TULSA, Okla. — Mauree Turner made history this month by becoming the country's first openly nonbinary state legislator. Turner, 27, was elected to represent District 88 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives on Nov. 3 with more than 70 percent of the vote and assumed office last week. Turner is also thought to be the first Muslim lawmaker to serve in the Oklahoma Legislature.
Turner, who uses both they/them and she/her pronouns, grew up in Ardmore, a city of 25,000 people that sits smack in between Oklahoma City to the north and Dallas to the south. Turner said their childhood was relatively idealistic: They had a supportive and involved mother and grew up singing in the choir and participating in their school band. They attended college at Oklahoma State University and then spent time organizing for various civil rights projects in Oklahoma, including an American Civil Liberties Union criminal justice reform campaign.
"While I never wanted to be in politics in this aspect, community organizing is always about answering a call to action, and that's what my community was doing," Turner said.
Turner hopes their election victory and presence in the Legislature will help LGBTQ people in Oklahoma and beyond see themselves reflected and represented.
"I'm still reading so many messages from folks around the world that are just happy to have some sort of representation," said Turner, whose district represents central Oklahoma City. "We've been able to create a space where folks can not only see themselves but also feel a little more empowered to show up, either fully as themselves or even just a little more fuller."
Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization that trains and advocates for LGBTQ political candidates, called Turner a "trailblazer," saying, "Their courage to run openly will inspire more nonbinary people to pursue careers in elected office."
"Of all the states to achieve a milestone political moment for nonbinary people, few would have thought it would be Oklahoma, where there are so few LGBTQ elected officials," Parker said in a statement. "But Mauree ran a tireless campaign focused on the issues that matter to their district while also being authentic and open about who they are."
As for the issues that matter to Turner, their campaign platform focused on criminal justice reform and more access to health care and public education.
Oklahoma incarcerates 1,079 people per 100,000, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the highest incarceration rate in the country, nearly 55 percent higher than that of the United States as a whole. Its incarceration rate is especially high among women, more than double the U.S. rate, and among people of color, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Criminal justice is an issue that's particularly personal for Turner.
"My father and my grandfather were incarcerated up until I was 'round 12 or 13," they said. "That was all I knew growing up — going to see my dad or granddad in prison or jail."
Last year, Gov. Kevin Stitt released nearly 500 inmates in the largest commutation in U.S. history. But this month, to Turner's dismay, Oklahomans voted against State Question 805, which sought to end sentence enhancements for repeat nonviolent offenders, by 61 percent to 39 percent.
"It was devastating for a lot of reasons for me on a personal level, and I think for Oklahoma's growth as a whole," Turner said. "Honestly, I don't blame the people in how the vote ended up. What I blame is institutions that benefit from keeping Oklahomans incarcerated.
"Right now in Oklahoma, we've got mothers sitting in prison for 30-plus years because they wrote bad checks to be able to provide food for their families," Turner said.
Another more local issue Turner is focused on in District 88 — one of the most liberal districts in deep red Oklahoma — is power lines. An ice storm last month left many in their district without power for weeks. Turner noted that power lines are underground in many more affluent districts but not in District 88, which Turner said is unacceptable. Turner wants to get those power lines underground in the next 10 to 15 years.
Turner said they think part of their campaign's appeal was their belief in "people- and community-based solutions." Now that they're in office, Turner is starting to lay the groundwork for what they hope will be a long and successful political career.
"Politics is a place where you figure out not necessarily what you can and can't do but what is within your bandwidth in the immediate [future] and what is in your bandwidth to do in the long run," they said. "You have to continuously figure out what helps you continuously show up to this work in the best version of you, so that you have that longevity of being able to do this work."