gay people their rights? But if this is a really a crisis over respect, how do we as a nation respect the countless gay families that are torn apart by laws that don't recognize gay parents or gay marriage on the federal level?

But I digress, let me return to the history of heckling and even booing, its passive-aggressive cousin, that became important political weapons in the last election season when Mitt Romney in July 2012 criticized President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act to a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Texas. What began as a boo quickly morphed into a universal rhetorical slap down; the NAACP heckled Romney's claim that Obama's healthcare plan would led to a national crisis. Civil Rights activists have continually heckled federal leaders when their objectives were not being met. In another NAACP meeting in New Orleans in 1983, activists booed then Vice-President George Bush's defense of Reagan's record on civil rights.

Building on black civil rights' strategies, gay civil rights activists have long used heckling or to use the 1970 parlance "zaps" to express their political opposition. Let us take one last turn down American memory lane to April 6, 1976, a meeting at the New York Academy of Medicine. A group of leading psychologists crowded into an auditorium where a panel of experts planned to discuss "The Psychodynamics of Male Homosexuality." Outside of the institute, a group of over 200 gay activists protested in the streets, but inside the session, members of the Gay Socialist Action Project snuck into the meeting up a back staircase wearing grey and navy suits and planted themselves in the auditorium. When the leading doctor began explaining "misplaced fantasies," one of the gay activists stood up and blew a whistle. The doctor paused briefly. When he continued to read his paper, gay activists began to stand up and heckle the speaker, claiming that they wanted to speak for themselves. They rejected the medical profession's authority to define their sexuality, desires, and identity. Protests like this -- impolite but politically efficacious -- eventually led to the medical profession's declassification of homosexuality as an illness.

What unfolded between the first lady and Ellen Sturtz evokes a long tradition of how gay people throughout history have attempted to be heard. While their methods may strike some as uncivil, their activism evokes the very mode of political expression that built this country.

Yet, I am nevertheless concerned that Mrs. Obama felt under attack during her speech; but I then worry about the statement that she made after it all ended, when the commotion finally quelled and Sturtz was dragged out of the room. Mrs. Obama returned to her prepared notes and urged the audience that "This is not about us. No one back here. It's not about you or you or your issue or your thing. This is about our children."

And with that comment I feel an even more palpable burden, does the first lady think all the children are going to be straight?

Read entire article at Huffington Post