Mauree Turner is a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. They made headlines after being elected last November for being the first Muslim in the Oklahoma Legislature and for being the first nonbinary lawmaker in the U.S. Turner represents House District 88.
In a new Oklahoma Watch feature “A Mile In Another’s Shoes,” an initiative to give voice to the voiceless or call attention to the plight of those affected by public policy, Turner describes what their experience has been like as a freshman and minority lawmaker. Their comments were edited for length and clarity:
I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. I have been living in Oklahoma City for over three years now and am still getting adjusted to it. To go from a small town (Ardmore) to be thrown in front of, like … I came in knowing I’d be the first Muslim Oklahoma elected, if I did get elected, but didn’t know about being the first nonbinary person.
On top of that, coming out as a process… or not even coming out, but allowing people into that intimate space. For me anyway, I’m very intentional about who I let in that space. So being the first nonbinary queer Muslim elected on these fronts was jarring for a bit because I had chosen who I wanted to let in. But once the national media got ahold of it I was outed in front of the nation. So that was really jarring to realize too, but I say humbling because my inbox is full of young queer folks and young nonbinary folks that never saw themselves in politics or didn’t think that there was a place for them.
I didn’t want it to be a closet race. The work that I’ve done here in Oklahoma City has always been very intersectional of my LGBTQ+ community, my Black community, children of incarcerated parents and immigration. All of these things, right? So that (being nonbinary) wasn’t a secret. I was just very selective of who I let into that space. And so knowing that now people were talking about all of those parts of me on a national level is a little jarring.
A surge in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant and lagging vaccine uptake is hitting Oklahoma just in time for back to school. And schools can’t require masks unless Gov. Stitt declares another state of emergency.
Interim studies, set to take place from August through November, often help guide future legislation.
Gov. Stitt earned kudos from public health officials for publicizing his vaccination in March. Since then?
I get to do work that I really care about. Performing to the best of my abilities means taking care of the people of House District 88, it means taking care of Oklahomans. And that feels really good. Even on the roughest day. Like today, I woke up, took my dog out for a walk, I think around 7:30, as soon as I step outside, I hear, “Good morning, Mauree!” Being able to be that face and be tangible and give people access to politics in a way that they haven’t before, it is also cathartic for me.
I came out as Muslim before I came out as queer. The very first two folks that I told I was [Muslim], I don’t talk to anymore. One looked at me and said, “Are you one of them towel heads?” This was at a time where I didn’t wear the hijab. And one I told, I think we were having dinner and movies with friends. That was the last time we ever said anything to each other.
How I show up in the world, I’m not hard to love and I don’t need to operate so in hopes that people will come along. It took me a minute to make that shift of being like, okay, like I don’t have to work tirelessly … because I need to prove something to myself or to somebody else .. to shift into being like while I’m telling everybody else that they should get therapy, if they have the means to — I should start seeking that out as well. So that’s where I am now. I’m able to do therapy and be in community with friends and process and not put too much emotional weight on my friends, but be able to hold weight and also share that weight.
I remember the first conversation I had with a coworker about pronouns. Republican colleague, 65 plus, I think, and it was after freshman orientation. We were in the elevator riding back up to our offices. This is like a couple day freshmen orientation for legislators and the last thing we do is introduce ourselves. It gets to me, I say, “My name is Mauree Turner. My pronouns are they/them, she/her” — at the time — and that I represented House District 88 and whatever else we had to say. So we’re getting on the elevator, we’re riding back up and my colleague looks at me and he says, “So you said this thing about pronouns?” And I say, in my mind, I’m like, “Oh my God, here we go.” So I just looked at him and I said, “Yeah, yeah. My pronouns are, they/them, she/her.” And he was like, “So that means that my pronouns would be..?” And I say, “He/him.” And he said, “I’m learning, things are changing, but please just call me out if I ever misstep or misspeak.” And I said, “Thank you. Thank you for providing space to even have this conversation.” Conversations like that happened a lot, so that was like across the aisle there.
