Faces of the community
As the 30th annual Tulsa Pride gets under way this month, it will highlight the activities of its host organization, Oklahomans for Equality, which has provided valuable programs and services for the area’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community since 1981.
Isabel McCormick came out to her parents as transgender in spring 2011. Since then, she has begun volunteering at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, and she and her parents attend support groups offered by Oklahomans for Equality. “You kind of get the sense that you’re not alone — and that someone else understands what it’s like,” McCormick says. “And I kind of get the sense that I help other people with that, and that feels good.”
(page 1 of 4)
From 2-3 p.m. most weekdays, Isabel McCormick is one of the first faces visitors see when they enter the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center.
She sits behind the front desk, usually wearing the red polo shirt and khaki slacks of her school uniform and sometimes adding a bow to her curly brown hair. She provides information on the phone line, helps prepare for events, moves furniture — whatever is needed to help the center run smoothly.
For McCormick, a high school senior, volunteering at the Equality Center is a chance to be part of something important, something that helps other people who have faced the challenges she has faced.
“Since the center is almost entirely volunteer run, anything I do to help feels pretty good,” she says. “Plus, I’ve made a lot of friends.”
A little over a year ago, McCormick was living a far different life. Then, she was Zachary, a boy who had been uncomfortable in his own skin since puberty but didn’t have the words to describe what he was feeling.
It wasn’t until February 2011, when McCormick was doing research online, that she found the term she was looking for: transgender.
McCormick soon shared her discovery with her parents, who supported her, finding her a therapist who helped her start hormone therapy, buying her new clothes and working with administrators at her school to ensure her transition process went smoothly. This spring, they also helped her secure a court date to finalize her new name: Isabel.
In addition to help from her family and friends, McCormick has found solace with another group, a transgender teen support group at the Equality Center. They meet monthly to talk about their lives and concerns. They also discuss milestones in the process to embracing their true gender.
McCormick’s parents are involved in a support group as well, one for parents of transgender teens, and they also appreciate the opportunity to share their experiences with others in similar situations.
McCormick and her parents are just a few of the thousands of people who benefit from the classes and programs offered at the Equality Center, which has served as home to Oklahomans for Equality (OkEq) since 2005.
This month, as the Tulsa Pride Street Festival and Parade welcomes thousands of members of the area lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, the Equality Center will be on full view, reminding some and informing others that it serves as a hub of resources and activities.
Tulsa Pride will also be a chance to highlight the milestones of OkEq, a more than 30-year-old organization that has continued to evolve to meet the needs of the LGBT community.
advocacy and resources for parents and friends of LGBT individuals.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
Dennis Neill moved to Tulsa in 1977 to work for a local law firm. Over time, he was able to confide in some co-workers and friends that he is gay, but at the time, there was a lack of resources and services available for the LGBT community. So, Neill decided to step into the void and take action.
Oklahoma City had become home to an organization called Oklahomans for Human Rights, so Neill visited the capital city to spend time with that organization and learn about what it was doing.
Before long, Tulsa was home to its own chapter of Oklahomans for Human Rights, which held its first meeting in January 1981. The group had four officers; Neill was its first president.
At the time, Neill says, LGBT communities on the East and West coasts were organized, galvanized and raising awareness about equality issues. But in Tulsa, the conversation was just beginning.
“We just wanted to try to help bring that together in this part of the country because there just wasn’t a lot of support within Oklahoma other than what Oklahomans for Human Rights was creating in the Oklahoma City community,” he says.
The Tulsa chapter began by offering monthly educational meetings on topics important to the LGBT community. Speakers ranging from mental health experts to medical professionals to the news media visited with the group to help them learn “about what was going on, how can we become more vibrant in the Tulsa area,” Neill says.
By the early 1980s, though, the conversation had changed — in a big way. HIV/AIDS had become a full-scale epidemic, and cases began appearing in Tulsa in 1982-1983.
As a result, Tulsa’s chapter of Oklahomans for Human Rights shifted part of its focus to providing education about the disease, partnering with the Tulsa County Health Department to discuss AIDS transmission and prevention. The organization offered free testing, educational materials and seminars, and several members volunteered in testing and counseling capacities. The crisis also provided a means for others outside the LGBT community to get involved and help.
In its early days, 30 to 40 people attended Tulsa chapter meetings. Because of HIV/AIDS and a growing number of programs and services, by 1983, 150 to 160 people might show. And while the group initially met quietly, it soon began to advertise its gatherings in local media.
Despite the growing number of people attending the organization’s monthly meetings and social events, Neill says that at the time, a minimal number of people were publicly “out” in their workplaces or among their extended families. In the early 1980s, sharing one’s sexuality publicly could result in loss of a job, friends or family. LGBT individuals also faced “lots of bias and extreme pressure” from certain elements of the religious community, he says.
Although the organization formed to raise awareness about human rights issues, Neill says its true impact came in providing support for members.
“What we were changing was the attitude and the emotional well-being of our members and those that our members touched,” he says. “As those members talked to their family and friends, it became a less invisible issue.
“And as more inclusive faith groups and organizations, such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, stepped forward, the climate changed for the better.”
In 1985, the Tulsa chapter separated from Oklahomans for Human Rights, becoming Tulsa Oklahomans for Human Rights (TOHR), and in 2007 adopted its new name, Oklahomans for Equality.
“There are not very many organizations throughout the country that have lasted as long and been as involved in advocacy as Oklahomans for Equality,” Neill says.