Faces of the Community
By Joy Jenkins
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.
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.
PART OF THE COMMUNITY
Toby Jenkins is one of two paid staff members at OkEq. As executive director, he is the organization’s face and voice, speaking out on issues important to the LGBT community and providing overall focus and direction.
But 32 years ago, Jenkins was in a far different situation. When OkEq (then the Tulsa chapter of Oklahomans for Human Rights) was forming, Jenkins worked for a church and was preparing to begin seminary. One day, he entered his office and saw a note on his desk instructing him to call a phone number. When he dialed, he was greeted with, “Hello, you have reached the Tulsa gay helpline.”
Jenkins was mortified.
“I knew I was attracted to my own sex and had tried to see some counselors,” he says. “I think my parents probably had a little bit of suspicion. But in the late ’70s, there weren’t a lot of safe places to discuss this without it backfiring.”
He soon learned that the note was merely a prank, but he held on to the number, calling occasionally to find out about meetings and talk with helpline volunteers, who reassured him that there was nothing wrong with him and he was not alone.
In the ensuing decade, Jenkins married, entered the ministry and became a right-wing Conservative, essentially “doing everything I could to go the opposite direction,” he says.
In the 1990s, however, Jenkins came out, and he reconnected with TOHR and the members who talked with him on the helpline, including Neill.
In its second decade, OkEq was receiving more support in the community, Jenkins says, including opening a community center in Brookside and growing its Pride Festival. The group also continued to press the Tulsa City Council for the opportunity to hold a Pride Parade on city streets.
While OkEq members continued to advocate for equality and on behalf of other human rights issues, Jenkins says they operated differently from LGBT communities on the East and West coasts. Rather than establishing gay districts, they focused on becoming “integrated and assimilated” in the community, he says.
“There are East Coast Gays, West Coast Gays,” he says. “These are Heartland Gays. We don’t really look like them, and we don’t really act like them. We reflect our culture, which is more live and let live, respect people, treat your neighbor the way you want to be treated, honor your mother and your father, have a respect for religion, love your country.”
Neill agrees and says that during the 1990s, he and other LGBT community leaders became involved with local nonprofit organizations in an effort to build bridges. It’s an approach that he says continues to be important.
“As we provide a safe place, I believe that the people who have been served by our organization contribute even more to the community,” he says. “They become more valuable as a resource to other nonprofits, to business; they’re able to interact with their family and friends in a more open and positive environment. And then these other organizations see the benefits of diversity from all aspects, whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation. We’re in one big pot here.”
Jenkins credits Neill and others with the success OkEq is enjoying. While some Oklahoma LGBT leaders left the state to pursue opportunities in larger cities, a few becoming prominent leaders in the LGBT movement nationally, others remained in Tulsa.
“What I think made the difference was the people who stayed, stayed and they were good citizens, they were good employees, they found churches that accepted them, they moved into neighborhoods and became good neighbors, they began to volunteer, they served in some of our nonprofits and community organizations,” Jenkins says. “ … People began to say, this is my son or this is my nephew or this is my daughter and this is her partner, and it’s not all right you firing them or treating them bad when they live in your neighborhood.”
Nancy McDonald started Tulsa’s chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in 1986 after learning that her daughter, Morva, is gay. The organization partnered with TOHR early on and continues to serve parents, families and friends of the LGBT community through support, education and advocacy. To date, the organization has received 3,800 calls to its local helpline.
“It’s been so pivotal to changing the opinion in Tulsa,” Neill says.
In 2011, OkEq served 44,000 people from across the region through programs ranging from free HIV testing to support and discussion groups to cultural offerings. And Jenkins is committed to helping others facing challenging situations.
“What we’re doing here is a model that can be duplicated all across this country,” he says.
STRATEGIES FOR GROWTH
Kris Wilmes watched the Equality Center go from concept to reality. When he became involved with OkEq (then TOHR) almost six years ago, the organization had purchased the facility at 621 E. Fourth St. but was still housed at the Brookside location. He says he appreciates the opportunity to get involved with OkEq at a pivotal time in its development.
“It was an avenue where I could help try to make change and influence change in Tulsa,” he says.
Wilmes says his coming-out process was not unlike many other OkEq members. It was awkward. He worried about disappointing his family. He wasn’t sure how it would affect his career. But as he became more comfortable and assessed his experiences, he realized he wanted to help others facing the same situation.
Now, as OkEq board president, he is working to create overall strategies.
