In his resignation letter, Adam Graham cited harassment and violence that he faced in the short time he served as mayor of The Village, Okla.
In his resignation letter, Adam Graham cited harassment and violence that he faced in the short time he served as mayor of The Village, Okla. (September Dawn Bottoms/for The Washington Post)

An Oklahoma city’s first openly gay mayor resigned. Then came the fallout.

THE VILLAGE, Okla. — Adam Graham had been mayor less than a month when he saw them: Two police officers from the next city over, the wealthiest in Oklahoma, stopping a Black driver in his middle-class community.

As the first openly gay leader of The Village, he’d pledged to create a “welcoming” city. And for years, he said, residents had told him about being racially profiled, especially when they passed through the mansion-lined streets of Nichols Hills.

So, on that late May evening, Graham, 29, said he slowed to a halt in his black SUV, lowered the window and asked: “What are you doing, officers? Are you aware that you’re in The Village?”

What happened next fiercely divided this community of nearly 9,000, drawing international scrutiny that felt humiliating to some and cathartic to others as simmering frustrations burst into the open. Oklahoma lost one of its six LGBTQ elected officials when Graham announced this month he was stepping down, citing harassment and fear for his safety.

At a time of deepening polarization in the United States, the fallout in The Village points to troubling consequences on the cul-de-sac level: Not even old friends are immune to the forces pitting us against each other.

Polls reveal perceptions of major events — the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, the protests ignited by the death of George Floyd — vary widely along partisan lines. Less explored is the impact in our own backyards, the strains on bonds that are supposed to trump politics.

“Unfortunately, certain elements of the population have recently become emboldened to pursue threats and attacks bordering on violence,” Graham wrote in his July 18 resignation letter. “I no longer feel safe to serve in my capacity as mayor.”

The traffic stop

Before he said someone had followed him on the street, before he suspected someone had slashed one of his tires, before he said a man threw coffee at him and called him a gay slur, the police lights caught Graham’s eye.

“My gut, my heart — every part of me told me to do it,” he said in an interview at his ranch-style house. “My gut told me: ‘Just go over there and ask a question, Adam.’ ”

In a clip of body camera footage provided by the Nichols Hills police to The Washington Post, Graham can be seen pulling up in his Volkswagen Tiguan SUV across the street from what officers later described as a traffic stop.

“Excuse me?” asked one officer, a White man, apparently to Graham.

“You need to go on. Go on,” said the other officer, a Black woman.

A passenger in the stopped car appears to be saying: “I just want to go home.”

No other dialogue can be heard in the 32-second footage. “Nothing can be heard from Mr. Graham as he was too far away for the body cameras to pick up his voice,” Nichols Hills Police Chief Steven Cox said in an email. Some audio was muted, he added, to protect the privacy of the passengers.

In a second clip, the White officer walks to Graham’s car. Graham’s dog, a goldendoodle named Ralph, is visible first on the screen, his fluffy head protruding from the back seat window. Then Graham comes into focus behind the steering wheel. His expression is neutral.

“Okay,” the officer says. “Okay. Well, I appreciate your understanding of where we are because I know exactly where I am as well.”

“Okay,” Graham said.

“When I turn to stop somebody and they continue on from Nichols Hills into The Village,” the officer said, “I have a right to continue stopping them.”

“All right,” Graham said.

“Thank you, sir,” the officer replies. The footage ends.

Following that exchange, Graham said he left the scene. Cox, the police chief, said there is no more footage of Graham. When asked for a transcript of the former mayor’s words in the muted segments, Cox said the body cameras didn’t capture any other dialogue.

That night, Corporal Brandon Edwards sent an email to the police chief, flagging what he called “Mr. Graham’s very unprofessional interference in my traffic stop.”

The officers had pursued a car traveling 43 miles per hour in a 25 miles per hour zone, Edwards wrote. A man who had identified himself as the mayor of The Village was “extremely rude and confrontational" to the point where Edwards doubted he was actually the mayor, “considering how unbecoming his actions were."

The officer with Edwards on the scene said she’d heard Graham yelling: “Get out of here. Get out of this city.”

“His presence directly agitated an already uncooperative driver,” Edwards wrote, according to a copy of the email shared by Nichols Hills police, “and put our safety at risk when it didn’t need to be.”

