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How one advocate is providing resources and community for LGBTQ+ Oklahomans

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Nicole McAfee (they/she) has been the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma for over a year, at a time when state legislation has been targeting the community they serve.

Nicole McAfee is used to tackling the impossible.

“Sometimes that impossible thing is waking up and being queer in a state like Oklahoma,” McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, said.

But the people who work with them say McAfee shows up regardless of what crisis is happening.

Elizabeth Horn is the director of programming for Freedom Oklahoma, a two-spirit, LGBTQ+ advocacy organization that works in Oklahoma. Two-spirit, often abbreviated to 2S, is a broad term that has been used since the 90’s that some Indigenous people used to describe their cultural, sexual, gender and spiritual identity.

“I've never worked for anyone like McAfee before,” Horn said. “McAfee is definitely, at their core, a collaborator. And I think they really operate from a place of leading by supporting and trusting that we are in our roles because we know what we're doing.”

Guiding people to resources

McAfee just celebrated their one year anniversary in their role for Freedom Oklahoma. For a team of five to be tackling some of the state’s most pressing issues for LGBTQ+ community, they have their work cut out for them — and oftentimes the issues McAfee works around at the state capitol hit close to home.

“As a queer and non-binary person — it felt like this was a moment where I could bring my experience to my community and really meet a need and to serve us in a moment where that need is urgent and the threat is real,” McAfee said.

Most recently, that threat materialized in a new law banning transgender students from using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. Also in a bill passed in 2021 that bans teaching some lessons related to things like race, sexuality and gender. But McAfee said regardless of what the majority party is shaping policy — this kind of advocacy work is hard.

“It is especially tough in this moment where there's this sort of national attack on trans, two-spirit and gender non-conforming people in particular,” McAfee said. “But I think in a state like Oklahoma, it can feel especially isolating, And I think it can feel disheartening when it seems like the rhetoric that in a lot of places still seems fringe or extreme, it feels more mainstream here.”

Freedom Oklahoma hosts a Leadership Summit so each year to gather their community together, share and learn about the resources available to them. This August, more than 70 people attended the virtual event — people like parents with kids in Oklahoma schools, allies, and people in the LGBTQ+ community. McAfee said they’re looking to engage with more college students next year.

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Kateleigh Mills/KOSU Radio)
Members of Freedom Oklahoma, Foundation for Liberating Minds and the ACLU meet for a planning meeting for the annual Leadership Summit event.

Impacting Policy

McAfee also has a history of lobbying state institutions. That’s how Aurelius Francisco, co-executive director of Foundation for Liberating Minds, a community organization based here in Oklahoma City, was familiar with them.

“What I think Nicole does exceptionally well is takes on a lot, you know, from their work at the ACLU, where they were sort of at the capital and advocating against an onslaught of repressive policies,” Francisco said.

Recently, McAfee testified at a State Board of Education meeting where the board was considering new rules related to the state’s transgender bathroom ban. At the meeting, McAfee gave a speech as to why the rules were harmful.

“You can vote yes and enact provisions that… will further conditions that make it impossible for some of the most vulnerable young people to see a future for themselves that will ultimately result in higher rates of youth death by suicide,” McAfee said. “Or you can vote no today. And to do so, you don't have to understand trans people. You don't even really have to support us. And it won't make you woke. But maybe it'll allow you to sleep at night.”

Ultimately the board unanimously voted to pass the rules.

Some Oklahoma students are beginning to take action on their own — testifying before school boards about how the trans bathroom ban is impacting them. Andy Bridge, a trans student, is suing the state over the bill.

“It just seemed sort of like the right thing to do,” Bridge said. “Like, I disagree with the bill and if I can do something that will make it go away, then I want to be part of that.”

The Freedom Oklahoma team is helping provide resources by creating a school board action kit to aid students’ advocacy. They want more kids, like Bridge, to feel prepared when they walk into a local school board meeting — maybe for the first time.

Ultimately, McAfee’s goal is to forge connections that are meaningful and useful for their community as the state’s politics become increasingly hostile.

“As we've seen these fights happen more and more locally, we sort of step back and said, okay, how does someone get involved?,” McAfee said. “How can they engage in accountability and what are different tactics that might serve them?”

StateImpact Oklahoma’s Robby Korth contributed to this story. America Amplified is a CPB-funded initiative to support community engagement journalism in public media.