Op-ed: WikiLeaks, the NSA, Ellen Sturtz, and the Case For Dissent

Activist movements weren't built on the shoulders of those who were best known for being polite.

BY Victoria A. Brownworth

June 11 2013 5:00 AM ET

Left: Sturtz and Obama
 
Except Sturtz’s was a civil rights action. Sturtz wasn’t a heckler any more than Manning, Snowden, and Greenwald are traitors. Dissent is being erased from the national lexicon, with the help of a largely complacent mainstream media. 
 
I’ve written extensively about the Manning case here and elsewhere. The show trial being put on by President Obama is a national embarrassment. Manning should be pardoned.
 
Monday, a petition to the White House was already in place demanding a pardon for Snowden. Any attempts at prosecuting Greenwald deserves contempt. And protest. 
 
When I tweeted my disgust at the way Sturtz was being portrayed on the blogosphere in the hours after her exchange with the first lady, I got a firestorm of outrage in response. I responded to several dozen people — all straight — over several hours. All were "rude," all were "attacking." The very things they accused Sturtz of being. My explanations of the queer civil rights movement were dismissed. No one cared.
 
What happened at that D.C. fund-raiser may have been discomfiting, but it was not wrong. Like millions of American queers, Ellen Sturtz has had enough. She said of her actions, "I could no longer remain silent while standing in front of one of our country’s most powerful political figures. I spoke up for the millions of LGBT Americans. Mrs. Obama has accomplished extraordinary things and is inarguably the conscience of the White House. She understands injustice at a deep level, and it was that political conscience I was hoping to stir at this week’s fund-raiser."
 
The New York Times agreed with Sturtz in an editorial that was singularly ignored by everyone — notably LGBTQ people who couldn’t throw Sturtz under the bus fast enough, straight black women who took Sturtz’s questioning of the first lady as racist, white liberals always ready to scapegoat queer activists for getting in the way of everything from health care reform to immigration reform, straight feminists who have been gutting lesbians since the early days of second wave feminism.
 
The Times wrote, after stipulating that Sturtz’s action was not "polite" and that "Mrs. Obama did not handle it terribly well by threatening to take her marbles and go home," that the question Sturtz posed was absolutely spot on — exactly what I had posted on Twitter.
 
Furthermore, the Times wrote, "Ellen Sturtz, a member of a gay-rights advocacy group, had an excellent question — why hasn’t President Obama signed an executive order banning discrimination among federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity?"
 
Editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal went on to say, "It’s not a new question. We asked it over a year ago on the editorial page. ... He has signed dozens of executive orders. So why not order this simple guarantee of non-discrimination among federal contractors?"
 
Why indeed? Sturtz was right. Was she rude? I heard the tape. I thought she was earnest. Mrs. Obama, who is known for being warm and responsive and who I personally admire, handled her "heckler" badly. The first lady had every opportunity to treat Sturtz and her question with respect. All she had to do was say, "I have no power over my husband’s decisions, but I will pass your concerns on to him." 
 
That’s the kind of graciousness and compassion she’s known for. Michelle Obama’s "I’m leaving unless you toss her out" response only underscored what many of us fear: that the Obamas’ lip service to queer issues is only about raising money (remember, this was a $10,000-per-person political fund-raiser) and winning votes. It’s not about civil rights. As Sturtz explained, just days before, Mrs. Obama was asking for money from the queer community.
 
What shocks me in all of this — from Manning to Sturtz — is how ready members of our own community are to embrace power and thwart dissent. 
 
Every article I have written about Manning or about the Democrats’ insensitivity to queers, has been met with support — for power. When I wrote about San Francisco Pride’s cowardly recision of its choice of Bradley Manning as grand marshal, the majority of support was for the corporate San Francisco Pride committee. When I wrote about how the Democrats threw LGBTQ families under the bus on immigration, a few misguided gay men even claimed I was a Republican plant out to destroy the Democratic Party, spreading that rumor through the Twitterverse and on Facebook.
 
This is how far removed we’ve gotten from our activist roots: Dissent breeds suspicion. Yet as a journalist, it’s my job to call out politicians for lying to their constituents. Regardless of party. 
 
What do we gain as a society from silencing dissidents? Perhaps those running the fund-raiser should have let Mrs. Obama leave when she threatened to. Wouldn’t that have put things in perspective? When the person in power refuses to listen to constituents, how does that reflect badly on the constituent? As Dan Savage said on John Fugelsang’s Viewpoint, "We’ve really politicized the role of first lady. First ladies should expect some political back-and-forth."
 
Michelle Obama is one of the strongest and most admired women in the country. If she can’t handle a question about civil rights at a $10,000-per-person fund-raiser for the political party of which she is titular copresident, is that right or fair or honest?
 
I don’t get this new "protect the president and the Democrats" mode we’ve shifted into. As citizens and as LGBTQ people, we have to be allowed to make demands of our leadership. And thus far, those leaders, from the president to the Congress, have been woefully inadequate in meeting our needs.
 
But being told to shut up — either by the president and first lady, or by members of our own community — is not an answer. That’s not how we move forward as a nation or as a community.

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