HRC Blog

Putting the Heart in Heartland: Working Hard for Equality in Oklahoma

Oklahoma is a state in which every single federal legislator ranks at a zero on HRC's Congressional Scorecard, and the state legislature is not much better.  But on a recent trip to Oklahoma, I met with the top LGBT state and local leaders, and over 100 LGBT and allied college students, who are successfully advancing equality in the Sooner State.

I started my visit at the Dennis R. Neil Equality Center in Tulsa with Executive Director Toby Jenkins. A former Baptist pastor, and respected leader in multiple communities, Toby has built an astonishingly vibrant LGBT center with programs that range from writing workshops, yoga workouts, and free HIV testing, to a CyberCenter that offers educational, research, and recreational opportunities to the LGBT community via access to the Internet, and health services for transgender clients.  The center serves LGBT seniors as well, and has recently become an official SAGE affiliate.  As if this weren't enough, the center also sports an art gallery, an events center, a library, and a very moving memorial wall that pays tribute to LGBT veterans from Oklahoma.  Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Equality Center--which is the SIXTH largest LGBT center in the country and is nothing less than an oasis in the heartland--is that it is completely funded through private donors and foundations and is the only LGBT center that is debt-free. It does and should serve as a model of sustainable LGBT community centers, especially at a time when so many are closing. 

I also met with Laura Belmonte, the chair and co-founder of The Equality Network, the statewide advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender political and legal rights in Oklahoma.  TEN successfully blocked some terrible legislation this year:  one bill attempted to bar municipalities from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances granting municipal LGBT protections; another bill would have reinstituted the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the Oklahoma National Guard.  Tremendous thanks go to Laura and her team for ensuring that these legislative attacks on our community did not see the light of day.  To join the effort, join TEN at their third annual Lobby Day on April 5 to talk to your state legislators face to face.

My visit culminated at the first-ever Oklahoma LGBT College Summit held at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, sponsored by TEN and the ACLU of Oklahoma.  Here, over 100 student leaders spent the day learning about equality work happening throughout the state and sharing their strategies, struggles, and successes.  Most of these students live in cities of less than 10,000 people.  They are on the front lines of rural and campus organizing and their courage and passion is palpable.  Toby Jenkins urged every student there to graduate from college and then run for office in Oklahoma.  If even a few of these motivated and talented students do, Oklahoma will live up to its potential and promise as the sooner, rather than the later, state.

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