The Nichols Hills city manager soon told his counterpart in The Village about it, passing along Edwards’s email.

Most of The Village’s city council members thought Graham should apologize — or at least issue a statement explaining himself. They found the actions outlined in the email inappropriate, even dangerous, and feared losing backup from Nichols Hills. The two cities had long helped each other out, and The Village had maybe three officers on patrol at any given time.

“He distracted them when he did that,” one council member, 75-year-old C. Scott “Bubba” Symes, said. “In my mind, anything could have happened.”

Symes had a “heart-to-heart conversation” with Graham, he said, telling him that he knew several officers personally. It was unfair to paint all cops as bad guys, he said. Remember the Oklahoma City bombing? He’d been close enough to feel the impact. Remember who was running into harm’s way?

The police are trained to use “deadly force against deadly force,” Symes recalls telling Graham. “When you interfere, somebody could have pulled out a gun and shot you — or the police officer."

Though the council member was an old friend, Graham said he felt threatened by that conversation. He remembers Symes saying: “If that would have happened in The Village, I would hope they’d have shot you.” (Symes denied saying that.)

Graham also disputed the Nichols Hills officers’ version of events. In his memory, he was calm yet direct — not “extremely rude." He said he didn’t yell at the officers and does not remember identifying himself as mayor. But his custom license plate features his initials, AG. Many people in that neighborhood, he added, know his car and Ralph.

The harassment

After George Floyd’s death launched protests worldwide, Graham said he’d thought a lot about how police have historically treated Black people. Black men make up 4 percent of Oklahoma’s population, but they represent 21 percent of those killed in police shootings since 2015, according to Washington Post data.

According to data shared by the Nichols Hills police, 30 percent of people who received citations and warnings in Nichols Hills from June 30 of last year to July 1 were Black, despite the city being less than one percent Black. Cox said officers don’t stop vehicles based on race or “any other reason than a violation of law,” adding that a diverse population drives through Nichols Hills, which borders Oklahoma’s biggest city.

“I see young Black men pulled over by the Nichols Hills police all the time,” Graham said. “I worry about them.”

As someone who began a slow process of coming out in his mid-20s, Graham said he understood the toll of discrimination. Getting into politics, he said, was his way of trying to protect the vulnerable. He won a city council seat in 2018 before his fellow members appointed him mayor, a title they voted on each year.

Graham’s day job was running campaigns for pro-LGBTQ candidates in the South. As mayor, he had declared June as Pride Month in The Village and vowed to outlaw conversion therapy, a practice still underway in parts of Oklahoma.

His colleagues described him as cordial with law enforcement, recalling a time he’d hand-delivered BBQ to The Village’s police department.

Graham said he’d thought about apologizing to the Nichols Hills officers. Perhaps he should have stuck to recording video.

Then the local newspaper published a front-page story: Village Mayor Interrupts NHills Traffic Stop With Verbal Altercation.

People yelled at him during the next city council meeting, saying he was anti-law enforcement and behaving in a way that embarrassed them. Graham’s sexual orientation never came up, but the intensity of the criticism was disturbing, said Tammy Conover, 59, an artist in The Village.

“If he was a straight man, nothing ever would have been said,” Conover said. “All the time people are saying, ‘We’re Christians,’ but we are so hateful. So mean.”

Graham told the city council that he did not want to comment. Privately, he felt the meeting had gotten too heated and worried saying more could fuel the fire.

The next week, he said, he discovered a four-inch gash in one of his tires. He suspected someone had slashed it. But Symes’s comments kept him from seeking a police report, he said.

After that, he noticed a man in a plum-colored Toyota truck trailing him one evening while he was walking Ralph. Graham said he motioned for him to pass, he said, but the man just silently stared at him.

“I felt shock,” Graham recalled, tears welling. “To be followed while walking, I felt very vulnerable. I should have called somebody. … I just didn’t feel safe. I just wanted it to go away.”

Then came the breaking point. Graham said he was heading to his car in the parking lot behind the Starbucks in Nichols Hills on July 16 when a man said, “You’re the f----t mayor” and tossed an iced drink at his pants. Graham said he remembers only the humiliation, no witnesses, and hurried home.

