At first, Mauree Turner tried to recruit other Oklahoma City activists to run for state office, insisting that it was important to send underrepresented candidates — queer, or working class, or people of color — to the state capitol.
More than a year later, Turner — a queer, Black Muslim who wears a hijab and identifies as nonbinary — won a seat Tuesday in the Oklahoma state legislature‚ becoming the first openly nonbinary state lawmaker in the country.
Turner’s decisive victory Tuesday night came as no surprise in the solidly blue 88th state House district, which covers a diverse, growing part of Oklahoma City. But in a night of historic firsts set by LGBTQ candidates across the nation, the win arguably stands out for the number of barriers it broke — and for where it all happened.
Besides becoming the highest-ranking nonbinary official in the country, Turner will also be the first practicing Muslim elected to the Oklahoma state legislature, which in 2019 blocked an imam from conducting the chamber’s daily prayer.
“This campaign, this movement that we built really hinged on visibility,” Turner said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The legislature hasn’t always been a friendly or welcoming place to many folks, and this was about drawing space — not fighting for a seat at the table, but creating a new table altogether.”
According to the Victory Fund, a political action committee that backs LGBTQ candidates, there are only four other nonbinary elected officials in the country: three city councilors in New York and another in New Jersey.
Elliot Imse, the group’s communications director, said that Turner’s win was one of several on Tuesday to break the “rainbow ceiling.” Voters in New York elected the first two gay Black men to Congress, while Sarah McBride in Delaware became the country’s first transgender state senator.
But Turner won in the Bible Belt, far from the liberal, coastal metropolises that have generally delivered groundbreaking firsts in LGBTQ politics.
“Having our first nonbinary state legislator is in itself an enormous win for the community, but it’s especially so given that it is happening in Oklahoma, of all states,” Imse told The Post in an interview. “Having any LGBTQ person elected there is really exciting.”
While the Victory Fund does not track the religion of LGBTQ candidates, Imse said it is also possible that Turner could be the first LGBTQ Muslim elected to a state legislature in the country.
Two lesbian women serve as state senators in Oklahoma, including one as the chamber’s minority leader, according to the group. One state representative identifies as pansexual and Two Spirit, a label used by many LGBTQ Native Americans.
I have a lot of feelings about tonight. But overall, I'm grateful for HD88 granting me this opportunity. I hate SQ805 & so many other things slipped through our fingers... But I'm ready to fight hard as hell so they never do again.— Mauree Turner (They/She) (@MaureeTurnerOK) November 4, 2020
Nothing About Us Without Us
Let's go get 'em 88 pic.twitter.com/Y059G30Mbw
Turner’s platform, which focused on issues such as criminal justice restructuring, Medicaid expansion and raising the state’s minimum wage, was prompted by listening to their community, but informed by their own struggles living paycheck to paycheck, they said.
While growing up in Ardmore, Okla., near the Texas border, Turner’s single mother simultaneously worked three jobs to make ends meet, they said. In college, Turner reconnected with their father, who had been incarcerated for much of their childhood, an experience that put them on the path to working on criminal justice advocacy with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice.
Amid efforts to change statewide policies, Turner saw a need for greater representation for marginalized groups in the statehouse. After unsuccessfully trying to convince other activists in Oklahoma to run, they took up the mantle themselves — even if, as Turner said, “being a career politician is not my bag.”
“I decided that I would listen to my community and listen to the advice I was giving everyone else about why it’s important to see ourselves in our representation,” Turner said. “There are some things that White, cishet men will never be able to understand or truly advocate for in a way that someone who is gender-diverse, who is queer, who has had to worry where their next paycheck is coming from.”
Turner pulled out an upset in the June primary vote with about 51 percent of the vote against state Rep. Jason Dunnington (D), who had represented the left-leaning district since 2014. Over the summer, they gained high-profile endorsements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
In the months since launching their campaign, Turner said they received messages of support from people outside Oklahoma — and even outside the country — who are Muslim, nonbinary or Black. Earlier this week, they sailed to an easy victory against Republican Kelly Barlean, a retired attorney, tallying more than 70 percent of the total vote.
Turner emphasized that they hoped to serve the community that had powered their victory.
“For folks that don’t live in the district, the hope is that when they look at races like mine, they take what they need,” they said, “if it’s feeling empowered to live a little bit more freely, if it’s hope, if it’s a reminder to breathe.”