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First nonbinary state lawmaker in the U.S. reflects on a hard time in the Okla. House

State Rep. Mauree Turner, a Democrat from Oklahoma City, stands on the Oklahoma State Capitol steps.
Lionel Ramos/KOSU
State Rep. Mauree Turner, a Democrat from Oklahoma City, stands on the Oklahoma State Capitol steps.

As the death of a nonbinary Oklahoma teen in March reverberated around the U.S., especially in LGBTQ+ communities, Oklahoma State Rep. Mauree Turner saw the news on social media. They said they were overcome with fear, anger and guilt.

The teen, Nex Benedict, had diedthe day after a fight in a school bathroom and the state medical examiner ruled it a suicide. It made Turner think about the anti-LGBTQ+ rights laws passed by their colleagues.

"I can't hold back the onslaught of all of the horrible legislation that these people write but also, like, this is my job," Turner said in a recent interview, fighting tears. "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."

Turner was elected in 2020 from Oklahoma City and one of the state's few deeply Democratic districts. Not only were they the first openly nonbinary state lawmaker and one of the first trans lawmakers in the country, they're also Black and Muslim.

Their prominence has brought attention and pressure. Turner spoke with KOSU in March as they were deliberating over whether to seek another term. And early this month Turner announced they would not seek reelection. They cited health issues and a need to focus on self-care.

State Rep. Mauree Turner gives a speech last month at the Oklahoma State Capitol. The crowd was there to honor Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who died a day after a fight with other students in a high school bathroom.
/ Lionel Ramos/KOSU
Lionel Ramos/KOSU
State Rep. Mauree Turner gives a speech last month at the Oklahoma State Capitol. The crowd was there to honor Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who died a day after a fight with other students in a high school bathroom.

'An out-of-body experience'

On a desk outside Turner's office 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. "It's one of those things. What do they say? Heavy is the head that wears the crown," Turner said.

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

"When I think about my own transness and me as a legislator able to provide representation, I think about what people perceive 'Representative Turner' as, versus who Mauree Turner is, and it gives me this anxiety," they said. "I don't want to let anybody down."

Turner's job was made harder about a year ago, when they were censured and removed from legislative committees. There had been a demonstration in the capitol against anti-trans measures with some scuffling between protesters and police. Afterwards, a protester went to Turner's office to rest. Republican legislators accused them of "harboring a fugitive."

The censure passed with a party-line vote that demanded a written apology, which Turner never issued.

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

And Turner says they've sometimes encountered silence from fellow Democrats.

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

The burden of 'descriptive representation'

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 pending action in the House.

As a part of the small Democratic minority in Oklahoma's legislature, Turner doesn't have the power to stop laws forbidding trans youth from getting gender-affirming care and from using bathrooms that fit their gender identity at school.

That makes Turner mainly a figurehead for the LGBTQ+ community in Oklahoma. But Mike Crespin,a legislative politics expert and director of the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma, says Turner's role still matters.

"Political scientists talk about sort of descriptive representation, and how this is an example of that," Crespin said.

"Not to say Turner only represents LGBTQ people, but there is a constituency for that in the state that probably looks to them for representation and would love to see actual results and legislation passed," he said. "But just seeing a face, I think it's helpful."

Many LGBTQ+ Oklahomans do look to Turner when they search for their own face in the legislature.

"We have a nonbinary person who is hearing me and sees me in a way no other representative has because they know what it's like to be me," said RPC Perez, a 29-year-old Oklahoman during a recent LGBTQ+ storytelling event at the capitol. "They've heard my pain and my grief. And I have the utmost belief that they will act in those ways to better this state for me."

On the day of KOSU's interview with Turner, LGBTQ+ rights activists gathered to honor Nex Benedict outside the capitol. Among them was Navy veteran and trans woman Diana Lettkeman, from Clinton, a city of about 8,000 people 75 miles west of Oklahoma City.

"They may not be in my district, but they still represent me as part of the community," Lettkeman said of Turner.

It's something Turner's heard a lot. They say it lifts them with inspiration but also weighs them down with pressure.

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

Copyright 2024 KOSU

Lionel Ramos
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