Stories from Tulsa’s LGBTQ+ community
The weekend of June 1–3, 2018 marked the 36th year of Tulsa Pride. For The Tulsa Voice, June 6 marks our first-ever Pride issue. We know, we know—we have some catching up to do. There is a lot to be proud about in Tulsa, from LGBTQ+ activists to business owners to multitudes of joyous revelers. Photographers Nate Grace and Bhadri Verduzco documented the Pride weekend celebrations and several TTV writers found stories near and dear to the LGBTQ+ community’s heart. Happy pride, y’all! And as one Pride parade sign read: Y’all means ALL.
Always For Pleasure
Local sex work activists Nate Grace and Amy Jenkins are busy making Always for Pleasure, a new zine titled after the name of their collective.
“Always for Pleasure is our umbrella brand for our sex-positive workshops and events, the zine, a podcast [in the works], and activism,” Grace said.
Besides featuring local artists, the AFP zine will highlight sex workers through interviews and provide a directory where people can safely find providers in the sex industry.
“Passing the FOSTA and SESTA laws [this year] made it a lot more challenging for sex workers to advertise online and for people to find providers and seek out the healing that they need,” Grace said. “I believe sex workers are healers. They deserve the right to work and make a living. And the criminalization of online sex work and the takedown of the blacklists has made sex workers less safe.”
The duo—both of whom identify as queer—believe that pleasure is healthy and healing, especially for the many people who have experienced trauma, or have never fully experienced the enjoyment of their own bodies.
“Pleasure is beyond sensual and erotic experience,” Jenkins said. “It’s about being awakened to the miracle of life and all the senses. What makes you happy? What brings you pleasure? When we get connected to our pleasure we get connected to the core of who we are.”
“Everything that AFP is about is about queer pride and pride in sexuality and the naturalness of sex,” said Grace.
“We need to feel good in our bodies so that we feel like we belong on the earth. Our bodies are sacred … the feelings in our bodies are natural and beautiful. If we can spend time feeling good, it nourishes our mind and soul and body. It fills up our cup enough to go out and make the world a better place.”
Jenkins and Grace expect to finish the zine by early July. Keep up with AFP on Instagram at @__alwaysforpleasure__. —Liz Blood
Latinx and queer in the South
The history of oppression and struggles of black and LGBTQ+ Americans are part of the public psyche. But the plight of LGBTQ+ people of color, especially in Oklahoma, does not get the attention it deserves given the national statistics on the horrors this group endures. According to a recent report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, “60 percent of hate violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected people was against people of color.”
Add to that Oklahoma’s often racist and homophobic political and ideological landscape and you get a dynamic that legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined as intersectionality—“the oppression and discrimination resulting from the overlap of an individual’s various social identities”.
I spoke with local immigrant and queer activist Rosa Hernandez about how the intersection of race and sexuality play out in their lived experiences in this region of the country. —Timantha Norman
Timantha Norman: Can you tell me about your coming out journey?
Rosa Hernandez: It’s been a rough one. I’m actually more out in the LGBTQ+ community than I am in my own family. I am still especially afraid about my mother finding out about my queerness because in the Latinx community it is still very taboo. Due to [her] language barrier, luckily, she hasn’t found out yet (laughs).
Norman: In what ways have your struggles as a Latinx person and as a queer person in this society intersected?
Hernandez: I feel as though all movements are intersectional. It adds to how many closets you have to come out of. And, with being undocumented and fully assimilated in America, it is another closet to come out of as well. You always fear coming out as queer and undocumented because you will be discarded from multiple communities. You have to be mindful when you work simultaneously in the undocumented activist community and the LGBTQ+ activist community because of prejudice on both sides. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of racism in the LGBTQ+ community. Whenever the black and brown stripes were added to the pride flag, a lot of white LGBTQ+ folks were angry and didn’t get why these colors were being added. It seems like people always forget how people within their movements have different struggles that intersect.
Norman: What do you want fellow Oklahomans to understand about the experiences of people of color who are also LGBTQ+?
Hernandez: That it’s a lot harder for people of color to come out and often they don’t. We often choose our culture over our sexuality. White families are historically more accepting of their LGBTQ+ family members. Especially being a part of the Latinx community, we are very proud of our culture and do not want to disappoint or disrespect our community. Even though our communities are progressing to be more accepting, there are still hurdles that we are working to move past.
“Go back to California.”
That’s what a Tulsa-area physician told Dr. Laura Arrowsmith in 2010 when she went to a minor emergency center to be treated for an abscess that had formed following a secondary labiaplasty. She originally underwent the procedure in California, but when a painful complication arose after she returned home to Tulsa, and her primary care physician was unavailable, Arrowsmith was forced to seek care from someone who ultimately refused to treat her because she is transgender.
