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Gay in the red

Gay in the red


Living in the buckle of the Bible Belt isn't always easy for these GLBT Oklahomans, but they're determined to live openly, make a difference, and save their home state from itself

Two years ago, Krista Nicolls's middle child, Steven, walked into her bedroom in the family's house in Shawnee, Okla. The 14-year-old needed to tell her a secret, but the words would not come out. He began to cry. "I knew what was coming," says Nicolls, a down-to-earth cashier at an appliance parts distributor and mother of a 20-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. "I had known since he was about 5. I tried to lighten up the situation by telling him that I knew he wasn't smoking or hadn't gotten anyone pregnant or that he wasn't on drugs." After a half hour, Steven blurted out, "Mom, I like boys." Later on, Steven, whose last name is Cosby, told his mother that he'd felt he had two choices that night: come out to her or kill himself. "I've always told him that all I cared about was that he was happy," Krista says. Steven's coming-out seems like an eternity ago to Krista--a member of the board of a chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Norman, Okla.--and her husband, Lewis, Steven's stepfather, a burly, affable office manager. They share their story during a PFLAG potluck dinner at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall in Norman, where a folding table is piled high with fried chicken, casseroles, and desserts. The room buzzes with the warmth of activists, college students, and parents of gay children. Everyone is glad to have found one another. Although Steven dropped out of high school, he took his GED in January and is enrolled in a prenursing program. He eventually wants to move to a place with a warmer climate, he says, maybe Florida or California, and be a nurse on a gay cruise ship. "Most of the kids that Steven [now 16] hangs out with are accepting, and he doesn't really hang out with anyone whose families are not all right with someone being gay," says Krista. "It's not a big deal to the younger kids, even in Shawnee." The blue-collar town of 29,000 is home to three Christian universities and is not the most diverse place in the world, she says, adding with a chuckle, "The only thing I've had to think about differently is, Does this now mean that it's all right if he has girls spend the night, but not boys?" Steven and his new boyfriend, Will, have been dating since August and gave each other rings for Christmas. The acceptance that Steven Cosby has found among his parents and friends is more common in Oklahoma than gay and lesbian Americans who live outside the state might think. Jim Roth, an Oklahoma County commissioner, tells the story of the time he joined an influential Oklahoma City leader at a country club for an informal business meeting. Roth and the official were having a conversation in the men's club room when the group of men at the next table began telling antigay jokes. The city official apologized to Roth. Yet for all the progress, the election of 2004, in which Oklahoma was one of 11 states that passed a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, has provided a stark reminder for gay Oklahomans just how quickly their rights can vanish into thin air. About 66% of voters went for George W. Bush, and 76% favored the marriage ban. Those same Oklahoma voters also OK'd state-sponsored gambling by 65%: the state's first lottery, Krista Nicolls points out. "I think they're just hypocrites," she says. "If you're going to use your Bible to further push your agenda, it's just wrong." But rather than feeling divided from many of their straight neighbors, GLBT Oklahomans and their loved ones often feel a greater gulf between themselves and the gays and lesbians on the country's coasts. The impact of, say, legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts or second-parent adoption rights in California, they fear, may be to rally Oklahoma's more conservative citizens to turn against them at the polls and in everyday life. In Oklahoma, as in many "red states," they're still fighting simply for protection from losing their jobs due to their sexuality--and sometimes for their very existence. "My biggest concern is that these things are going to give people the idea that it's all right to start gay-bashing," says Krista Nicolls. "I'm really scared about that." Terry Gatewood, a longtime Oklahoma gay rights activist, rattles off the antigay laws that the state legislature has recently pushed through. "They passed the antigay adoption bill. They passed [a ban on] gay marriage. I don't know what other antigay measures that lawmakers could try and do." Adds Paula Schonauer, Oklahoma's only transgender police officer, "The Lawrence v. Texas decision, the Massachusetts marriages, and the same-sex marriage amendment--all of this stuff happened boom, boom, boom. Oklahomans are now turned off about gay people in a way that they weren't before. The culture here has never been GLBT-friendly, but