Backbone of the LGBT Civil Rights Movement: Conversations with LGBT Leaders – Dr. Laura Belmonte
Over the coming days, Campaign Manager Dan Furmansky, who serves on the board of directors for the Equality Federation, will bring to you insights from leaders who are the backbone of the LGBT civil rights movement.
Following is our Q&A with LGBT civil rights leader Dr. Laura Belmonte of Oklahoma.
Dr. Laura Belmonte is Professor of History and Director of the American Studies Program at Oklahoma State University, where she receives high ratings from students in all areas except for the “easiness” of her classes. A longtime LGBT civil rights activist, Dr. Belmonte is a co-founder and vice president of The Equality Network (TEN) in Oklahoma, a published historian, and serves on the board of directors of the Equality Federation.
Q: Laura, tell us about the founding of TEN. How did it come about, and how has it managed to survive as an all-volunteer led organization?
15 years ago, when I moved to Oklahoma (for my job) after living in places like Atlanta, DC, and Charlottesville, I was truly horrified by the political culture. After just whining about it for a while, I decided I had two choices: put my head in the oven and blow out the pilot light… or work for change. Obviously, I chose the latter. While working for LGBT equality in Oklahoma can be immensely frustrating and difficult, it is also incredibly rewarding. We haven’t “won” as a movement until we secure victories on the front lines of states like mine.
After serving on the board of Oklahomans for Equality (the organization that runs the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in Tulsa), Kathy Williams and I co-founded TEN because we knew that the LGBT community desperately needed a consistent presence at the state capital and a strategic plan for local and state-level policy change if it was ever going to seize the initiative on affecting equality. We also knew that it was critically important to empower people with the skills and knowledge necessary to be effective advocates. So, we fused our mutual love of politics, passion for LGBT equality, and experience in non-profit leadership and created TEN. We are now about 2 1/2 years old.
Q: Oklahoma hasn’t made any advancements on the state level legislatively to protect LGBT people, but from our conversations, I know there have been very real advancements. Can you talk about these advancements and what they mean to LGBT Oklahomans?
One of the first projects we did through our 501 (c) (3) arm, TEN Institute, was to create a database of municipal nondiscrimination ordinances and employment policies for public employees. When we finished the project, we were positively stunned to discover that 7 municipalities, some of them extremely unlikely places, had sexual orientation in their public employee protections. This completely shattered the guiding assumption of the activist community that we had achieved nothing at any level. We have since been able to use this information to leverage change elsewhere, most significantly in Norman, Oklahoma. We were brought in as advisors to the Human Rights Commission and it was very powerful for them to see that other communities, most smaller than theirs, had stepped up and done the right thing. That inspired the HRC – and I think, lessened their anxieties – and they added sexual orientation and gender identity to their public employee protections, thus becoming the first municipality in the state with transgender inclusion.
Victories like this might seem insignificant in comparison to say, winning marriage in New York, but in a place like Oklahoma, it is almost impossible to overstate how vital winning incrementally is. Far too often, LGBT Oklahomans and their allies feel a sense of hopelessness because the collective negative impact of an increasingly conservative legislature combined with a very strong anti-LGBT religious culture seems impossible to challenge. Disproving that on any level is huge… and starts laying the building blocks needed to push for broader change.
Q: On face value, Oklahoma legislators are overtly hostile to LGBT people, most notably, the infamous Sally Kern. Is that an accurate perception? In what ways, if any, have you noticed the hearts and minds of OK legislators changing over the past several years on LGBT civil rights?
Personally, I wish that people would simply ignore Sally Kern and stop extending the 15 minutes of fame she never deserved in the first place. She is not an effective legislator and is marginalized even by her own party’s leadership (she was also reprimanded this past session for making some very inflammatory comments on women and African-Americans.)
But Sally Kern is dangerous in that her extremism gets so much attention that it often allows her 100 colleagues in the House to escape scrutiny, when, in fact, a considerable number of them share her views but don’t articulate them as loudly or maladroitly. We need to focus on our energies on all of those legislators opposing LGBT equality, not simply target Sally Kern.
At the same time, we also need to empower the quiet bloc of representatives who tell us privately that they support LGBT equality and are aware attitudes on LGBT issues are shifting rapidly, but who are afraid there will be political hell to pay if they speak out for change. We as advocates need to mobilize enough their constituents to give them the backing and security they need if they are going to risk inciting opposition.
Finally, we also need to make sure that we continually support and thank the small bloc of representatives who have consistently defended LGBT Oklahomans in the face of intense hostility. We must never take for granted the courageous reps who do the right thing.
In terms of broader trends on legislators’ attitudes evolving, we are at a critical juncture. Many representatives are starting to understand that popular attitudes toward LGBT equality, particularly among people under 35, are changing and therefore so must they. They understand that these changes transcend party and religious lines. Unfortunately, most of them are still too cowardly to champion LGBT equality publicly. I understand that timidity because these reps co-inhabit a legislature that has a very militant, powerful conservative bloc that is dominating the legislative agenda. I firmly believe there will be tipping point toward pro-equality, but we are definitely not there yet.
Q: In much of the country, the trajectory towards LGBT equality is happening rapidly, from passage in New York of marriage equality to the proliferation of civil unions laws in Illinois and Hawaii and Delaware, to the enactment of gender identity anti-discrimination statutes in Connecticut and Nevada. When do you think similar gains will come to Oklahoma, and how will they be achieved?
I think that there is almost no chance of legislative change on marriage in Oklahoma. Any change will likely result from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Congressional repeal of DOMA would help some, but there is still a multi-facted amendment in the Oklahoma Constitution (passed in 2004) that defines marriage as one man, one woman, prohibits recognition of same-sex marriages originating in other states, and outlaws other types of relationship recognition like civil unions. That presents a huge legal obstacle that must be struck down before any change on marriage can transpire.
On non-discrimination, I think there are lots of opportunities for change at the local level and within the private sector. Perhaps with the passage of some LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances (currently, there are none), we could move statewide legislation of that nature. That, however, is going to be a very slow, long-term process, especially if the make-up of our state government does not change. At present, conservative Republicans control every state-level office and both chambers of the legislature. It has not proved a political environment conducive to progressive issues of any sort, not just LGBT. Our friends in reproductive justice, immigration rights, workers rights, and youth advocacy communities (among others) can attest to that.