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Nation's first nonbinary state lawmaker reflects on public service, rhetoric in Oklahoma legislature

Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, gives a small speech to a group of LGBTQ rights activists, March 14, outside the Oklahoma State Capitol. The demonstrators were there in honor of Nex Benedict, a non-binary teenager who died one day after getting in a fight with fellow students in an Owasso High School bathroom.
Lionel Ramos
/
OPMX
Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, gives a small speech to a group of LGBTQ rights activists, March 14, outside the Oklahoma State Capitol. The demonstrators were there in honor of Nex Benedict, a non-binary teenager who died one day after getting in a fight with fellow students in an Owasso High School bathroom.

Oklahoma state representative Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, is one of just a few nonbinary lawmakers in the U.S. — a distinction that comes with prominence and pressure.

They’ve been censured by conservative colleagues, met with silence at times by members of their party when they called for support and dealt an extra burden after the recent death of a nonbinary Oklahoma teen that reverberated around the country.

KOSU spoke to Turner last month as they were verging on a decision to seek another term. They were undecided then, but earlier this month, Turner announced they would not seek re-election in November due to their health and a need to focus on self-care.

‘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 during an interview at the Oklahoma State Capitol. They used the phrase to sum up their experience as a state lawmaker.

Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, poses for a portrait March 14, on the Oklahoma State Capitol's south-side steps.
Lionel Ramos
/
OPMX
Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, poses for a portrait March 14, on the Oklahoma State Capitol's south-side steps.

Turner was elected in 2020 from Oklahoma City’s House District 88, one of the state’s few deeply Democratic districts. 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.

“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, it feels really cool,” they said, “But I think about what people perceive ‘Representative Turner’ as, versus who Mauree Turner is, and it gives me this anxiety. I don’t want to let anybody down.”

In that way, among others, Turner said like other LGBTQ Oklahomans, they’re often caught between the hostile rhetoric of their opponents and the silence of others they might expect to be allies. Especially when harmful rhetoric against the community heats up in the statehouse and Turner is expected to take the blows.

Like when Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Clinton, moved to censure Turner last year after a protester rested in Turner’s office following a scuffle with an Oklahoma State Highway Patrol officer during a demonstration against anti-trans proposals.

“I move that the Oklahoma House of Representatives formally censure Representative Mauree Turner for harboring a fugitive that assaulted an Oklahoma highway patrolman and that the Oklahoma House of Representatives request that the speaker remove Representative Turner from all committees of the House unless, or until, a written and public apology is issued,” Moore said on the House floor one week after the incident. 

A party-line vote censured Turner but they never apologized. They still have no committee assignments and thus can only speak and vote on measures on the floor. It’s symbolism, Turner said, to remind marginalized Oklahomans they don’t belong.

“They can always make an example out of the 2SLGBTQ plus 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 then there’s the silence — sometimes 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. Nobody responded. Nobody had anything to say,” Turner said.

There’s a need to consider the broader context of representation, they said, especially because of the Republican supermajority.

“If we care for Oklahomans, we have to understand that the policy that we write and put into place is not just going to affect 39,000 people, it's going to affect 4 million people,” they said. “If you want to do local politics like that, city council is for you. Maybe the school board is for you.”

The burden of ‘descriptive representation’

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 or from using bathrooms that fit their gender identity at school.

That mainly makes Turner a figurehead for the LGBTQ community in Oklahoma.

But Mike Crespin, a legislative politics expert 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.

So, when Turner learned through social media about the death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teen who died the day after a fight in a high school bathroom, they were overcome with fear, anger and guilt.

A portrait of Owasso teenager Nex Benedict hangs next to a non-binary pride flag signed by demonstrators outside the State Department of Education’s Oliver Hodge building on March 28, where the State Board of Education was holding its monthly public meeting.
Lionel Ramos
/
OPMX
A portrait of Owasso teenager Nex Benedict hangs next to a non-binary pride flag signed by demonstrators outside the State Department of Education’s Oliver Hodge building on March 28, where the State Board of Education was holding its monthly public meeting.

Especially after the state medical examiner ruled Benedict’s death a suicide.

“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 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.

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.

On the day of KOSU’s interview with Turner, LGBTQ rights activists gathered to honor Nex Benedict outside the capitol.

Turner said a few words of encouragement to the small crowd, and then was approached by demonstrators for pictures and quick conversations. 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, reiterating what she told Turner moments before.  

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.”

Lionel Ramos covers state government at KOSU. He joined the station in January 2024 after covering race and equity as a Report For America corps member at Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Oklahoma City.