By Janelle Stecklein
Troy Stevenson remembers the day when football players discovered him and his boyfriend holding hands behind an Edmond high school. After they had been chased off school property, Stevenson, called to check on his boyfriend.
“He was in hysterics,” Stevenson said. “… Like me, I thought he was scared. Did people see us? What would people think?”
Stevenson found out the next day the teen had taken his own life. He was devastated.
“That sent me back into the closet more than anything you could have imagined,” he said. “It was almost 10 years before I came out again to anyone — including myself.”
Stevenson attended the University of Oklahoma, then left the state.
Now 37, he’s returning as a polished, high-profile lobbyist with a history of success in promoting gay-rights legislation and mobilizing support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He was recently named executive director of the non-profit Equality Network in Oklahoma. He previously was executive director of Garden State Equality, which has more than 150,000 members, in New Jersey.
Stevenson’s return comes at a critical time for Oklahoma’s gay community. A federal appeals court in Denver is scheduled to hear arguments over the legality of Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage April 17. That follows a lower court’s ruling that struck down the state law.
Stevenson said his focus is broader than marriage laws. He aims to promote equality in all aspects of life, from schools to the workplace. In addition to the Capitol, don’t be surprised to find him hosting town hall meetings across the state to make sure residents hear “these stories so they see the love that these families do have.”
“Going back, Oklahoma when I was a kid wasn’t a safe place to come out. It wasn’t a safe place to be gay,” Stevenson said. “I think over the last decade, more and more people have come out. There’s a lot more acceptance and a lot more understanding.”
Stevenson said his work will be two-pronged: Lobbying for gay rights legislation while mobilizing support in hopes of showing Oklahomans who the LGBT community is. His efforts are funded mostly by individual donations, he said, but also supported by foundations and groups like Freedom to Marry.
One former colleague praised Stevenson for taking on Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey, and leading a push to legalize same-sex marriage there. New Jersey already recognized civil unions when its Legislature last year passed a same-sex marriage law. Christie vetoed it and later appealed a court ruling allowing gay couples to marry. The governor dropped the appeal in October.
“Troy was working 24-7. He was tireless, passionate,” said John Mikytuck, now interim director of Garden State Equality.
While in New Jersey, Stevenson successfully lobbied for dozens of other laws designed to ensure equality for the LGBT community. He’s particularly proud of a bill that bans conversion therapy and a comprehensive safe schools bill.
“I’ve got a proven track record for building coalitions, for building grassroots programs that culminate in legislative victories, so the end goal is not marriage,” he said. “The end goal is full equality for every Oklahoman.”
While much has changed in Oklahoma since Stevenson graduated from college, he’s sure to face resistance.
Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, who said she supports traditional family values, had not heard of Stevenson but said she doesn’t expect he’ll have much success with a pro-gay agenda.
“We tend to still be a very conservative state,” Kern said, and a religious one, as well. “I think it will be a while before we see a climate in Oklahoma where people are willing to embrace homosexuality and same-sex marriage.”
Even if the federal appeals court legalizes gay marriage, Kern said she doesn’t expect Oklahomans to take kindly to the news.
She said any such verdict that “forced” same-sex marriage upon the state would likely “awaken a sleeping giant.”
Oklahoma voters approved a proposition outlawing gay marriage in a 75 percent landslide a decade ago. It’s unclear if, or how much, public opinion has shifted since then. Stevenson said his group is commissioning a poll.
He cited sample polls by ABC News-Washington Post that find about 60 percent of people in urban areas now support same-sex marriage, and more than 70 percent of people under 35 don’t see it as an issue.
The state’s Republican Party, which controls both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, defines marriage in its platform as the union of a man and woman, and opposes any effort to redefine it.
“Employers and taxpayers should not be forced to violate their convictions or to bear the cost of granting ‘same-sex marriages’ the benefits that are due traditional marriages,” the GOP platform says.
“We believe that in order to encourage and protect family values, those promoting homosexuality or other aberrant lifestyles should not be allowed to hold responsible positions over children, which are not their own, or other vulnerable persons,” the platform continues.
Despite such strong positions, Stevenson said he’s optimistic about his chances for success.
“This is about love, acceptance and understanding,” he said. “This is not about divisive politics. It’s about making sure the kids born today grow up in an Oklahoma where this is no longer an issue and they can grow up to be whoever they are.”
A study by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute noted that 6,134 same-sex couples were living in Oklahoma in 2010, based on U.S. Census data. That represents 4.2 of every 1,000 households.
Stevenson said he’s already spoken with legislators who have at least listened, which is more than he could say when he started in New Jersey.
“These legislators are good people,” he said. “They’re thinking people. They’re listening to the issues, and while they might not agree with us yet, they want to hear from their constituents.”
Still, he admits the Legislature “has yet to catch up with reality here."
“I think if you go down the street and asked 10 Oklahomans if they thought it was legal in the state of Oklahoma to fire somebody for being LGBT (7 out of 10) would tell you no," he said.
It is, in fact, legal to do so, he said.
“We have to continue to fight every day until full equality is a reality, and that’s going to take a long time,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.