Two weeks ago, I was speaking to the Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE) network and Toby Jenkins, executive director of the LGBT liberation group Oklahomans for Equality, told me about a summer evening when Tulsa’s residents came together to protect the vulnerable. On June 17 last year, Tulsa’s City Council agreed to add sexual orientation to the city’s non-discrimination policy 35 years after it was proposed. The same night, the Council also voted, by the same proportion, against requiring city agencies and contractors to verify the national status of every employee.
The state of Oklahoma has carried its fair share of conservative policies. It already has a state law requiring employers to verify employees’ immigration status, and another vowing everlasting resistance to Sharia law. When the local LGBT community center started HIV prevention and treatment programs in the 1980s and ’90s, they had to spin off the programs because local legislators refused to appropriate money for anything associated explicitly with the word "gay." Jenkins and others had been fighting for the city non-discrimination policy to include LGBT people since 1976, losing four times in as many decades before this recent vote.
By the time the actual vote came, victory was, though historic and long overdue, a done deal. Over the last 10 years, Oklahomans for Equality conducted a very public fundraising campaign for the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, which takes up nearly a full city block in downtown Tulsa. The campaign and resulting visibility of a thriving LGBT community laid the groundwork for growing LGBT political power.
In 2009, the center hosted a forum with City Council candidates, where they got the leading Republican candidate, G.T. Bynum, who is a conservative Catholic, to agree to introduce the sexual orientation clause. "In conservative places, it makes a difference for our community to be seen," he said. "When all you know about gay people is what you see on TV, we’ve got to show some physical reality. The Council saw all these lawyers, doctors, schoolteachers and principals, in a beautiful 1800-foot building that proved our presence."
Still, it had been a long-fought battle, so 300 members attended the meeting, while many others watched a live feed back at the center with champagne cooling. The majority Republican council voted to protect LGBT people, 6-3.
And then the council turned to immigration. This proposal duplicated existing state law requiring all employers, including government, to participate in E-Verify, the program meant to identify undocumented workers. Oklahomans for Equality had already condemned the proposal, calling it racially motivated and based on zero evidence that immigrants were anything but good for Tulsa. When he learned that this vote would also take place during their watch, Jenkins told his folks that no one should plan to leave until it too had taken place.
The discussion was heated. The immigration measure had been sponsored by Jim Mautino. According to Jenkins, Mautino is out of touch with his own district, where many of the city’s Asians, Arabs and Latinos live. About 100 people had turned out in favor, speaking about their discomfort with so many foreigners living in their midst. Ten Latinos sat in the front row and spoke in broken English about being citizens, having kids who fought in Iraq and wanting nothing more than to contribute to the city.
When a Councilmember told the audience that people could leave if their agenda item had been discussed, nobody moved. When another asked how many supported the new law, 100 people stood. When he asked how many opposed it, the Latinos rose, turning to see 300 gay white people stand up too. I’ll confess, tears sprang to my eyes as I heard the story – must have been a lot like those Jenkins saw streaming down Latino faces that night. Afterwards, he said, the lobby teemed with gay people and Latinos hugging each other.
In our report, Better Together, the Applied Research Center found that the biggest barrier to LGBT groups and racial justice groups working together was a lack of strategic clarity about how race and sexuality issues relate to each other. But Toby Jenkins reminded me that we don’t need to over-intellectualize that connection. When the Sharia law proposal arose in their state legislature, Oklahomans for Equality was the first non-Muslim group to oppose it. "In this part of the country," he said, "if we stand up for racial and religious minorities as well as ourselves, it just builds good community for us."
* An earlier version of this story misidentified the sponsor of the immigration bill as G.T. Bynum rather than Jim Mautino.