over the past two years it has gotten hostile." Yet these GLBT Oklahomans have no thought of fleeing their home state. They're sticking around, taking on extraordinary challenges, reaching out for allies and one another. Activists from the Cimarron Alliance Foundation--the state's most influential gay rights group--are looking at how to expand beyond metropolitan areas and educate rural voters on such issues as harassment, workplace fairness, and legal protections for same-sex couples. The battles will be hard-fought. Oklahoma remains the buckle of the country's Bible Belt. The Southern Baptist Church and the Church of Christ, both fervently and actively opposed to GLBT equality, are formidable forces here. In fact, the state's residents identify themselves as Southern Baptist almost seven times more often than the average American, according to the state's historical society. Some worship centers on the edge of Oklahoma City are so massive that they resemble shopping centers reaching toward the vast prairie sky. Orange juice queen Anita Bryant, who led infamous antigay movements in the 1970s, was born in Barnsdall, Okla., in 1940 and was crowned Miss Oklahoma in 1958. Oklahoma City's daily newspaper, The Oklahoman, still runs a "Today's Prayer" feature on its front page. Last August, during a campaign stop, Oklahoma Republican congressman Tom Coburn got into hot water with activists when he told them that "lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom." In January new Oklahoma County commissioner Brent Rinehart vowed to rescind the county's new policy that protects gay and lesbians from discrimination in the workplace. Yet "one of the things that I find most interesting about the intolerance in Oklahoma is that the state has a very proud populist tradition," says Oklahoma County commissioner Roth, the state's first openly gay elected official. "It's a relatively young state--not quite a hundred years old. Its constitution is very thorough and one of the longest in the nation because it deal with citizen involvement and the idea that every vote counts." Oklahoma's long, colorful history is marked by a Wild West identity that includes the great land runs, a cattle boom, and oil, the riches from which continue to flow through neighborhoods of Oklahoma City where the houses rival anything seen in Beverly Hills. Yet the majority of the state--one of the last and least inviting refuges for Native Americans to be taken by European immigrants--remains rural and poor. Oklahoma's median household income was only $35,000, ranking the state 45th in the country, in last year's annual report by the U.S. Census Bureau. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, a mix of immigrants from Poland, Germany, and Ireland had already joined the Native Americans, along with African-Americans who came to the region in the late 19th century as gunfighters, farmers, and cowboys. In the early years of the 20th century, Tulsa was the country's financial and commercial center for African-Americans, many of whom were millionaires. The city's Greenwood district was known as the "Black Wall Street" until a race riot destroyed the area in 1921. Remnants of the state's historic pride in diversity and the Wild West "live and let live" attitude remains, despite the efforts of right-wing activists. A poll taken last year by Cimarron Equality Oklahoma showed that 86% of Oklahoma voters don't believe that GLBT people should be fired from jobs because of their sexual orientation. Oklahoma City residents just formed the city's first gay and lesbian business association. And for the first time in history, city leaders, led by the chamber of commerce, have formed a committee to explore how to make the metro area more diverse. They fear that if things don't change, companies will not conduct business in the state. Even the staunchly conservative Oklahoman hired a reporter to cover diversity. Yet in 2005 the fact remains that "we've written it into our laws and our state constitution that it's not acceptable to be gay," says Josh Beasley, an openly gay 26-year-old who lives in the capital. A wiry guy who could be mistaken for a young Republican, Beasley moved back to his home state three years ago from Denver. He is constantly trying to explain to his Republican coworkers at the nonprofit group Feed the Children why the party's policies are hurting gay people. Beasley is sitting for a dinnertime interview at the Habana Inn, a gay resort that bills itself as the largest of its kind in the Southwest. The inn is a one-stop shop for gay men in search of a cheap room, a strong drink, a hearty meal, a decent drag show, or anonymous sex. During most waking hours, a mix of luxury sedans, American-made cars, and dusty pickup trucks pull into the parking lot for the main attraction: cruising. They're all at the Habana to meet Mr. Right--or at least Mr. Right Now, the locals say with a laugh. The weekend crowds blur into a haze of drinks and cigarette smoke. For these men, the Habana is their refuge. Inside the Western bar cowboys are line-dancing