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Capehart: A dispute where both are right

Published June 7, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Jonathan Capehart

The Washington Post.

First lady Michelle Obama wasn't having it — and I don't blame her. Lesbian activist Ellen Sturtz wasn't having it — and, well, I don't blame her, either.

Obama was speaking passionately about children at a Democratic Party fundraiser Tuesday night when Sturtz heckled her about the president's lack of action on ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) federal employees. Obama was not pleased. In audio of the incident, the first lady is heard saying, "One of the things that I don't do well is this." According to a report of the fundraiser, she "left the lectern and moved over to the protester." The report quoted Obama as saying, "Listen to me or you can take the mike, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice."

Could Obama have handled things better, not shown so much pique in public? Maybe. Still, I think the first lady has a right not to put up with being heckled.

All that said, while I didn't like Sturtz's choice of venue or target, I support the substance of her protest. She was talking about an executive order that would bar discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; it has been sitting on the president's desk since February 2012.

Consider three data points from a "confidential memo" by the Williams Institute, a think tank that focuses on public-policy issues, and the Center for American Progress:

The top five federal contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics — together receive about a quarter of all federal contracting dollars. Five out of five have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation; all five have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity; and the four largest provide benefits for domestic partners.

"Looking at the top 25 federal contractors," the memo noted, "24 have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation; 13 have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity; and 18 provide domestic partner benefits."

Looking at federal contractors that are in the Fortune 1000, 92 percent of those companies' employees are protected by a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, and 58 percent are protected by a gender-identity nondiscrimination policy.

Given all this, an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity most likely would not be such a big deal. And now that the presidential election is out of the way, the politics are less complicated.

All that's needed is the president's signature. And when you know that one signature is all it would take to bring about fairness, you'd probably do anything to get it — including heckling the spouse of the only person who has the power to sign.