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Non-binary Oklahoma lawmaker reflects on year since they were censured by colleagues


To Oklahoma now, where a state lawmaker who made history has had a difficult time in office. They are one of the few nonbinary lawmakers in the country. As Lionel Ramos of member station KOSU reports, that status brought another dimension of prominence and pressure.

LIONEL RAMOS, BYLINE: On a desk outside of the office of Oklahoma Representative Mauree Turner, there's a stack of flyers with Turner's portrait drawn in a halo-like light, like a saint. Visitors take them as souvenirs. But Turner has mixed feelings about being viewed as an icon.

MAUREE TURNER: It's one of those things - what do they say, right? Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

RAMOS: Turner was elected in 2020 from one of the state's few Democratic districts centered in Oklahoma City. Not only were they the first openly nonbinary and one of the first trans state lawmakers in the country, they're also Black and Muslim. And with that came expectations and pressure.

TURNER: Sometimes - most of the time - it's like an out-of-body experience, which I think is, like, very synonymous with being trans.

RAMOS: Turner says that like other LGBTQ Oklahomans, they're often caught between the hostile rhetoric of their opponents and the silence of others you might expect to be allies.


ANTHONY MOORE: I move that the Oklahoma House of Representatives formally censure Representative Mauree Turner for harboring a fugitive.

RAMOS: Like the rhetoric from Republican Representative Anthony Moore last year after a protester rested in Turner's office following a minor scuffle at a demonstration against anti-trans proposals.


MOORE: ...That assaulted an Oklahoma highway patrolman and that the Oklahoma House of Representatives remove Representative Turner from all committees of the House unless or until a written and public apology is issued.

RAMOS: A party line vote censured Turner, but they never apologized.

TURNER: They can always make an example out of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, of the Muslim community, of the Black community, right? If you're too loud or if you don't dress how we like you to dress - right? - if you don't assimilate to this body, then you don't get access to it.

RAMOS: And then there's the silence, sometimes from fellow Democrats.

TURNER: I sent out an email at the beginning of this session that we start writing our policy in a gender-neutral way. Nobody responded. Nobody had anything to say.

RAMOS: As a part of the small Democratic minority, Turner doesn't have the power to stop laws that forbid trans youth from getting gender-affirming care or from using bathrooms that fit their gender identity at school. But Mike Crespin, a legislative politics expert at the University of Oklahoma, says Turner's role still matters.

MIKE CRESPIN: Political scientists talk about sort of descriptive representation and how this is an example of that.

RAMOS: Many LGBTQ Oklahomans do look to Turner when they search for their own face in the legislature. So when Turner learned through social media about the death of Nex Benedicte, a nonbinary teen who died the day after a fight in a high school bathroom, they were overcome with fear, anger and guilt, especially after the state medical examiner ruled Benedict's death a suicide.

TURNER: I can't hold back the onslaught of all of the horrible legislation that these people write, but also, like, this is my job. I'm a state legislator. And state policymakers and shapers could have done so much more. We do this work together every day and, like, we all failed Nex. And that's hard. That's hard.

RAMOS: Benedict's death did shock the legislature into one move - a bill to increase punishments for bullying that leads to someone's death. It passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House. The day I interviewed Turner, LGBTQ rights activists gathered to honor Nex Benedict outside the Capitol.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Justice for Nex, Justice for Nex.

RAMOS: Turner said a few words of encouragement to the small crowd and then was approached by Navy veteran and trans woman Diana Lettkeman from rural Clinton, Okla., for a quick chat.


RAMOS: I asked Lettkeman what she said to Turner.

DIANA LETTKEMAN: They may not be in my district, but they still represent me as part of the community.

RAMOS: It's something Turner's heard a lot and that they say inspires and also weighs on them.

TURNER: Do I deeply consider myself to be an organizer and an activist and a good steward of community? Absolutely. But people will continuously ask you to produce and produce and perform - right? - and have another press conference or a press release about another death of another child. And, like, I'm a human, too.

RAMOS: Earlier this month, Turner announced they will not be seeking reelection in November. When I stopped by their office to ask why, they said it wasn't an easy choice, but that recent health problems make it necessary to step away from the pressures of public service so they can start to serve themself.

For NPR News, I'm Lionel Ramos in Oklahoma City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORIOL SIRINATHSINGH'S "OPEN SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lionel Ramos