LGBTQ activists see their hopes, and struggle, reflected in Black Lives Matter

Flag bearers walk around Government Springs Park Lake during Enid Pride 2018 on Saturday, September 22, 2018. 

ENID, Okla. — Enid city commissioners may soon get to vote on a measure to guarantee equality for LGBTQ city employees — a measure that failed seven years ago.

In 2013, Ward 3 Commissioner Ben Ezzell and then-Ward 5 Commissioner Tammy Wilson forwarded a motion that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s equal opportunity employment policy, affecting only city employees and city contractors.

“It seemed like such an obvious thing at the time,” Ezzell said in a June 12 interview with the News & Eagle. “It seemed like it would be a non-event.”

But, it turned out to be a hotly contested event.

“The night it was on the agenda, we had an enormous turnout from churches — of people holding Bibles, and they were literally thumping them,” Ezzell said. “It was not subtle.”

One vote changed at the last minute, Ezzell said, and the measure failed 3-4.

“It was rough,” Ezzell said. “It was a hard night.”

The state landscape

Enid is not alone in keeping it legal to discriminate against LGBTQ workers, or to discriminate within city boundaries for housing and public services.

According to the LGBTQ rights nonprofit Freedom for All Americans, there are no statewide LGBTQ protections for housing, employment and public services, and Norman is the only city in the state to comprehensively prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Even if Enid’s change to its employment policy had changed in 2013, it would have only pertained to city employees and contractors, and only to matters of employment.

“I felt like we should do at least that, and it just didn’t work,” Ezzell said. “It was a big blow to the community, just how much opposition there was. It’s disheartening.”

Without much traction since then at the local level, Ezzell, along with many LGBTQ activists in Oklahoma, put his hopes on passage of the Equality Act, which remains mired in Congress, or a Supreme Court case, such as the soon-to-be-decided Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to place LGBTQ people under the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I think it should be implemented nationally,” Ezzell said, “and I do think it does speak ill of our community that we don’t have those protections for employees of the city of Enid.”

The personal impact

Cynthia Stevison, who has several family members who work or have worked for the city of Enid, said inequality and fear of reprisals takes a toll on LGBTQ employees.

“My concerns are the employees’ health and wellness,” Stevison said. “When you have to be closeted, or you’re afraid you’re not going to get a promotion or you’re going to be fired for being your authentic self, that’s a lot to deal with. When you can’t talk about who you love, or who you’re dating, and you can’t have pictures at your desk, it creates a cycle for depression and self-esteem issues.”

Stevison said commissioners and supervisors at the city have a simple way to temporarily step into the lives of their LGBTQ employees.

“I would ask them to go one day without once talking about who they love, taking all the pictures of their family off their desk, and go just one day without talking about your kids or your family,” she said. “Those are things you take for granted when you’re a white cis person. It’s very hard.”

The state impact

According to a 2019 study by UCLA School of Law, 113,000 LGBTQ adults live in Oklahoma, and 74,000 are in Oklahoma’s workforce.

Because of Oklahoma’s patchwork approach to LGBTQ equality measures, only 29% of LGBTQ adults are protected from housing discrimination, and 3% are protected from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

And, according to the same study, there seems to be broad understanding discrimination is a prevalent issue for LGBTQ Oklahomans — 78% of Oklahoma residents think LGBTQ people experience discrimination in the state.

A separate 2016 survey by the left-leaning nonprofit Center for American Progress found 25% of LGBT Americans had experienced discrimination within the past year, and in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 26% of transgender Oklahomans who held or applied for a job in the prior year reported that they had been fired, denied a promotion, or not hired because of their gender identity, and 15% reported housing discrimination, such as being evicted or denied housing, in the past year.

Calls for change

Toby Jenkins, CEO and executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Oklahomans for Equality, said work continues to make sexual orientation and gender identity included in civil rights.

“We believe you should take sexual orientation and gender identity out of the equation the way you do race, gender or religion,” Jenkins said. “We feel like employment, housing and you having access to services should not depend on your sexual orientation or your gender identity.”

Allie Shinn, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, said there is some hope from the federal level, especially in the forthcoming Harris Funeral Homes case.

“The Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether or not it is legal to fire someone for being trans or gay,” Shinn said. “That is especially important here in Oklahoma, where it is legal to be discriminated against for being gay or trans, unless you live in the city of Norman. We hope the court will side with civil liberties in this moment and do the right thing.”

Shinn said she’s also hopeful the Equality Act will make it through Congress and into law — eventually. But, she said, Oklahomans shouldn’t wait for the federal government to grant civil liberties to LGBTQ people.

“You should not be fired for being who you are, period, and there are things you can do at the local level, absent any leadership on this issue at the state level,” Shinn said.

Local action

Enid city commissioners will soon have a chance to weigh in again on this question of guaranteeing equal opportunity for LGBTQ residents — at a minimum, when it comes to city employees and contractors.

Ezzell said he plans to again submit the change to the city’s personnel policy at an upcoming commission meeting. And this time, he may have the votes to pass it — he needs four, including himself.

The News & Eagle sent emails to all six commissioners and Mayor George Pankonin asking, “Would you support adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the city of Enid equal opportunity employment policy?”

Pankonin, Ward 5 Commissioner Rob Stallings and Ward 6 Commissioner David Mason, who also is running for state Senate, did not respond to the email.

But, Ezzell, Ward 1 Commissioner Jerry Allen, Ward 2 Commissioner Derwin Norwood and Ward 4 Commissioner Jonathan Waddell said they either would, or are inclined to, vote to make the change to the city’s equal opportunity employment standard.

In response to the question of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the equal opportunity clause, Allen responded “unequivocally yes.”

Norwood based his response on his faith.

“God created all people equal,” he wrote. “No one should be discriminated against for their social status, religion, party affiliation, race, gender, color of skin or sexual preference. God is the supreme judge.”

Waddell said he’d like to see the language of the proposal, but said, “On its face, I agree with the intent and would most likely vote for it.”

“No person should ever be denied employment for any reason that has no bearing on how they perform their job,” Waddell wrote. “That would truly be an injustice if that were to legally take place in our community.”

Waddell also couched his response within the context of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, and the broader call for social justice.

“Over the last several weeks people all over the world have marched for justice for Mr. Floyd, but that is not enough,” Waddell wrote. “Dr. King put it this way: ‘It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.’ We need to root out injustice wherever we may find it.”

Ezzell said he’s cautiously optimistic the measure will pass. But, he said, there’s still an uphill battle to be fought for equality in Enid.

“I think we’ve progressed a lot as a community,” Ezzell said, “but there’s still great pockets of bigotry in this town, and that’s tough to overcome.”

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for James? Send an email to jneal@enidnews.com.

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I am a retired Naval Officer and small business owner, outside of my work at the News & Eagle. My wife Tammy and I enjoy serving together at church and attending Gaslight and ESO. We have two daughters, three dogs and little free time.

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