While OkEq knows what it wants to accomplish, Wilmes has been working with the board to articulate those goals to the community, potential funders and even legislators.
With its small staff and more than 100 volunteers, the organization needed “structure and sustainability,” he says, a means of creating processes so future volunteers can get involved quickly and easily.
As OkEq volunteer coordinator, Tracy Allen is vital to that effort. He recruits, facilitates and guides volunteers, many of whom serve as vital first points of contact for people inquiring about the facility and its offerings.
“We have to make sure that we are knowledgeable, that we are welcoming to anyone coming because, of course, they’re unsure or totally ignorant of what community is out there,” he says.
Allen understands these needs well because, 20 years ago, he was in the same situation. Having just come out at age 28, he sought out OkEq (then TOHR) for information about Tulsa’s LGBT community.
“It gave me a place to kind of belong and start giving back,” he says. “I realized that if I was out there with questions and needed people to identify with, there were other people. It gave me opportunities to network with the community.”
Allen says he has been amazed at the progress OkEq has made in the last few years, efforts that, he says, literally save lives. And that’s what encourages him to spend 35 hours each week volunteering at the Equality Center.
“It sounds kind of cliché that an organization would save someone’s life, but when it comes to discovering that you’re not alone, there are people out there that understand you, (there’s) someplace to go, someplace to belong, it gives you more reason to exist,” he says. “A lot of the stories I’ve heard, a lot of the things that I’ve seen are what keep me going and coming back every day because you never know what day someone will come in the door lost.”
'AS NORMAL AS ANYONE'
Often, when individuals make their way to the Equality Center seeking help, they find Shelley McGoffin. Along with Steven Michael Hall, McGoffin serves as a facilitator for OkEq’s Coming Out Workshops.
Each Tuesday night, McGoffin and Hall meet with men and women who think they might be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender; are newly out to themselves; or are in the process of coming out. They discuss their weeks or perhaps a specific topic or issue.
Some are new to Tulsa and discuss the challenges of moving here. Others are struggling with their faith. Still others are working to create coming-out plans for their families, friends or workplaces.
“Really, the bottom line is just people coming in with, I am not out at all,” McGoffin says. “They come in with their knees shaking” and facing many barriers.
For some, a few visits are all that is necessary and they transition into a mentor role. For others, it may take months. Either way, McGoffin says, she and Hall are there to help in any way needed.
“We can help save a life and provide quality of life,” she says.
McGoffin says she feels fortunate that her family did not condemn her when she shared with them that she is gay. Rather, her challenge came in her reaction: an expectation that they adapt immediately to the news when they needed time to adjust.
Over time, though, they worked through the process, and McGoffin says she now feels completely comfortable with her sexuality — which is also her hope for those who attend the workshops.
“I like to say in the workshops, the goal for me in being out is forgetting that I’m gay, where I just feel as normal as anyone,” she says. “ ... You can walk down the street and hold hands with your partner and not be worried about people looking. And they might be looking, but I’ve found if I get comfortable with that step, I forget that it might be different.”
Stewart Wallace began attending the Coming Out Workshops in July 2011. He says that telling his family he is gay at age 47 was essentially drama-free, but he still had much to learn.
“A lot of it is about coming out to yourself,” he says. “There are things you don’t realize you don’t accept about being gay, and you begin to encounter those and work through them with the help of the group.”
Now, he serves as a group mentor and says he enjoys visiting each week to hear about the other members’ lives. Wallace has also gotten involved with other groups that meet at the Equality Center, most notably the Green Country Bears.
One of many Bear groups nationwide, the Tulsa chapter hosts monthly meetings, holds fundraisers and gathers for social events, such as cookouts and movie nights. In May, they also hosted a three-day “Bear Run,” inviting members from around the country for a variety of events.
The group has made an undeniable impact on him, encouraging him to get out and enjoy life.
“They’re the family and friends that I never really had in life,” he says. “They’re just beautiful people. Everybody’s very kind and accepting and loving, and you can just really depend on them for everything you need.”
Families with LGBT members also meet at the Equality Center.
One night, that involved a monthly support group for parents of transgender teens. They came together to discuss opportunities and challenges facing their families. One parent had just found out his child was transgender and felt reassured to meet others in the same situation. Another shared that his child posted his new name on Facebook and was met with multiple positive comments. Yet another described the devastation of learning that parents of her child’s friends would not allow them to attend prom together because of bigotry.
