OKLAHOMA CITY — A plethora of lobbyists who hang out along the corridors of the Capitol, hoping to catch the ear of a sympathetic legislator, includes a few new faces this year.
Hundreds of lobbyists converge in these hallowed halls to advance their causes, but few arguably are as driven now as advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
Never before has the LGBT community had such an organized, consistent presence, says Troy Stevenson, lobbyist and leader of the newly formed Freedom Oklahoma.
Of course, never before have so many bills, if passed into law, stood to affect the LGBT community, said Stevenson, whose group resulted from the merger earlier this year of the state’s two largest LGBT organizations, Oklahoma's Equality Network and Cimarron Alliance.
“Every year it has gotten more organized and professional,” he said of the LGBT lobbying efforts. “This year they really stepped it up in the Legislature, and we made sure we did the same.”
LGBT advocates in the Capitol now include a lobbyist and a slew of what are known as “citizen lobbyists," or voters who visit their respective leaders to advance causes nearest their hearts.
On Monday, dozens of those citizens will visit the Capitol to during their annual LGBT legislative day. They'll have lots to lobby about.
Most years, only one or two bills are aimed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and advocates usually visit the Capitol about once a week until the bills die.
Now there are 13 different bills, filed by six legislators, that the group opposes. Those range from a measure that seeks to protect the controversial practice of conversion therapy, which attempts to sway a person’s sexual orientation, to measures purporting to nullify a federal court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Oklahoma.
“We’ve never had a reason to be there like this,” Stevenson said. “There has been negative legislation filed in the past, but they’re usually pretty easy to fend off. It didn’t usually take this kind of coordinated effort.”
All the bills are in the early stage of the process — two are headed to legislative committees this week — so Stevenson says he’s hopeful they won’t advance to be signed into law.
Stevenson said he’s encouraged by the number of legislators on both sides who've supported the group's message of tolerance. He notes that his group only targets the lawmakers whom they believe are most open to their concerns.
Legislators have been “extraordinarily receptive” this year, he said, and openly acknowledge that most of the legislation his group opposes is “very discriminatory.”
Whether their public votes match their private comments remains to be seen.
“I think that they’re going to do everything they can to make sure it doesn’t go much further,” an optimistic Stevenson said this week.
He said he's also been impressed by the turnout at several town halls in recent months across the state — most notably in Tahlequah, Edmond and Oklahoma City, which boasted the largest audiences. The forums sponsored by The Equality Network featured discussions about same-sex marriage, employment protections and conversion therapy.
He’s planning more in Bethany, Broken Arrow and Broken Bow — communities with elected representatives who've filed bills that advocates are now targeting.
Stevenson notes that not all bills affecting the LGBT community are negative.
One Oklahoma City lawmaker, he said, proposes to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Stevenson’s group fully supports it, and he hopes it one day reaches Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk.
After all, he says, everyone deserves to live in a state that is tolerant of people's differences.