At first, Mauree Turner tried to recruit other Oklahoma City activists to run for state office, insisting that it was important to send underrepresented candidates — queer, or working-class, or people of color — to the state capitol.
But many of those approached instead turned to Turner, a 27-year-old criminal justice advocate, and flipped the proposition back on them: Why not run for office yourself?
More than a year later, Turner — a queer, Black Muslim who wears a hijab and identifies as nonbinary — won a seat in the Oklahoma state legislature on Tuesday‚ becoming the first openly nonbinary state lawmaker in the country.
The decisive victory Tuesday night came as no surprise in the solidly blue 88th state House district, which covers a diverse, growing part of Oklahoma City. But in a night of historic firsts set by LGBTQ candidates across the nation, Turner’s win arguably stands out for the number of barriers it broke — and for where it all happened.
Besides becoming the highest-ranking nonbinary official in the country, Turner will also be the first practicing Muslim elected to the Oklahoma legislature, which in 2019 blocked an imam from conducting the chamber’s daily prayer.
''This campaign, this movement that we built really hinged on visibility,'' Turner said in an interview. ''The legislature hasn’t always been a friendly or welcoming place to many folks, and this was about drawing space — not fighting for a seat at the table, but creating a new table altogether.''
According to the Victory Fund, a political action committee that backs LGBTQ candidates, there are only four other nonbinary elected officials in the country: three city councilors in New York and another in New Jersey.
Elliot Imse, the group’s communications director, said that Turner’s win was one of several on Tuesday to break the ''rainbow ceiling.'' Voters in New York elected the first two gay Black men to Congress, while Sarah McBride in Delaware became the country’s first transgender state senator.
But Turner won in the Bible Belt, far from the progressive, coastal metropolises that have generally delivered groundbreaking firsts in LGBTQ politics.
''Having our first nonbinary state legislator is in itself an enormous win for the community, but it’s especially so given that it is happening in Oklahoma, of all states,'' Imse said in an interview. ''Having any LGBTQ person elected there is really exciting.''
While the Victory Fund does not track the religion of LGBTQ candidates, Imse said it is also possible that Turner could be the first LGBTQ Muslim elected to a state legislature.
Two lesbian women serve as state senators in Oklahoma, including one as the chamber’s minority leader, according to the group. One state representative identifies as pansexual and Two Spirit, a label used by many LGBTQ Native Americans.
Turner’s platform, which focused on issues such as criminal justice reform, Medicaid expansion, and raising the state’s minimum wage, was prompted by listening to the community but informed by their own struggles living paycheck to paycheck, Turner said.
While growing up in Ardmore, Okla., near the Texas border, Turner’s single mother worked three jobs to make ends meet, they said. In college, Turner reconnected with their father, who had been incarcerated for much of their childhood, an experience that put Turner on the path to working on criminal justice advocacy with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice.
Amid efforts to change statewide policies, Turner saw a need for greater representation for marginalized groups in the state house. After unsuccessfully trying to persuade other activists in Oklahoma to run, they took up the mantle themselves — even if, as Turner said, ''being a career politician is not my bag.''
''I decided that I would listen to my community, and listen to the advice I was giving everyone else about why it’s important to see ourselves in our representation,'' Turner said. ''There are some things that White, cishet men will never be able to understand or truly advocate for in a way that someone who is gender-diverse, who is queer, who has had to worry where their next paycheck is coming from.''
Turner pulled out an upset in the June primary vote with about 51 percent of the vote against Democratic Representative Jason Dunnington, who had represented the left-leaning district since 2014. Over the summer, Turner gained high-profile endorsements from Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota.
''For folks that don’t live in the district, the hope is that when they look at races like mine, they take what they need,'' Turner said, ''if it’s feeling empowered to live a little bit more freely, if it’s hope, if it’s a reminder to breathe.''