in ass-tight Wranglers and felt hats. At the cabaret bar the drag queens are stuffing tips in their dresses. At the dance bar the twinks are removing their shirts. A swirl of drag queens with teased hair are selling shots, and hiply dressed lesbians play pool. It's a haven that anyone who has lived in the U.S. heartland would recognize: The place where young and old, men and women, rich and poor all mingle with the common goal of having fun in a place where it's OK to be gay. But in many states, beyond these outposts activists are bracing for conservative lawmakers who want to flex their newfound might to flood legislatures with antigay laws. In Mississippi gay rights advocates say they'll have a tougher time trying to add hate-crimes protections that include sexual orientation to the books--a dream they've spent a decade trying to make into a reality. Republican lawmakers in Tennessee and Kansas have vowed that they will pass constitutional amendments to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. A majority of Democrats in each state appears to support the antigay measures. In Missouri gay activists expect that lawmakers will try to institute new restrictions on adoption. "It's hard to paint a rosy picture," says Julie Brueggemann, executive director of PROMO, a statewide gay rights group. "This is the first time in 80 years that Missouri has openly hostile legislators who are in charge of the house, senate, and now the governorship. In the past we've always had a governor that we could count on for a veto in case something did get through the legislature." In Oklahoma, Anne Magro and her partner, Heather Finstuen, have seen firsthand how quickly lawmakers can take away protections. The couple joined a lawsuit by Lambda Legal to try to repeal Oklahoma's law against adoptions by gays, which was signed into law May 4. It outlaws adoptions by gay and lesbian parents from out of state, even for those who've legally cemented their adoption rights in other states. Magro and Finstuen are not hard-bitten activists; they simply want to protect their 6-year-old twin girls. The pair are sitting for a lunchtime interview at an Indian buffet in a strip mall near the highway in the college town of Norman, where they live. Magro is an accounting professor at the University of Oklahoma, Finstuen a second-year law student who's getting a crash course in constitutional law these days. It's a rare break from their busy schedule as moms, what with sleepovers, play dates, soccer practice, gymnastics, and Girl Scouts. Although two other sets of couples are part of the lawsuit, Magro and Finstuen are the public face. They're the ones who have the exhausting schedule of doing the media interviews, keeping full-time jobs, and making time for the twins. (To protect the twins' privacy, The Advocate agreed not to print the girls' names.) The case may not be resolved for years, yet "we felt that we had a duty to do it," says Finstuen. "We have an opportunity to take a stand and to make a difference in a lot of people's lives." Neither planned to become an Oklahoma activist. They met as students at the University of Illinois in 1991 and by 1998 had careers in New Jersey, living in the town of Maplewood, which bragged of its diversity in advertisements that appeared in The New York Times. Magro delivered twin girls that year; Finstuen went through the second-parent adoption process in 2000. That same year the University of Oklahoma called with a job offer for Magro. "All we really knew about Oklahoma is that it was really conservative and in the Bible Belt," Finstuen says. Babies in tow, the couple visited Oklahoma for the first time and saw their stereotypes shattered. Norman seemed a welcoming college town, more liberal than the state as a whole. As a test, Magro and Finstuen walked through the aisles of a Wal-Mart and acted as a couple, trying to gauge the reaction from customers and salespeople. No one batted an eye. Nevertheless, Finstuen says, "once you have children, you have a much greater responsibility in terms of what you expose your kids to." So they scheduled meetings at local elementary schools. "We had a pretty good reaction from the school directors and the school principals," Magro remembers. "One principal said to us, 'Your kids aren't even 2 years old yet, and you're visiting us. You're exactly the kind of family that we want in our school.' " The couple moved to Oklahoma, where the twins are now enrolled in a Montessori school. Life became mundane. The girls were invited to birthday parties. A conservative Baptist neighbor asked the women to watch her daughter the day the neighbor went into labor. Other children at school were asking the teacher why they couldn't have two mommies. Magro laughs when she tells the story of one trip to Home Depot: "I had really short hair at the time. There was this nice older lady who walked up and said to my kid, 'Oh, isn't that sweet. You're helping your daddy pick out the light fixtures.' And my daughter was just like, 'I don't have a daddy. I have two moms.' The woman just said 