This is a fairly common occurrence, Arrowsmith said, especially in the middle of the country, and conditions haven’t improved much in the eight years since she experienced the discrimination.
Arrowsmith, a retired radiologist, wrote about her experience for The Washington Post last year in an op-ed titled “When doctors refuse to see transgender patients, the consequences can be dire.”
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 33 percent of transgender individuals who had seen a health care provider in the last year reported negative experiences such as “verbal harassment, refusal of treatment, or having to teach the health care provider about transgender people to receive appropriate care.” Another 23 percent of respondents reported not seeing a doctor when they needed to out of fear of mistreatment. For these reasons, many transgender individuals receive delayed or inadequate care.
“I’ve heard of transgender patients told in the emergency room that the doctor isn’t going to treat their bronchitis because they don’t know how to treat ‘transgender bronchitis,’” Arrowsmith said. She also mentioned an orthopedist who once refused to treat a patient’s broken ankle because he didn’t know how to treat “transsexual bones.”
In 2016, Arrowsmith began working at Oklahoma City-based Trust Women South Wind Women's Center. The reproductive care center devotes one day each week to transgender care, and there Arrowsmith provides hormone therapy, as well as routine reproductive care.
“People feel a little more comfortable with me because I’m in the community, so it’s a little easier for me to convince a trans man that a pelvic exam should happen than someone else,” she said. “I know how to talk to them, to use vocabulary that’s less offensive. It softens the experience.”
Arrowsmith also spends time teaching health care professionals how to provide affirming care for transgender people. She lectures to second-year medical students at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine; nursing students at Tulsa Community College and Rogers State University; and social work students at the University of Oklahoma, among others. Arrowsmith estimates she gives approximately 30 lectures a year at colleges across the country.
She stresses that being transgender is a medical condition that people are born with—not a “choice” or a “lifestyle” or a “midlife crisis.” She also focuses on gender identity and sexual orientation as two different, independent things. She aims to provide doctors and nurses with affirming language to use with their transgender patients—to refer to them by their preferred names and gender markers.
She said one thing that could make a difference in the care of transgender patients is education. More than just a lecture, she said, students in health care should be exposed to transgender patients on a regular basis.
“This needs to be routinely seen at all of the country’s medical education programs,” Arrowsmith said. “We talk about hypertension—this is just as common. This is as common as cystic fibrosis. It needs to be routinely taught at medical schools, clinical programs, and residency programs. Until that happens, things aren’t going to get a whole lot better.” —Holly Wall
Robbie Dee Ewens
Robbie Dee Ewens was given the name Robert at birth in England in 1962. This name never matched the gender identity she felt inside. Her parents discovered Ewens was a violin prodigy when she was 10, and she traveled the world playing with a British youth symphony. A series of powerful personal religious experiences led Ewens to become a missionary. Later, these experiences helped her accept herself completely. Today she’s a mother, a partner, an accomplished musician and the author of the memoir “At Last! Free to be Me.” She often plays at First Friday in the Tulsa Arts District. —Damion Shade
Damion Shade: When did you start questioning your gender identity?
Robbie Dee Ewens: I had this recurring dream [in the ‘70s] that I was on a hospital gurney as a young teenage boy. I went into surgery and came out again with no bandages, no bruising, no scars—and I was a girl of the same age. Emotionally I was just so happy. I’d want to get back into the dream again if I woke up.
Shade: You weren’t raised religious. When did you become a Christian?
Ewens: It was the ‘80s. My marriage of 10 years back in England was ruined and my wife divorced me. I had two daughters who I lost connection with because of this “crossdressing” thing. Everything kind of crumbled around me and I was contemplating suicide. At the age of 30, in my bedroom, I cried out to God [and] to Jesus. He appeared in my bedroom. A very palpable dramatic change happened in my life not brought about through the Bible or people preaching or anything like that. It was a very personal experience.
Shade: Do you have a message for anyone else experiencing similar struggles?
Ewens: The core—the passion of my heart—is to tell people who are searching with their gender identity that the true and living God loves them exactly as they are. If they’ve had Christians trying to fix them or change them in any way, that is not man’s job at all. If man is trying to change you, don’t listen.
Bible Belt Queers
Darci McFarland wants your perspective. Specifically, she wants your creative work for an anthology that explores queer identity in the Bible Belt. The book, “Bible Belt Queers,” is slated to come out in early 2019 and will be composed of poems, essays, paintings, drawings—“all different types of creative works made from various, different perspectives,” said McFarland, the anthology’s editor.
