Inside the Dire State of LGBTQ+ Rights in Oklahoma

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Nina Westervelt / Getty Images

The case of Nex Benedict, the gender-nonconforming teen in Oklahoma who died following a physical altercation with other students in a high-school bathroom, hit close to home for state representative Mauree Turner. They made history four years ago when they were elected to Oklahoma’s House of Representatives, becoming the U.S.’s first nonbinary legislator, and since then Turner has had a front-row seat to her conservative colleagues unleashing a relentless assault on LGBTQ+ rights. Some of the measures their fellow lawmakers have enacted include banning minors from receiving gender-affirming medical care, prohibiting trans children from using the school bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, and blocking trans girls and women from playing on female sports teams. This session alone, lawmakers have brought forward more than 50 bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community. While Nex’s death remains under investigation, it’s clear to Turner that it’s connected to these attacks. They spoke with the Cut about what some of these measures entail, their reaction to Nex’s death, and how the rest of the country can show up for transgender Oklahomans.

Conservative lawmakers across the country have been attacking LGBTQ+ rights through legislation, but Oklahoma has introduced more of these bills than any other state and has enacted some harsh anti-trans laws in particular. Why do you think this is?
The cruelty is the point. It is an attack on trans, gender-nonconforming, two-spirit Oklahomans being able to live their lives fully and freely as white cishet Oklahomans. It all boils down to an authoritarian rule and a control over bodily autonomy.

We saw a bill in committee over on the Senate side: SB 1530 by Senator Jessica Garvin, which creates a trans-exclusionary definition of woman based on reproductive capacity. We’ve got SB 1730, which prohibits certain gender-affirming care without parental consent at any treatment facility operated or certified by the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. There is SB 1731, which only recognizes three gender or sex classifications, which the author outlines as male, female, and intersex. It’s a lot, and I’m not going to read all of these bills off to you. But we all know that Oklahoma right now has one of the highest numbers of anti-LGBTQ+ policy packets in the nation. These are kids’ lives, as we can clearly see — Nex Benedict is not here with us any longer because of things like this.

How did you learn about Nex’s death?
The first thing I thought was, That could have been me. I learned about Nex’s death on a Sunday evening in the process of doomscrolling, but I didn’t know that Nex was Oklahoman until Monday morning. It took some time to process. I mean, I am still processing. As someone who has been riddled with anxiety since birth, I distinctly remember growing up in a time with Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. As a kid, I was thinking that if I wanted to be fully and freely myself, it might mean that I would have to be a martyr, that I would die just because someone didn’t like the way I decided to show up in the world. That layer of being trans was on top of being Black and Muslim in Oklahoma and the U.S. I never thought I’d make it to this age, make it through middle school or high school or college, let alone to be in a position like this.

If I can be candid, I ran for office to the left of a Democrat because — being Black, trans, queer, Muslim, in the buckle of the Bible Belt — oftentimes my communities are the first up on the chopping block when liberals or progressives want to amend a bill just to get a little bit further. It feels like oftentimes we get into a place like this and people will say, “Oh, okay. We see you. We hear you. We support you. Stay alive.” But what does it mean to continuously ask someone to stay alive who is in the crosshairs because they are trying to live fully and freely as themselves? Are you doing everything you can as an elected official who said that you cared about me? Are you doing everything that you can to make sure that I stay alive? Because allyship is not just the safe world you build between me and you. This phone call, this is not allyship. Allyship is making sure I’m taking direct actions so that you get to live fully and freely in a world. We’re also trying to understand that this is a moment that could really galvanize a lot of people. And I hate that we had to lose Nex in order for them to show up.

What are you hearing from your LGBTQ+ constituents in the aftermath of Nex’s death?
Oklahoma has been enacting its own trans genocide for a long time. Trans folks who live in the state, whether they are adults or whether they are parents of youth who live in the state, have been fleeing the state for a very, very long time. And that’s if they have the means to — because not everyone does. I am hearing predominantly from youth who are trying to figure out what’s next. What is the next big action to take? There are walkouts that are happening across the state in honor of Nex. There are folks calling for the removal of Superintendent Ryan Walters, including 350 organizations across the U.S. When I get finished with this call, I’ll go and pick up my 4-year-old. We go to the park, and every now and then I’ll talk to parents who know who I am. We talk about the fact that we are sending our students into a public-education system that we don’t know if they’re going to not come home today because there might’ve been a school shooter or because there might have been a bully who just didn’t think that their kid deserved to not be beaten up today. All of that comes off the backs of politicians who use rhetoric that is harmful for how students view one another.

The youth are resilient in a time where they absolutely don’t need to be. They are trying to figure out how to love and organize themselves out of this mess that we are giving to them. I’ll never forget the time I had to have a Zoom meeting with a kid who was worried about these anti-trans laws and they were wondering what detransitioning would look like for them in the next coming months. Those are hard conversations to have. When I ran for office, I thought I would just be able to write the bills, vote for the policy, do the debates, and have the community conversations. I never thought I’d have to figure out whether or not a death threat was real. I never thought I’d have to talk trans youth through detransitioning or parents through trying to find resources in other states because they need to leave in order for their kid to be able to survive.

A Republican state senator said at a public forum that he was “going to fight to keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma” in reference to Nex and LGBTQ+ people in general. How do you deal with this kind of rhetoric from your co-workers?
People will often ask me, “Are you willing and interested to work across the aisle?” I’d love nothing more if I had a commonsense colleague across the aisle that was willing to sit down and talk through things. But when folks like Senator Tom Woods feel empowered after this child’s death to say something like that, that tells me that you are not someone who is bound in compassion. You aren’t fit to lead a diverse population of people in any way, shape, or form. My heart hurts that this is the type of man who leads in this state, and it’s very evident that this is not the job for him.

What can people do to support LGBTQ+ Oklahomans today?
They can support Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ+ nonprofit that works across the state. They run on a shoestring budget, and I don’t actually get to do half of the work that I do without their policy insight. Just as important is when you see the crowdfunding effort for a trans member of the community who needs to pay for housing, water, or gas, who needs money for hormones or top surgery. Folks are more willing to give to a political candidate who will make $100,000 or $200,000 very quickly and will think twice before they ever donate to the trans person who needs help right then and there. It’s really important that we start to shift that narrative. Some elected officials are not fighting for us necessarily; they’re fighting to retain a political seat. And there are people who are fighting to survive, to make rent, to make sure that they have gas in their tanks so they can go to work. That is more important for me and for so many Oklahomans: to have those needs met rather than a political candidate who is going to raise a hundred thousand dollars just to send you a piece of paper that you probably should recycle. There are people literally dying, and it’s time that we really start shifting where we give our collective dollars.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Inside the Dire State of LGBTQ+ Rights in Oklahoma