OKLAHOMA CITY — A U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down Monday was a major surprise nationally and to local LGBTQ+ advocates who have struggled to protect workers from being fired due to their sexual orientation and identification.
The shocking 6-3 decision revealed that Chief Justice John Roberts and the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch – both conservatives – joined the four liberals on the court to establish the inclusion of gay and transgender workers under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It was a big win for Oklahoma City’s LBGTQ+ community during this Pride Month when the usual Pride Week activities have been cancelled and less visible virtual events are taking place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Title VII Decision Day Celebration
Leaders and supporters gathered Monday to celebrate the decision in Oklahoma City on “The Strip,” a section of N.W. 39th Street between Pennsylvania Blvd and Youngs Blvd. It’s been a gathering place and site of some of Oklahoma City’s oldest nightclubs and restaurants that were friendly to people of all identities.
In the early days of The Strip, just being seen there was a risk to one’s employment and perhaps to one’s physical safety.
Certainly during the 1980s, public officials avoided making any mention of other orientations than traditional heterosexual relationships between men and women.
But, Monday’s celebration represented a new step forward for public officials and for those who have lived without legal work protections in Oklahoma City.
“Ya’ll, we are winning!” said Allie Shinn as the crowd cheered. She is the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma an organization that provides education and advocacy for the advancement of LGBTQ+ Oklahomans.
“I don’t know how many of y’all were expecting that. I was not,” she said.
“So, we were extremely excited this morning when we saw the news that the highest court in the land has held that it is illegal to fire somebody for being transgender or a member of the LGBTQ community and that is a huge deal!”
Paula Sophia has been a leader in the metro for publicly raising the issue of how transgender persons are treated both informally and formally in the workplace.
She is retired from the Oklahoma City Police Department where she was allowed to continue on as a police officer once she transitioned from the male-identified and award-winning Paul Schonauer to female-identified Paula Schonauer. Since her retirement, she has gone by Paula Sophia, even running for office under that name.
Free Press visited with her before the celebration started and asked her to talk about what the decision meant especially since she had to fight so hard to protect her job and retirement.
“It’s an affirmation that I exist,” she said.
Sophia had to engage in a years-long legal fight later after her transition, though, over sexual harassment and the department’s reluctance to take action on it.
The harassment was due to problems other officers had with her identity. The Fraternal Order of Police that represents OKCPD officers in contract negotiations, told her she could no longer attend lodge meetings. Sophia says eventually she would not get backup or it would arrive slowly when she asked for it on a call.
She said that under the laws in the early 2000s, transgender persons simply did not exist in the law.
In 2004, in her struggle to deal with the harassment in the OKCPD, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint.
To see our coverage of Pride Week 2019 go to the home page and search “pride.”
“They told me two things. One, we found some evidence that substantiates your complaints to as a transgender person. And, two, we can’t substantiate any violations of law because you’re not part of the enumerated list in Title VII.”
“And, they didn’t take my case,” Sophia said. “And, that was generally the attitude all along is because the enumerated list didn’t say trans or transgender, then, sorry, we can’t substantiate anything.”
“This was the game for 20 years,” she added. “This day for me is 20 years in the making. So, it’s huge for me.”
“Right and wrong”
Congresswoman Kendra Horn, HD-5 representing Oklahoma City, circulated in the crowd ahead of time, yes, in a place politicians would have actively avoided a few decades ago.
She talked to Free Press about the significance of the occasion.
“This is not about party. This isn’t about posturing. This is about what’s right and what’s wrong and the bottom line is every single hardworking American deserves the chance to make a living, to take care of their family, and not suffer discrimination because of who they are or who they love,” said Horn.
“And so I’m pleased to see this ruling today. It is heartening. We know there’s still work to do. But regardless of what was happening, I wouldn’t be in any different place.”
“An actual district”
Among the many speakers in the line-up, Ward 2 Oklahoma City Councilman James Cooper spoke and recalled the hardships gay and transgender persons in Oklahoma City had to go through. They were arrested for even the slightest affections expressed in public and then outed by The Oklahoman, a legacy newspaper with wide circulation in the state at the time.
But, he also brought big, positive news to the event: What was once a de-facto district colloquially called “The Strip” will now become an official district in Oklahoma City organized in a similar way to districts like The Plaza District.
“I have the honor of working with another predecessor of mine, and the people who own property here, and members of the LGBTQ community to create an actual district,” Cooper said.
He explained that they will repave the road and reconfigure the parking to make it safer for cyclists.
It was a major shift for an area that was once a place of secrecy, threats and fear.
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