“I was born and raised in the Bible Belt,” McFarland said. “My experience has been interesting as far as religion shaping my identity. This is a pattern for queer people across the South.”
To be considered for the anthology, send your visual art or writings before October 1 to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can pre-order “Bible Belt Queers” at gofundme.com/biblebeltqueers. When published, the book will be available on Etsy and Amazon and—hopefully—in local bookstores. For more information, visit facebook.com/biblebeltqueers.
This will be McFarland’s second anthology to edit. The first, “Post-Traumatically Stressed Feminist: Survivors Reclaiming Their Truths” came out in December 2017. —Liz Blood
Trans support groups at the Equality Center
Being transgender can be alienating. Not only do many trans people run the risk of losing familial or spousal support by coming out, they are often on their own when navigating a wide range of multidisciplinary resources available to those wishing to transition either medically or socially.
Transgender people are 22 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide. According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, 30 percent of transgender people reported being homeless at some point in their lives. They experience unemployment at three times the rate of the general population.
At the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in Tulsa, there are several support groups available to help break down barriers and provide support and resources to not only those transitioning, but also for their loved ones. I spoke to Ben Matthews, a former attendee, now a co-facilitator of several of the groups.
“When someone transitions it’s obviously not just that person changing,” Matthews said. “Everyone in their life has to go through that transition at some level. So it’s not just providing support for trans folks, but for the people who are providing support for them.”
Starting this month, the Equality Center will start two new groups—a partner support group and a sibling support group.
“A lot of times we see parents kind of shift their focus to the child who is going through transition,” Matthews said. “Siblings will struggle with jealousy and understanding of how everything works and why it’s so important and why their parents are focusing all of their resources and attention on that.”
Matthews also said the facilitators of the groups make a concerted effort to ensure loved ones who may have limited knowledge and ties to the LGBTQ community feel welcome and accepted.
“[They] do an excellent job of making sure that it’s an open space, they’re there to answer questions and they’re there to foster acceptance.”
For those seeking support, education, or social opportunities for transgender and intersex individuals call 918-743-4297 or e-mail email@example.com. —Mary Noble
On documentation for transgender people
In the 1920s, Magnus Hirschfeld, a German Jewish sexologist who was a pioneer in the study and care for transgender people, provided his patients with “passes” to help them avoid detainment by the Berlin police, who would routinely arrest on charges of prostitution anyone caught wearing clothing associated with a gender different from the one he or she was assigned at birth.
Hirschfeld’s patients could submit to authorities printed documentation that they were under his care at the Institute of Sex Research, and avoid arrest.
Alyssa Bryant, a Tulsa-based attorney, uses this story to stress the importance of affirming documentation for transgender people. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) cites “changes in name and gender marker on identity documents” among its “Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People.”
The process of transition is different for each individual. Sometimes it involves surgery, sometimes hormone replacement, sometimes just a social transition. But transition also involves changing names and gender markers on legal documents so that they reflect the person’s true identity.
“Social security cards, passports, driver’s licenses, credit reports—it’s amazing how many ways we tether ourselves to these identities,” Bryant said.
Some of these document transitions are easier than others. Changing a name on a driver’s license, for example, is fairly simple. You file a petition with the court to change your name, and then mail a copy of the decree, along with a form you can print out online, to the Department of Safety.
Changing your gender marker, however, is more difficult. In Oklahoma, state regulations require “a notarized statement on letterhead from the physician who performed the sex change operation indicating the applicant or licensee has undergone a complete physical sex change,” according to Section 595:10-1-18 of the Oklahoma Administrative Code, which continues: “The letter shall state the sex change is ‘irreversible and permanent’.”
Because not every transgender person’s transition involves an “irreversible and permanent” surgery (“sex change operation” is not considered appropriate terminology), this means not every transgender person has access to a driver’s license that reflects their true gender, which can be problematic.
For example, if someone gets pulled over and the gender marker on their license doesn’t match their name or appearance, they could elicit harsher punishment from law enforcement, Bryant said. Or if someone with a new job is required to present their employer with a driver’s license bearing a gender marker that is incongruent with their identity, that could put their employment at risk.
“It really is a setback for people,” Bryant said. “They do all this to be authentic, and then they can’t get a piece of paper.”
Other states have less stringent requirements. California simply requires a licensed physician or psychologist to complete a form certifying the applicant’s gender identification and demeanor. And beginning January 1, 2019, the state will allow driver’s license applicants to select their gender—female, male, or nonbinary—without requiring additional documentation.
