[June is Pride Month, and this year we’re celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]
Mauree Turner never thought they would be a politician.
Growing up in Oklahoma as a nonbinary Black Muslim person, they felt they inhabited multiple identities that made them a target of their red state’s politics. And as a prison abolitionist and community organizer who had worked with local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, they had long turned to grassroots efforts, rather than electoral politics, to enact change.
“What I had seen in politics was that it was a bunch of career politicians who didn’t look like the communities they represented,” said Turner, 28.
So when they won their first election in November, to represent District 88 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Turner was surprised. Having studied political science and sociology at Oklahoma State University, they had learned in school that “your first election is about name recognition, and your second campaign is when you win,” they said.
“It was very shocking and very humbling to win,” said Turner, a Democrat.
Winning also made them the country’s first nonbinary state legislator — a designation that thrust Turner, a self-described introvert, into the national spotlight.
“After I won, I was quite honestly outed to the world in a way that was very scary,” they said.
Part of that fear emerged because Turner had not yet come out to elders they admired within their faith community, they said. But they soon realized that being “unapologetically me” was the only way they could be in the public eye.
“I could be ashamed, but that would make my work almost impossible,” they said. And “in that public outing, I was given a platform for so many young queer Muslims to see themselves in a way that they hadn’t before.”
While Turner said they’ve been heartened by the welcoming reception they’ve gotten from their constituents and Muslims across the country, they said many of their Republican colleagues in the Oklahoma House haven’t been as warm.
“This place is very, very toxic,” they said of the Legislature. “I’m very humbled by the work that I get to do, but it’s hard continuously.”
Despite the challenges they’ve faced in the Republican-led state House, Turner has not been deterred from pushing a legislative agenda born of their own lived experiences.
Turner has already introduced a trio of gender-based bills that would mandate gender-neutral terms in the Legislature, introduce a nonbinary identification option on state government documents and make it easier to change one’s listed gender on state identification documents.
Growing up with an incarcerated father and grandfather, Turner has also prioritized criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, which has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates. They introduced a bill that would prevent incarcerated people from being issued arrest warrants for failing to appear at court hearings because they’re in jail and another bill that would require informing juries about the range of possible penalties for the offenses they judge, among others.
“Our prisons are filled with people who have a lack of access to health care, who are suffering from poverty,” Turner said. “People in jail are falling on hard times, and we are criminalizing people falling on hard times.”
They also said Oklahoma, one of the reddest states in the country, can flip to blue — if only more people have the right to vote. Since they took office, Turner has introduced four bills aimed at expanding the number of registered voters, including one that would make it easier for people with disabilities to vote and another that would allow people who are in jail before they have been convicted of a crime to vote by absentee ballot.
In the House’s next session, Turner wants to prioritize introducing bills that would increase the minimum wage, which stands at $7.25, and protect state workers — inspired in part by their mom, who has long worked multiple jobs, Turner said.
“My mom doesn’t stop until the work is done. My mom still works two jobs,” they said. “I’m going to fight to make sure we have a living wage. I know that when we create an economic floor for families to flourish — for folks to not just survive, but to thrive — we create a family unit where parents don’t have to be so absent.”
For Turner, centering their most vulnerable constituents in policymaking is critical.
“We don’t get to pick and choose who crosses the finish line of liberation with us, but our fight every day should be to make sure that everybody does cross that finish line,” they said.
During Pride month, Turner also hopes to bring their district’s youngest constituents across the finish line: Turner will celebrate Pride in part by reading a slate of LGBTQ-focused children’s books at the public library in downtown Oklahoma City, they said.
To them, the meaning of Pride “continuously changes.” But “at this very moment, it means creating space for people to share their lived experience,” they said.
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