The group also shared the excitement of seeing their children’s happy faces as they come closer to the gender they are meant to be. As one parent said: “The joy expressed is worth all the tears.”
As the parents talked, shared stories and provided support, Tom* listened attentively. A licensed clinical social worker, he facilitates the group, providing suggestions and resources to help parents as they navigate this journey with their children.
Tom also shares his personal experiences. While his mother noticed behavioral changes in him as early as first grade — when the genders were first separated, he says — it took a therapist knowledgeable about transgender issues and a support group to help him get through his transition.
He began therapy for his transgender issues at age 35 and started his physical transformation at age 40. At the time, he lived in a small town where everybody knew he was transgender. However, he also moved to a larger city where nobody knew his situation and he was able to “go stealth” for a year, he says.
While Tom shared his perspectives with parents, another leader, Adam*, met with transgender teens in a separate support group.
Adam is also transgender and says that unlike the teens with whom he works, he felt uncertain and alone as a young person coming to terms with his gender identity.
“I had this idea of who I was, but I didn’t have language for it,” he says. “I didn’t know the word ‘transgender.’”
It wasn’t until he attended a conference in college that he met other people who were transgender. They had jobs, spouses, families, careers. They were happy, he says, and now he is happy to share his experiences and wisdom with others.
“I think it’s important to be able to be that presence for people who may otherwise feel alone and like the only person who has this, especially when you’re a teen,” he says.
In the teen support group, Adam customizes the meetings to whatever the teens need, whether that is an open forum, an informational video or an activity.
Additionally, OkEq offers groups for transgender men and women, and Tom says he hopes to eventually add a post-surgery support group.
“It meets more needs right where they are,” Adam says.
In addition to providing a cutting-edge transgender program that attracts people from around the region, OkEq is leading the nation with another program, one of only 21 in the country.
John Madigan has been involved with OkEq for 12 years, assisting with the Pyramid Project capital campaign, which raised funds for the Equality Center, and helping with renovations to the center. Three years ago, however, Toby Jenkins approached Madigan about a new role — a chance to serve a population that will grow substantially in the coming decades.
Madigan serves as program facilitator for OkEq’s Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE) program and assisted OkEq in receiving its national affiliation and accreditation with SAGE USA in March.
Simply put, Madigan says, SAGE provides opportunities for individuals over age 50 to get out of the house and interact with others their age so they’re not “hibernating.”
The group includes members ages 60 to 84 who gather every Tuesday evening. They play cards, work on computers, watch movies and talk about current issues affecting the senior population.
Along with providing social interaction, Madigan says SAGE promotes independence. Often, he says, older LGBT individuals move into nursing homes too early because they don’t have family nearby to help them, although they are independent enough to live at home.
“The LGBT community gets a little disconnect between the younger ones and the older ones, and if they have a partner, then they kind of get isolated,” he says.
If they lose a partner, they may be by themselves, able to live at home but needing assistance, he explains.
With SAGE, they can meet people who may be able to help them with driving or home tasks. OkEq volunteers can also connect them with resources they need.
“That gives them the security that, hey, I can go down there and I’m not going to be a burden to them,” Madigan says. “We’re here to help you.”
A PLACE TO BELONG
On a Monday in early May, as Isabel McCormick finished her volunteer duties at the Equality Center, her mother, Julia, hurried down the hall to share some news with her. She had just learned that her daughter would not be graduating from high school as Zachary; the announcer would call the name Isabel.
For Isabel, it was just another turning point in the process of becoming the gender she says she was always meant to be. In the fall, when she leaves Tulsa for Oberlin College in Ohio, she will continue undergoing hormone therapy and training her voice to sound more feminine. She is also looking forward to wearing what she wants and living life as a female.
She wants to continue to educate people about transgender issues as well.
“I have no problem being recognized for it,” she says. “Those I care about recognize me for who I am, and I’d rather help people. I may not always have time for it, but it’s definitely at the top of my priority list.”
Jenkins says he is proud that OkEq, after more than 30 years, continues to help people like McCormick find their voice.
“The more we can help people as they navigate this difficult journey of understanding their sexuality, balancing it with their faith, finding a safe environment, addressing their fears but also addressing the discrimination that’s going to be an active part of their lives, (the better),” he says.
Neill agrees and says he’s been impressed with the progress the LGBT community has made in Tulsa.
“Over the last five to six years, there’s been a tremendous increase in understanding,” he says. “We couldn’t have done that without making the people who are part of our organization comfortable with who they are and helping Tulsa be more inclusive.”
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