'Oh,' and she turned around and walked away." Then the adoption ban passed, stripping Finstuen of her parental rights around Mother's Day. "Clearly, I'm their mom, but it was just the weirdest feeling that this could happen," she says. Only five state senators voted against the measure. Said James Williamson, Republican leader of the Oklahoma senate: "A key component of the radical homosexual agenda is to take away the right of states to regulate and define adoptions, just as they are trying to redefine marriage across the nation." Williamson went on to shepherd through the legislature a proposed constitutional amendment, defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, for the November ballot. GLBT groups tried to fight back. They began a million-dollar advertising campaign, arguing in one USA Today ad that "studies show that a state's level of tolerance for its gay and lesbian citizens directly impacts its success in attracting the talented people and creative atmosphere essential for economic growth in today's competitive marketplace." The amendment passed overwhelmingly on November 2, and--perhaps a greater blow to the state's fight for GLBT equality--the Democrats lost control of the state house. "Oklahoma's gay rights activists were able to control the legislation for a long time," says Richard Ogden, an openly gay attorney who helped start the state's gay political action committee in 1995. Mostly with the help of Democrats, gay rights lobbyists were able to kill many antigay bills behind closed doors in the legislature. But they failed to heed the slow, methodical advancements by the conservative right, Ogden says. Ogden lives near the state capitol building with his partner of six years in a gorgeous, sprawling home. He was raised in a politically prominent family; his father was majority leader of the Oklahoma house from 1959 to 1963--a time when many lawmakers in the state supported the progressive policies of President John F. Kennedy. Ogden had the connections to climb the ladder and perhaps eventually run for governor, but that meant he would have had to stay in the closet, marry a woman, and raise a family. Instead, he came out and took on an activist role. Ogden dreams of heading up the Oklahoma Bar Association or sitting on the state supreme court, although he's not so sure what will happen in the near future. "There is more than a glass ceiling here. It's an iron room in which the state places gays and lesbians," he says. "I still know that nothing is impossible; I can climb out the window and up the exterior wall to the next level above me, but why should it be this way? I just want a fair shake." Ogden has achieved a level of acceptance in Oklahoma City. He and his partner, Mike Mclain, were featured in The Oklahoman's coverage of a 2004 homes tour--a hugely visible step that the daily would have never allowed in the past. And he can tick off a list of wealthy Oklahomans who raise large amounts of money for AIDS programs. Yet he is still too often stunned at the bigotry around him. In December, Ogden and Mclain were watching the movie Alexander at a local multiplex. As Alexander's lover, Hephaistion, lay dying in one scene, Ogden remembers, an audience member screamed, "Die, fag!" That same month a local openly gay lawyer was shot in a robbery in his home, a crime for which police have charged four people with burglary, robbery, kidnapping, and extortion. It doesn't appear that that the criminals targeted their victim based on his sexual orientation, but it still caused Ogden, a well-known gay attorney himself, to wonder if he had any reason to worry. But moving out of state, he says, is not an option. "I have family ties and political ties here," he says, "although I can't blame people who don't have those kinds of ties and leave." Paula Schonauer is not leaving Oklahoma either, although her life might be easier if she did. The 39-year-old activist--and the state's only transgender police officer--is suing the Oklahoma City police department for harassment. In the three years since she has transitioned, harassment by coworkers has only gotten worse, and the department is "unable to foster a professional work environment," she says. With a teenage son and 6-year-old daughter in town, "I don't want to leave my children's lives," says Schonauer, who is divorced from but still friends with the kids' biological mother. "We're not totally free here, not at all. It's not an ideal situation, but I think that my kids are better off than [they would be with] a heterosexual couple who've gotten divorced and are at each other's throats all the time. I think my kids are going to grow up and be fine." Schonauer meets up with The Advocate at the Red Cup coffeehouse, perhaps the hippest place to get a cup of joe in the Oklahoma City metro area. It sits in the middle of a few blocks that make up the city's Asian neighborhood--a fact acknowledged by a small street sign on one end that reads simply "Asian district". Schonauer picked this rendezvous point because she's comfortable here: As an Oklahoma City police