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'It's really been a landmark year': After momentous 2019, Oklahoma City's LGBTQ community looks to future

Councilman James Cooper, center, walks with Allie Shinn, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, right, and more LGBTQ supporters during a march honoring Cooper's election in downtown Oklahoma City last year. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman]
Councilman James Cooper, center, walks with Allie Shinn, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, right, and more LGBTQ supporters during a march honoring Cooper's election in downtown Oklahoma City last year. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman]

After enduring decades of resistance, 2019 was a historic year for Oklahoma City’s LGBTQ community.

In 2019, Mayor David Holt signed a formal Pride week proclamation, Ward 2 representative James Cooper was sworn in as the city’s first openly gay council member, and last month, gender identity and expression protections were approved for city workers.

Now, local leaders and advocates hope the progress continues in 2020 and beyond.

“It’s really been a landmark year for LGBTQ people in Oklahoma,” said Allie Shinn, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

“Not only did we have updates to municipal personnel policies in Tulsa and Oklahoma City to include employment protections for transgender employees of the city, but we saw our first city in the state of Oklahoma adopt comprehensive nondiscrimination reforms for LGBTQ people with the city of Norman over the summer.”

It marks a significant shift for Oklahoma City, which went from having city officials ban Pride banners to seeing them march alongside drag queens and rainbow floats in the annual parade.

'The language is critical'

Councilman Cooper sponsored the resolution to update anti-discrimination policies for Oklahoma City employees to include “gender identity” and “gender expression.” The measure was approved 7-2 by the city council in December.

“That ‘gender expression’ part in the language is critical,” Cooper said, noting that LGBTQ people, especially transgender people of color, frequently face discrimination and violence based on the ways they act, look or speak.

“The way people express themselves in regards to their gender has very often put their lives on the line, so it was critical that we went back and shored up that language,” he said. “Making sure people are able to earn a living is the most important thing.”

Cooper, 37, begins his second year on the council in April. He said finding common ground among the people he serves — LGBTQ and otherwise — has been pivotal in his first year.

“I ran a campaign focused on our neighborhoods — not on my identity as an LGBTQ person, but on my identity as a resident in the Paseo and as a resident of Ward 2,” Cooper said.

“I think this last year has taught me that when we speak the common language of what makes a neighborhood safe and sound (for everyone) … then we’re speaking a common language that breaks all barriers.”

Upgrades planned for LGBTQ district

Among the neighborhoods expected to soon see safety upgrades is the 39th Street District, home to most of the city’s gay nightclubs and the annual LGBTQ Pride festival and parade.

Nickolas Potter, the district’s executive director, said 39th Street has been working closely with the city and expects to start construction on a new streetscape for the strip of bars and auto shops this summer after Pride.

The city council is set to vote on the project, which was approved as part of the Better Streets, Safer City initiative, once plans are finalized.

“Our biggest goal with this project was safety. We want to broaden those sidewalks so we have more designated places to walk instead of having people walking in the street,” Potter said.

Kim Cooper-Hart, principal planner with the city, said the project will feature new walkways and trees, improved parking, upgraded lighting and better crosswalks. She said pedestrian safety, especially at night, is a top priority.

The district has seen several changes over the last year. Some businesses and venues there have closed or moved while others are working to renovate. The nightclub Angles, a longtime district staple that once served as a special event space, is now open six nights a week.

Cooper-Hart said the revitalization efforts should help motivate new property and business owners to invest in the area.

“We want people to feel safe to meander throughout the district. That’s good for the places of business there when people feel like they can linger,” she said.

Potter said 39th Street is also partnering with local artists for a mural project, including a piece paying homage to the neighborhood’s place on historic Route 66.

“It’s definitely going to be a complete transformation in the vein of what the Plaza District has done and what the Paseo has done.”

Looking ahead

Shinn said LGBTQ Oklahomans are bracing themselves for the 2020 legislative session, calling it a stressful time for the community.

“In the 2019 session, we didn’t have any anti-LGBTQ laws passed and we really hope we can say the same for 2020,” she said.

In October, two state lawmakers held an interim study to learn more about the harmful effects of conversion therapy on LGBTQ children. Shinn said she hopes to see legislative action this year banning the controversial practice that aims to “convert” people who identify as LGBTQ to heterosexuality.

“Conversion therapy is a widely discredited practice. This is not a partisan issue. It’s simply: Do you support child abuse or not?” she said.

Shinn would also like to see more cities adopt anti-discrimination protections similar to those passed in Norman last August. “Cities have so much power” to protect their residents, she said.

“LGBTQ residents of most cities in Oklahoma do not have protections. We’d love to see municipalities move forward with protections for all the people that call their city home.”

Siali Siaosi

Siali Siaosi joined The Oklahoman as a NewsOK web editor in 2015. He holds a bachelor's degree in Mass Communication from the University of Central Oklahoma. When he's not grooming his beard, Siali can be found scrolling online or listening to... Read more ›