Two days later, he handed his resignation letter to the city manager and posted a copy on Twitter.

“In the last month, I’ve been followed home from meetings, threatened while walking my dog, harassed at Starbucks and have had my tires slashed,” he wrote in his letter. “Unfortunately, these malicious, bad-faith attacks are escalating.”

Reporters called from around the world. “Good Morning America” reached out. The Village’s website crashed.

“I had a choice," he said. "I could issue a blanket apology that doesn’t mean jack crap, or I could issue a statement that I believed to be true and factual and from my heart.”

Council members said they felt blind-sided. People questioned the veracity of Graham’s claims on Facebook, accusing him of exploiting his sexual orientation for attention.

“A small city in Oklahoma chased out a gay mayor?” asked Symes. “It’s such a farce. We may be Oklahomans, there may be some cowboys out here, but we don’t think like that anymore.”

The council appointed a new mayor, 36-year-old Sonny Wilkinson.

He didn’t doubt that Graham dealt with bigotry. As a straight man, he said, he didn’t know what that’s like. Any issue involving the police, meanwhile, was a recipe for discord.

“It’s the divisiveness,” he said. “You’re either for the police or against the police.”

Wilkinson played a voicemail that The Village police chief had received after Graham quit: “What did you do to protect the mayor?" the anonymous caller said. "Nothing! You sat on your bald, fat, homophobic ass and did nothing!”

“We are just not having conversations anymore,” Wilkinson said. “We are just yelling.”

The listening session

Monday evening, July 25. The Village Library. For those who still need to be heard.

Twenty-eight people filed into the air-conditioned confines of Room B, which someone had decorated with a purple construction-paper octopus. The city council member who called this meeting, 58-year-old Sean Cummings, joked that he was not responsible for the ocean theme, but please, take a seat.

“Let’s just do a circle,” he told the group. “Get those feelings out there. Try to keep it civil.”

They’d go counter-clockwise with the microphone. A retired teacher who introduced herself as Connie went first.

“I have been really happy with Adam,” she said. “He cared — more than any of the other board members…”

Next was Tricia, who runs a summer program at a Catholic school. Graham had told her about the Starbucks incident, she said. He had sounded so upset. So shaken.

“I do not understand," she said, “how people cannot believe the things that have happened to this man."

The woman to Tricia’s left scrunched up her face. She took the mic and countered: “He brought national attention to us for his own agenda that started with his own wrongdoing.”

Next went a man who said his family worked in law enforcement. He wondered: Was the relationship with Nichols Hills police still intact?

Next went a college student named Jakob, who has worked on political campaigns with Graham. He wore winged eyeliner and black high heels.

“I just wanted to show my face, so that you all see that I am human and so is Adam,” he said. “It is not easy to be gay, especially openly gay in Oklahoma — and especially as an elected official.”

Next went a woman who said The Village didn’t deserve this reputational hit. People here mow each other’s lawns for free.

“It’s the best place to live,” she said.

Next came Melodie, an Air Force veteran, who said she’d lived here for 29 years.

“Some of you don’t know your history if you think The Village has always been wonderful," she said.

Remember segregation? Remember the public pools filled with concrete so Black kids couldn’t use them?

“As a Black woman, I can tell you,” she said. “I worked at the mall as a kid, and my mom used to tell me: Don’t drive through Nichols Hills. And don’t drive through The Village.”

Then came time for the city council member to take the mic. Closing remarks.

“He resigned on freakin’ Twitter,” Cummings said, raising his voice. “I found out my mayor resigned on Twitter. Come on, man! Are we not supposed to be upset about that?”

The uproar has nothing to do with his sexual orientation, he said.

“I don’t give two hoots whether he’s gay!”

Graham could have been arrested, Cummings said. He could have gotten somebody killed. And regarding the harassment, where were the police reports? What could anyone do about slashed tires without a police report?

“Let’s pretend that all the harassment occurred,” Cummings said. “We don’t know if it has anything to do with ... whatever ... and we don’t know if it happened.”

“Are you saying that it didn’t happen?” interjected a young man.

The room erupted in shouting.

“Will you open your ears?”

“He was!”

“We don’t know.”

“I’m trying to get to the reality. I don’t know what it is.”

Steven Rich contributed to this report.

Loading...
Loading...