officer, she helped the department make inroads into the Asian populace. She even learned some Vietnamese. She gained the Asian residents' trust, and they helped her solve homicides and other crimes. She received an award from the U.S. Department of Justice. At the Red Cup--which bears a sign on the door proclaiming that the shop does not sell soft drinks such as Coca-Cola because such companies are global corporate monopolies--Schonauer and her daughter, Joanna, each pull up a chair. Schonauer is ever the doting parent, giving the girl money for a cookie and finding her a magazine to read as the interview stretches into an hour. Raised most of her life in Oklahoma, Schonauer graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State University. She married a woman from Norman in 1988. As "Paul," she served in Operation Desert Storm before joining the police force. "I would have these points where I was wonderfully sure about my masculinity and [thought], I can do this, and later on I would be filled with such doubt," she recalls. "It would be up and down and up and down." She was always completely honest with her family once she understood her need to transition, she says. By 2000 she was either going to commit suicide or get the operation, she says. Her son, age 10 at the time, told her, "Dad, if you've got to change, change, but don't leave my life." Schonauer is a regular at her son's band concerts and swim meets. "I've had a lot of media here cover me, and people know me," she says. "I've apologized to my son if people tease him because of me, and he just says, 'Eh, don't worry about it. They'd probably make fun of me for something else.' " Schonauer understands. In 2000 she informed the police department of her plans to have sex-reassignment surgery. Her superiors were supportive, telling local media at the time, "We wouldn't treat this particular situation any different than we would treat an officer going through a divorce or another particularly emotionally stressful time.... As long as Paula can perform the job, we're gong to provide all the necessary emotional support." But her coworkers were less understanding once Schonauer returned from Thailand in 2002, her transition complete. The on-the-job harassment started and never stopped. "There's a difference between knowing and seeing," she says, explaining why she was more comfortable before her transition. In May, Schonauer was taken off patrol and given an interim clerical role; she's now on paid leave. "My career was going well," she says. "Now it's been sidelined." Jim Roth's career in Oklahoma could easily have been sidelined because he's gay. But in 2002 he was elected as a commissioner for Oklahoma County. The race was long and bitter. He started his campaign two years early because he knew that his opponent would make his sexual orientation an issue. He was right. "Every piece of literature my opponent sent out talked about my sexuality," he remembers. "It would have been a mail piece about building new roads and bridges, but then there would be a note about me being gay and that fact being against Oklahoma's values." His opponent attempted to build an impressive voting bloc by appealing to networks of voters in Baptist churches. Youth groups were recruited to go door-to-door, making sure residents knew that Roth was gay and that he'd received money from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group in Washington, D.C., that works to elect openly gay candidates across the country. Roth stayed on message, talking about fiscal discipline and the need for more infrastructure. He won by 11 percentage points. "I generally think that citizens care more about a straight road than they do about a straight officeholder," he says. "I think it's an insult to citizens to think that their sexuality is an issue." But Roth knows he will be a target of the far right when he runs again in 2006. "I'll become a prize to somebody out there who can't run on their qualifications, so they need to find what they think will be an easy target," he says. In addition to fixing the local roads and bridges, one of Roth's goals is to try to make city and county officials understand that there are economic consequences for not being welcoming to minorities. He's a fan of Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida, whose research has linked cities' cultural diversity to their rise as economic powerhouses. Even Oklahoma City has taken note: In 2004 the chamber of commerce held a series of meetings with various minority groups to see how they could make the city more welcoming; they're now discussion how to implement what they've learned. One reason Roth ran for office to try and make a difference was that an acquaintance, Chuck Mears, was killed in a brutal hate crime in 1996. Mears, who serviced the elevators at the county courthouse where Roth worked, had brought two guys back to his house who then used a knife to cut out his eyes before shooting him dead, burning down his house, and stealing his pickup truck. They were caught after one of the men bragged