In early June, Troy Stevenson wrote a Facebook post celebrating the fact that a group from Oklahoma County Republican Party had committed to marching in this year’s OKC Pride Parade. But not everyone on the social media site celebrated along with him. Several social media posts wondered why the GOP, a party with a vocal anti-LGTBQ+ contingent on both the local and national level, would be welcome at the event.
On June 21, one day before the start of OKC Pride’s three-day celebration, Freedom Oklahoma announced that it was parting ways with Stevenson, the LGBTQ+ advocacy group’s founding executive director.
Freedom Oklahoma, in a statement released the same day, said the move represents a difference in approach between the civic organization and its former director.
“On this eve of Pride,” the statement reads, “we have an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. The road toward equality is not easy, and collectively, we have not always agreed on the best way to achieve results.”
During a recent interview with Oklahoma Gazette, Stevenson said he is a strong believer in reaching out to both sides. He thinks true acceptance includes reaching out across the political spectrum as well as gender and sexual preference.
“It seems like that was a step too far for a lot of people [in the LGBTQ+ community],” Stevenson said. “They believe that because the national and state Republican parties have been anti-LGBTQ in the past, it was inappropriate for the local county party and specifically active, gay Republicans who wanted to be a part of the Pride celebration.”
Stevenson, an Independent who was once registered Democrat, said his firing by Freedom Oklahoma was not the result of a specific Facebook post, but an overall disagreement over his work and support of individuals that some members of the LGBTQ+ community saw as controversial. He recognizes that his bipartisan approach is sometimes unpopular, which has become even more apparent to him in the last month.
“I quickly realized that — if this is the way the community wanted to go — that my approach was probably best taken somewhere else,” he said.
Oklahoma County Republican Party chairman Daren Ward said he was approached by a group of Republicans who said they would be interested in marching in this year’s OKC Pride Parade — a request he gave his full blessing. That group also reached out to Stevenson, who then made his Facebook post talking about how the gesture would be a great olive branch between local Republicans and the LGTBQ+ community.
“I never anticipated that saying ‘I’m excited the Oklahoma County Republican Party has agreed to march in Pride’ would cause that kind of backlash,” Stevenson said.
After the backlash from Stevenson’s post, Ward said he heard from OKC Pride saying their parade was full and there were safety concerns related to the group’s inclusion.
“The part about being full I don’t [believe] because the initial reaction was just like, ‘Absolutely not; no way,’” Ward said. “The safety concerns after the firestorm had already started, I get.”
Ward, who recently lost a bid for Oklahoma County treasurer to Forrest Butch Freeman in a Republican primary, said even he advised the group of Republicans planning on marching to stay away after seeing the anger some people reacted with online. To his knowledge, there has never been another group of Republicans to take part in the OKC Pride Parade, but that is not due to their scarcity.
“There are a lot of gay Republicans,” Ward said, “but they don’t necessarily want to say they’re Republican, a lot because of things like what happened a couple of weeks ago.”
Still, if things are able to work out in the future, Ward said he would support another group of Republican marchers in the OKC Pride Parade. The chairman also said he is an admirer of the advocacy work Stevenson has done in the Capitol, whose halls he often frequents during legislative session.
Ward said he is saddened if Stevenson indeed lost his job over expressing support for Republican participation in OKC Pride.
“[Stevenson] has been a good advocate,” Ward said. “He doesn’t always win, obviously, but he has influenced a lot of people at the Capitol with his work.”
OKC Pride president Lori Honeycutt declined to comment on Stevenson or Freedom Oklahoma when contacted by Gazette. Some commenters on a June 13 OKC Pride Facebook post explaining that their parade was at capacity and could not accommodate Republican participation wondered whether the party had done anything for the LGBTQ+ community warranting inclusion in the event.
“If the GOP ever have a place in this parade, which is meant to celebrate our allies and our progress; then this parade has completely sold out its soul to corporate America,” one commenter wrote.
In a June 21 statement from Freedom Oklahoma, the organization thanked its former director for his years of hard work leading the group through legislative battles for equality. Freedom Oklahoma also looks at the occasion as the start of a new chapter.
“What brings us together is our passion for progress, for our community, and for each other,” the statement reads. “We take this time to celebrate our diversity while also recognizing there’s more that unites us than divides us. We look forward to continuing to work in the best interest of our community and remain resolute in our advocacy on behalf of Oklahoma’s LGBTQ community, women, and other marginalized groups because none of us are equal until all of us are equal.”
Freedom Oklahoma board chair Brett Baldwin declined to comment on the specific reasoning for Stevenson’s removal but did say the search for a new executive director is already underway.
“We’ve already had four or five local individuals who are well qualified throw their hats into the ring,” he said. “I don’t think this will be a search that takes us a long time.”
There is no timeline for naming a new executive director, but Baldwin said Freedom Oklahoma’s search will be national. In the meantime, an interim executive director is expected to be named soon.
Baldwin said in many similar cases where an organization is looking to replace a longtime executive director, it is a time of division in leadership. But he said that’s not the case here. Freedom Oklahoma’s board is unified.
“That’s not just lip service,” he said. “This should be an opportunity for our community to grow and improve and be stronger, not the other way around.”
Though there is some talk of division, Baldwin sees the local LGBTQ+ community as a group with a lot of positive momentum.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Baldwin said. “We have a lot of strong leaders, and there’s opportunities always for us to work better together. There’s strong leaders in all sectors of the community.”
Baldwin and Stevenson both said they remain friends, despite Freedom Oklahoma’s change in direction. Stevenson said the organization has been his “baby” for a long time and, if permitted, he would like to work with them in the future.
“I will do anything to make it successful going forward,” he said. “I’m there for them; I’m not walking away completely.”
As for Stevenson’s next career move, he plans on staying in Oklahoma and has already received calls from a few people about new opportunities.
Recent reactions to his support for a bipartisan approach have not changed his desire to reach across the aisle. If anything, Stevenson sees more need than ever to bridge the gap.
“I hope society can get past this divide and look at people for who they are rather than for what letter sits behind their name,” he said.