We have legislation that targets our trans girls and trans youth as a whole. We see legislation that happens that tries to force our public educators to out students. We know the stats for suicide attempts and rates in our LGBTQ+ community. You see folks who are allowing and writing legislation that says you can run over protestors. People that the legislature is actively trying to shut their voices down and when they speak up the only way that they know how and the only way that forces people to listen and look, [they] say, “No, we’ve got the power to silence you.” I think that’s what’s most dangerous.
Critical thinking is always required of directly impacted people to make sure that we can make it through the end of the day. I am a representative of House District 88, but I know that that title doesn’t provide me a privilege if people don’t know that. I’m just another Black person walking on the streets. I have to worry about whether or not if I get stopped by the police, am I going to make it back to my apartment? Am I going to make it back home? These things, right? Things that people don’t have to worry about. That critical thinking. We limit that when we don’t talk about history, the truth of history and its horrible past and how it systemically works into our institutions, our everyday institutions, whether that’s public education, whether that’s law enforcement, whether that’s policy and government.
I think the passage of something like [banning the teaching of critical race theory] means that we no longer want to create critical thinkers that really help move Oklahoma forward. The people who wrote it and people who signed [it] into law don’t want to talk about the truth of Oklahoma and what it means and how they uphold that system. The system of oppression.
One of the larger discourses is how all of these corporations who have slapped the rainbow on the side of things, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] included, if they really cared about our LGBTQ+ community, they would be actively working against the harmful bills and they didn’t — very important conversation to be had. But also wanting folks to hold that same accountability to our elected officials. How you talk about local politics is so big. Your elected officials, are they putting a rainbow filter on their Facebook profile? That might be good and dandy, but are they actively weaving in our LGBTQ+ community in the pieces of legislation? Are they thinking about those lenses? Are they consulting with members of the community to see how this … actively affects people?
Are you truly committed to the work or are you committed to the facade of work? It’s painful, it’s hard to do. And you have to understand that, like, you don’t get it right all the time. Nobody gets it right all the time. I live at a very unique intersection in life and I don’t even get it right all the time. Right. But I’m consistently talking to [the] community about where I messed up. Where I could do better. I understand that to be a politician, to be a representative of a community, you have to be willing to say, “Okay, I did screw up. But I’m here, I’m learning, I’m reading.”
Allyship is not just for corporations, but it’s also for our elected officials. Even the ones that get it. I know I often say that as a place for everybody in the movement, but that means you got to show up. That means you gotta be willing to do the work and you gotta be willing to be called out and called in. That is part of it, and so living in a safe space of saying, “I did good, so nobody should call me out” is not how we do the work.
I am not going to vote for a piece of legislation — especially in Oklahoma City where a Black man is 5.5 times more likely to be shot by a law enforcement officer — that offers my community as a sacrifice. And so what I want people to know, one, is that I’m not going to continue to offer people up to a carceral system that does not help the people one and two, I would like people to be able to extrapolate that. To understand those things. That’s part of reimagining and rebuilding a justice system — we have to lean away. In order to get something different, we have to do something different.
It was amazing to spend my life in the streets, at rallies, protests — to be able to create those legislative days at the Capitol now, to be on the policymaking side where we don’t have to say “We got an ally who really gets it,” but we can say like, “we’ve got somebody who’s lived it.” That is remarkable. It‘s humbling that I get to be that person.
Consider running for office. If you are vulnerable, if you don’t look like the normal politician out there, consider it. Or consider working on a campaign because there’s a place for everybody. I didn’t think this was my place in the movement. My place was organizing. I was working on campaigns. You learn and you grow and so much of community organizing is answering a call to action. And that’s what the folks of House District 88 asked me to do, run for office. And so I did. But I think that’s it — to try to move beyond just your lens and take your lived experience and say, “Well, if I’m dealing with this, I’m sure it looks different for somebody else.” [Do] that shadow work, [read] those books.
Rebecca Najera is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (903) 808-0314. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaNajera42.