that he had "rolled a fag." The killers were eventually prosecuted in the same courthouse where their victim had worked. While Roth is proud of the local examples of changed attitudes, the most recent election shows him just how far Oklahoma's culture has to go. "The dominance of this religious rhetoric that's now become the political rhetoric has really cast a chill on the state's population," he says. "The faith environment has really gotten away from the teachings of Jesus Christ, which is, Love thy neighbor. Churches here seem to be getting out of the business of feeding and clothing people and putting their efforts into voter guides and this idea that 'this person is worse than me.' " Roth and his partner of eight years, who lives in Dallas, have discussed marriage. They've taken steps for legal protection of their estates, but it still seems incomplete without a legal union. "I live in a state that recognizes common-law marriage--that means you can shack up for six months and you can show to the world that you are husband and wife," he says. "What is that? It's not exactly covenant marriage that you hear about in your local church. And I live in a state that has one of the worst divorce rates. I want to turn to people that are in the streets cheering for the protection of marriage to ask them to please go outlaw divorce." Faith cuts both ways in Oklahoma. The gay and lesbian citizens go to church as well, and some hear messages quite different from the antigay sermons at the Baptist and Church of Christ behemoths that dominate the landscape. One rainy Sunday morning, members are filing into the Church of the Open Arms, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ--a world away from the antigay Church of Christ. One of the few gay-welcoming congregations in the entire state, the church is packed to capacity this day as the Reverend Kathy McCallie preaches about the need for tolerance and diversity. It is the Sunday after CBS and NBC refused to air a commercial by the United Church of Christ that touted the church's proud welcome to all worshippers and depicted gays and others being turned away by bouncers in front of another church. The congregation is outraged, and the church will hold a press conference the next day, denouncing the networks' argument that tolerance is too controversial an idea under George W. Bush. After the service there's a potluck in the church basement. At one table sit Barbara York and Von Green, a couple now for 42 years. They met in Oklahoma City in July 1962 when a mutual friend set them up on a date. The sparks flew "and we wanted to research it further," says York with a laugh. The couple never looked back. For years both were physical education teachers, and they grew used to living secret double lives. "When we were young it was mostly against the law to be gay. We were used to gay bashings and getting fired. And then it got better--or at least people ignored it, anyway," says York. When the women were working for a private counseling firm in the late 1970s, a boss learned of their relationship. They were told to resign at once or they would be fired. The women immediately left. There's no doubt that their lives have vastly improved since the 1960s. They've found acceptance within their families. They're setting up their estates to protect them when either one dies. They've made sure that the hospital has a record that they are partners so that they have visitation rights. Their house is jointly owned. Yet like so many GLBT residents of Oklahoma, they are seeing the state regress, and they fear for the future. "I think it's going to go back to the way it was in the past," says York. "I think we're going to have more gay bashings and there are going to be bar raids. They're going to start giving us a hard time because it's popular [to do so]. People have a tendency to do what's popular." Other gay residents of Oklahoma City--such as Gina Love, 38, and her partner of almost two years, Kelly Fives, 39--remain hopeful about the future. Love, an insurance agent, and Fives, an instructor at the Federal Aviation Administration Academy, say they have not experienced any discrimination. "No one has said anything to us in our jobs, and we're very out," Love says. "Kelly has said that when she lived in California she had people holler stuff at her. When she moved here she was scared to be open about her sexuality." What kinds of rights would Love and Fives like to have? The guarantee that their estates are legally protected. The right to make medical decisions for each other if one becomes incapacitated. They'd also like to marry, but they feel there would be no legal or financial benefit to having a ceremony in Massachusetts and then returning home to Oklahoma. They hold out hope that those dreams will become a reality. "As the whole country gets better, Oklahoma will get better also," Love says. "It's going to take time. Any time that there's a civil rights movement, it takes time for things to happen. It doesn't happen overnight."

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