One OKC 

Ward 2’s newest councilman is breaking barriers, making history and representing those who have not felt represented in the past.

Ward 7 councilman James Cooper, mayor David Holt and county commissioner Carrie Blumert led a crowd of supporters to City Hall. - ALEXA ACE
  • Alexa Ace
  • Ward 7 councilman James Cooper, mayor David Holt and county commissioner Carrie Blumert led a crowd of supporters to City Hall.

One of the newest city council members is making history and giving a voice to people who have gone without representation at the city level. Ward 2 councilman James Cooper is the first openly gay member of the council, first biracial representative, first black representative outside Ward 7 and the first teacher on the council in a long time.

“You all built me 25 years ago when you set in motion the first MAPS vote; I am the MAPS generation,” he told a crowd after walking to City Hall. “ As your next Ward 2 city councilperson, I am going to honor the legacy of MAPS by making sure that the next 25 years are even stronger.”

Freedom Oklahoma helped organize a walk to City Hall from the site of Oklahoma’s first gay bar, paying homage to Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official who led a similar procession in San Francisco, California, for his swearing-in. Many community members, Ward 2 constituents and local leaders walked behind Cooper and mayor David Holt, chanting and holding campaign signs.

“I’m very happy. James is going to make an excellent city council person,” Aaron Wilder, who served as Cooper’s campaign manager, told Oklahoma Gazette. “He’s been my friend for eight years, and I just couldn’t be more excited. And I couldn’t be more excited about what it means for young gay kids to see his name in the paper.”

‘Representation matters’

Wilder once believed LGBTQ+ people could not truly live happy, fulfilled lives.

“I was a gay kid that, when I was growing up, for whatever reason ... I didn’t think that gay people could live happy, successful lives,” he said. “I didn’t think that gay people could grow up to be professionals. I thought that being gay — at least coming out — was like co-signing your life to, like, something really sad.”

But in 2007, Wilder’s outlook changed completely.

“I had never picked up a paper, never looked at the news, but for some reason, the light was shining just right and I saw Jim Roth’s name in The Oklahoman,” Wilder said. “He had just been appointed by Gov. [Brad] Henry to be statewide [corporation] commissioner. And they were talking about how he was openly gay and it was being celebrated. It wasn’t being derided, and that absolutely just changed my entire life.”

Wilder said witnessing Roth celebrated as an openly gay politician saved his life.

“They gave me hope; representation gives kids hope,” he said. “It absolutely saved my life, and James’ name in the paper is going to save people’s lives. It’s going to save little queer kids living in rural America; they’re going to know that there’s a safe place for them and they’re going to be OK.”

Allie Shinn, Freedom Oklahoma executive director, told the crowd that leaders like Roth, [district judge] Richard Ogden and Sen. Kay Floyd, all of whom were present, paved the path for Cooper.

“Representation matters. We want to have a government that really looks like the people that they’re representing, and for so long, Oklahoma City has not had an LGBTQ council person,” Shinn told Oklahoma Gazette. “It’s really difficult to make decisions on behalf of the community when you don’t have the real understanding of what it’s like to be a member of that community. The election of James Cooper has really been an important step forward to making sure that we’re adequately represented by somebody who fully understands what’s happening.”

In a previous interview with Oklahoma Gazette, Cooper recounted the moment he found out he won the election. He was in his Paseo Arts District apartment with his mother. 

“I just heard the news and looked at her and just lost it because it was this moment where it became very clear this was not what was intended for her,” he said. “We don’t come from money, we don’t have a recognizable family name, we’re not particularly well-connected. And there it was, the result of years of my mother finishing her GED and putting herself through nursing school and making sure that my sister and me had the opportunities that she did not. … This is my victory. It’s the volunteers who knocked on doors on my behalf. It’s the people who voted for me. And it’s for people like my mother.”

She went on to swear him in on his first day as a city councilman.

Community members walked behind James Cooper as they paid homage to a similar procession led by the late Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. - ALEXA ACE
  • Alexa Ace
  • Community members walked behind James Cooper as they paid homage to a similar procession led by the late Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official.

Changing times

Holt’s speech at the end of the walk touched on the fact that City Hall has steadily become more inclusive.

“If you gaze above me, you will see that the building is dedicated ‘to the people of Oklahoma City,’” he said. “There are some among us here today who are old enough to remember eras when the exceptions to ‘the people of Oklahoma City’ were so strictly enforced that they might as well have been chiseled on the ground and walls of City Hall. And through the decades ... we have chipped away at many of those exceptions and welcomed more and more of God’s people to this City Hall.”

He emphasized Cooper’s accomplishments and great civic record and said he had “a great heart for the people of Oklahoma City.”

“I couldn’t help but also point out that it wasn’t that long ago — and everyone here is old enough to remember — when the LGBTQ community was told that it could not even hang banners on the street poles of Oklahoma City,” Holt said. “But tomorrow, we swear in the first openly LGBTQ member of the Oklahoma City Council. … We celebrate that accomplishment and that moment in our city’s history when things just don’t quite feel like they did before in a very, very good way. We also celebrate — I think it is worth noting — that James is the first African American elected to city council outside of Ward 7. But I really think, most importantly, we celebrate James because he’s awesome and we love him.”

On the day of the walk, Cooper asked his college prep students what they wanted him to say in his closing speech.

“The lesbian, the gay, the bisexual and trans students, do you know what they want?” he asked. “They want to be able to walk down those sidewalks without fear of violence, without fear of harassment, without hearing the sort of words that I heard almost every day of my childhood — literally almost every day — because I walked a little bit differently, I spoke a little bit differently.”

Cooper has hope for the future because of the leadership he is serving alongside and because he stood on the shoulders of giants.

“If I did not mention your name today, please know you have been the voice in my head that has counteracted all the awfulness I heard growing up. You were the light, and now I hope to be that light for you,” he said. “One OKC. E pluribus unum — out of many, one. We will do this, stay engaged, stay involved. This is our city; this is our time.”

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