Even changing the gender marker on social security cards and passports is relatively simple—each requires a “signed letter from a provider confirming you have had appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.” According to the U.S. Department of State: “Your physician determines what appropriate clinical treatment is according to acceptable medical practices, standards and guidelines … Surgery is not a requirement to get a U.S. passport.”
“It’s all part of the idea of transition—living congruently with who you are,” Bryant said. —Holly Wall
People who attended the Tulsa Pride Celebration on June 2 may have noticed Planned Parenthood’s involvement, both in the parade itself as well as their table along the parade route downtown where they handed out free condoms and reproductive health information.
It is with a definite sense of pride that Planned Parenthood offers services specifically geared toward the LGBTQ community.
“We support the LGBTQ community in a number of different ways,” said Darci McFarland, special events coordinator for Planned Parenthood in Tulsa, who both organized the PP presence and marched in the parade. “The primary way is making sure that we provide safe, affordable, non-judgmental health care for everyone in Tulsa.
“We do have LGBTQ-specific care, we do serve transgender patients, which is a really exciting feature that we have here in Tulsa, and the Tulsa model really helped pave the way for the expansion of our LGBTQ services in Arkansas. We’re excited about the work that we do here for the queer community.”
As McFarland noted, perhaps the most important part of Planned Parenthood’s appeal to LGBTQ folks is the “non-judgmental” aspect of their care.
“LGBTQ people do have a tough time accessing non-judgmental health care, especially here in the South, where conservative politics kind of dominates the conversation. It’s really important that we are open and non-judgmental and we acknowledge the various different identities that exist within our community, so we really want to make sure that all of our patients are served in the best possible way.”
The Planned Parenthood clinic in Tulsa is located at 1007 S. Peoria Ave., but in late July will be moving to a new site, at 205 E. Pine St., without any break in services. To make an appointment, call 918-587-1101 or visit plannedparenthood.org. —John Tranchina
“Two-spirited people are traditional,” said John Co-cke’, who is Cherokee and leads an Okmulgee- and Tulsa-based two-spirited support group. “They have been part of our nations for centuries.”
A two-spirited person “is a person who can walk in both worlds,” he explained. Wade Blevins, the leader of the first-ever two-spirit drum group and who is also Cherokee, explained further.
“Two-spirit was coined from the Ojibwe language,” Blevins said. “But for many of us in our native languages, we have separate words. Some tribes have as many as eight different terms. But ‘two-spirit’ in and of itself was meant to be an all-inclusive term for all LGBTQ people.”
“We love both sides and nourish both sides,” Co-cke’ said. “In [the] dominant society, they want you to be one or the other. But we were allowed to both … Elders tell us our loop has been broken and it’s the last piece to the circle … that our [two-spirited] people need to be embraced and welcomed back into the tribe.”
Traditional two-spirit roles included caring for orphans and taking care of the dead. Some were medicine people, or arbiters between male and female issues, and some protected camp when the men left on war parties.
“A lot of us still maintain those roles and responsibilities,” Blevins said.
Nearly twenty years ago, Blevins overheard traditional singers making fun of two-spirited people they’d seen at a gathering. So he created Southern Pride—a drum group—for two-spirited drummers, singers, and dancers to feel welcome.
“We sing for stomps, sweats, longhouse, powwows—it’s what we grew up doing,” Blevins said. “I created Southern Pride to have a safe place for two-spirit people to be themselves and uphold traditions we grew up with. We’re located all over Oklahoma, mostly, and are either two-spirit, transgender, allies, or families of two-spirited people.
“We consider ourselves to be a traditional family drum circle, which by definition is inclusive of all people. For us, that’s what we hope will happen in the future—that people aren’t looked at for their sexuality or gender identity. I was very lucky that my family was supportive of me and that I was never excluded because I was two-spirit. To me that’s really what it’s all about—inclusivity.” —Liz Blood
Michael Easter & Good Mischief
Michael Easter owns Good Mischief (4612 E. 11th St.), a store on Route 66 with all the weird and wonderful things you might find in the background of a Tim Burton or a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie. He has been a teacher in Tulsa for over 20 years and out as a gay man for the last 10. —Kris Rose
Kris Rose: Why did you decide to come out when you did?
Michael Easter: In 2008, under pressure from the charitable families [like] Kaiser, Zarrow, [and] Schusterman—who pledged big money to operating costs during one of the budget crises—TPS changed its hire/fire policy to offer sanctuary to employees based on sexual orientation. And out I came. [I’ve grown] tremendously both personally and professionally by being able to be my true self.
Rose: What are the advantages or disadvantages?
