McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State news

April 16, 2014

Oklahoman returns home focused on pro-gay agenda

McALESTER — Troy Stevenson remembers the day when football players discovered him and his boyfriend holding hands behind an Edmond high school. After they had been chased off school property, Stevenson called to check on his boyfriend.

“He was in hysterics,” Stevenson said. “… Like me, I thought he was scared. Did people see us? What would people think?”

Stevenson found out the next day the teen had taken his own life. He was devastated.

“That sent me back into the closet more than anything you could have imagined,” he said. “It was almost 10 years before I came out again to anyone — including myself.”

Stevenson attended the University of Oklahoma, then left the state.

Now 37, he’s returning as a polished, high-profile lobbyist with a history of success in promoting gay-rights legislation and mobilizing support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He was recently named executive director of the non-profit Equality Network in Oklahoma. He previously was executive director of Garden State Equality, which has more than 150,000 members, in New Jersey.

Stevenson’s return comes at a critical time for Oklahoma’s gay community. A federal appeals court in Denver is scheduled to hear arguments over the legality of Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage Thursday. That follows a lower court’s ruling that struck down the state law.

Stevenson said his focus is broader than marriage laws. He aims to promote equality in all aspects of life, from schools to the workplace. In addition to the Capitol, don’t be surprised to find him hosting town hall meetings across the state to make sure residents hear “these stories so they see the love that these families do have.”

“Going back, Oklahoma when I was a kid wasn’t a safe place to come out. It wasn’t a safe place to be gay,” Stevenson said. “I think over the last decade, more and more people have come out. There’s a lot more acceptance and a lot more understanding.”

Stevenson said his work will be two-pronged: Lobbying for gay rights legislation while mobilizing support in hopes of showing Oklahomans who the LGBT community is. His efforts are funded mostly by individual donations, he said, but also supported by foundations and groups like Freedom to Marry.

One former colleague praised Stevenson for taking on Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey, and leading a push to legalize same-sex marriage there. New Jersey already recognized civil unions when its Legislature last year passed a same-sex marriage law. Christie vetoed it and later appealed a court ruling allowing gay couples to marry. The governor dropped the appeal in October.

 “Troy was working 24-7. He was tireless, passionate,” said John Mikytuck, now interim director of Garden State Equality.

While in New Jersey, Stevenson successfully lobbied for dozens of other laws designed to ensure equality for the LGBT community. He’s particularly proud of a bill that bans conversion therapy and a comprehensive safe schools bill.

“I’ve got a proven track record for building coalitions, for building grassroots programs that culminate in legislative victories, so the end goal is not marriage,” he said. “The end goal is full equality for every Oklahoman.”

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