Easter: As an “out” teacher, one of the biggest perks is kids liking my class and knowing they liked a class a gay man taught. That might seem simple, but it is an important kind of normalizing of LGBTQ+ people. For people who may wonder if “gay” is platform for my class, it is not. I do not talk about being gay or gay issues. If I am baited by a student, I tell them that sexuality is a fraction of life—and not the fraction I hope identifies or defines me to them.
Rose: Are you active in the LGBTQ+ community?
Easter: I keep an equality flag on my wall, something rainbow-y somewhere, and a picture of me and my boyfriend on my desk. As far as activism goes, I keep it in the classroom. I advocate for equity.
Rose: When and why did you open Good Mischief?
Easter: In 2015 I decided to take my side hustle—shopping garage sales, flea markets, and reselling at an antique mall in Jenks—and become an LLC. In the beginning, I did not realize I could use my business as a form of outreach for the LGBTQ+ community. I realized pretty quickly that by posting signage on the front window that ALL are welcome, or saying “We don’t care” instead of gendering the toilet, I could make a space of acceptance. Using our Instagram and Facebook feeds to honor days like Transgender Day of Visibility and using hashtags like #gayowned let the customers know who they were supporting.
Taylor Burns, transgender therapist
Taylor Burns has been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for nearly 30 years.
“They say therapists don’t get good until after they turn 50,” he joked.
From 1994 until 2005, Burns served as executive director of National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Burns also ran a private practice where he was identified as a transgender ally.
“Once one person comes through your door, the word spreads through the community that you’re a welcoming, nonjudgmental person,” Burns said.
As his transgender clientele grew, Burns started a small support group. Due to the vastness of Alaska and remote location of many of its towns, accessing resources can be burdensome—if not impossible.
“Some people would drive 12 hours to attend our little group,” Burns said.
Burns moved back to Tulsa in 2005. He now runs a private practice specializing in working with the transgender population. Having worked primarily with trans adults before his return to Tulsa, Burns was surprised to see the growing number of teens, adolescents, and young children approach him.
This spurred Burns to attend international conferences on transgender issues to expand his knowledge and better serve his younger clients.
“They review the research that’s going on around the globe about transgender health,” Burns said.
Burns shared that in the last four years researchers in Europe have learned how to identify the difference between a male and female brain using SPECT scans. When scanning the brain of a transgender person before starting hormones, researchers found that adults who identify as transgender do have the brain of the gender they feel like they are.
I asked Burns about the controversy surrounding diagnosing children as young as two with gender dysphoria.
“It’s controversial to the public but it’s not controversial to parents, if they’re bringing in a child that young they’re already seeing a very strong personality who’s saying ‘This is who I am.’ Sometimes kids get squelched because most of society is going to correct them and say, ‘No you’re really a little boy or a little girl, but if they’re around people who are educated and allow them, they can just be.”
If you or someone you know would like more information on the services provided by Burns, call 918-760-9796 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. —Mary Noble
Liz Uzzell and Amy Jenkins wanted to create a night of sensual self-care for women in Tulsa. So they did.
“If you can’t find what you want, then you just create it,” Uzzell said.
The retreat, held in late March, was called Bloom. The next one will be held October 26–28 in or near Tulsa.
The foundation of Bloom is self-care and nourishment, so to begin the retreat Uzzell and Jenkins led the women in a sacred sharing circle, a series of rejuvenation exercises—like self-breast massage, yoni gazing, and womb meditation—and provided herbal tinctures, vegan food, and a safe space for exploration and expression.
“There are a lot of places women can get self-care—like getting their hair done or being a part of mothers’ groups,” Jenkins said. “But there’s not a lot out there for them to be empowered sexually, which can be nurturing and nourishing. Our sensuality and sexuality are an important part of who we are.
The evening, crafted to meet the needs of whoever was there, had spaces for women who wanted to be meditative or social, or who wanted to physically connect with each other.
“A wide spectrum of experiences,” Jenkins said. “It was a sensual slumber party for adult women.”
“Bloom is not for just straight or bi or lesbian women,” Uzzell said. “It’s for anyone who identifies as a woman. And being able to connect with other women on the basis of identifying as a woman is very powerful. Forging deep emotional connections is what allows you to experience what sensuality and sexuality are. It’s more than just sex. That kind of safe atmosphere where you’re nourished is freeing and allows people to get outside of society’s labels and exist where you’re at.”
The two are excited to see how Bloom grows organically and hope to take the retreat to other cities.
“There’s a deep desire to keep having them here, too,” Uzzell said.
Tickets for the October 26–28 Bloom will go on sale soon. Visit nightofbloom.com for information or follow them on Instagram at @night_of_bloom. —Liz Blood