The fight against hate 

click to enlarge Scott Hamilton across from the Cimarron Alliance offices at 5517 NW 23rd. - MARK HANCOCK
  • Mark Hancock
  • Scott Hamilton across from the Cimarron Alliance offices at 5517 NW 23rd.

Each year, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) locates hate groups on a nationwide map, pinpointing organizations dedicated to exploiting bigotry, racism and discrimination.

Groups include the Ku Klux Klan, black separatists and even churches that preach intolerance toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The SPLC reported that 17 such groups exist in Oklahoma, which paints a picture of a rather large community of individuals and groups determined to live in a world apart from those who look, act and believe differently.

But displaying those hate groups on a map tells only part of the story. For every organization of hate, there appear to be several more throughout the city and state that actively work to counter discrimination of all forms and educate the public on the damage these practices can cause.

Oklahoma Gazette sought out to create a counter map to the one produced by the SPLC — not to counter its claims or dispute the existence of hate groups but rather to highlight the work of organizations that strive to make Oklahoma a more accepting place and reverse the stereotypes that can often be associated with the Sooner State.

“The extreme is what creates headlines outside of Oklahoma,” said Scott Hamilton, executive director of Oklahoma City-based Cimarron Alliance, an advocate organization for LGBT issues. “It’s the absurd comments of a politician, it’s the outlandish statements of a minister, it’s the abject cruelty of a school administrator that become what the world sees. But if I thought for a moment that the vast majority of Oklahomans feel the way that a small minority of loudly speaking people believe, I would not live here.”

Oklahoma has not always appeared to be the most inclusive state when it comes to same-sex relationships. Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 to ban same-sex marriage, Gov. Mary Fallin fought last year to keep same-sex spouses of National Guard members from receiving marriage benefits promised by the federal government and an Oklahoma City church — Windsor Hills Baptist Church — is listed as a hate group for its efforts to thwart LGBT rights, according to the SPLC.

Hamilton admits Oklahoma isn’t the most progressive state when it comes to acceptance of homosexuality, but organizations like his are working to change that.

“For us, it’s a lot about personal empowerment and community empowerment,” Hamilton said about Cimarron Alliance. “We offer things as simple as a sexual abuse survivors group. While that provides some personal healing, it also provides a sense of empowerment to people to say, ‘You know what? I don’t have to take this anymore.’” The Equality Network is another Oklahoma City-based organization that advocates for LGBT rights. And across the state, in Tulsa, is Oklahomans for Equality, an organization that runs one of the nation’s largest LGBT community centers.

Religious tolerance  Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life labels Oklahoma as the nation’s most evangelical state. While 53 percent of residents identify as evangelical — the most in the nation — Oklahoma is also home to other large faith communities that can sometimes fall victim to persecution.

Oklahoma is home to two neo-Nazi organizations that promote intolerance toward Jews. There are also four Ku Klux Klan organizations across the state, which also practice intolerance toward other religions, according to the SPLC.

Beyond dedicated hate groups that target minority faiths, Oklahoma’s laws and policy positions have, at times, appeared to be unwelcoming toward non-Christian faiths. Voters approved an anti Sharia Law amendment to the Constitution in 2010, but it was later struck down by a federal judge.

The amendment was fought by the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which supports Islamic equality across the state.

Some advocates for religious tolerance say isolation from other faith communities is to blame for negative impressions. One of the programs offered by The Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice (OCCJ) is bringing together students of different faiths for a tour of various religious facilities.

“The [students] go to each of these areas of worship, and you bring students from different religious affiliations together,” Emily Dukes, fund development director of the Tulsa-based OCCJ, said about the organization’s interfaith tour for teenagers.

“They get to hear from each religious institution and hear from their peers and learn more, ask questions. It really opens their minds and their hearts to interact with folks that they might not otherwise.”

Other organizations like Interfaith Alliance Foundation of Oklahoma lobby for an embrace of religious diversity. Interfaith Alliance, a clergy-driven organization, hosts numerous events designed to bring together leaders of different faiths in an effort to affirm diversity, said Sabi Singh, president of the foundation.

Hate groups  The past decade has seen a steady rise in hate groups across the country, based on tracking data from the SPLC. In 2000, there were 602 hate groups. Fast-forward to 2012, and that number topped 1,000.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow with SPLC, said the rise in hate groups in recent years could be linked to the election of President Barack Obama.

“For many, the election of America’s first black president symbolizes the country’s changing demographics, with the loss of its white majority predicted by 2043,” Potok said. “But the backlash to that trend predates Obama’s presidency by many years.”

Numbers rose across the country, but Oklahoma saw its own list of hate groups decline by four last year. However, that hasn’t kept Oklahoma off various lists — including ones compiled by The Daily Beast and The New York Times — of the most intolerant states. These lists often include the number of hate groups and reports of hate crimes but are frequently based on incomplete data.

“I don’t believe it’s the right image,” said OCCJ executive director Jayme Cox of Oklahoma’s reputation as a hateful state. “I think we embrace differences a lot more than we get credit for in the press. If it was as bad as they say, I wouldn’t want to live here.”

While Oklahoma might have its fair share of hate groups and vocal leaders who call for unequal policies, most anti-hate organizations say their attention is focused on individuals and groups that might not vocally express their hatred for a particular group of people.

“Hate groups are a concern for us, but the greater concern for us are those people who hate others but may not make it [onto a map],” Hamilton said. “Frankly, those are also the more difficult ones to change; those who have hateful feelings that are not as outspoken as say a hate group would be.”

Hamilton said he interprets some of the laws proposed at the Capitol and preached by some churches as fueled by hate.

“Hate is something that can be disguised behind a religion or a law,” he said.

Oklahoma is home to hate, yet it is also home to numerous organizations and groups that seek out ways to combat hate groups, policies and perspectives.

“It’s getting better,” Hamilton said. “I really believe that.”

AREA RESOURCES

1. Cimarron Alliance Equality Center Cimarron Alliance advances equality among all Oklahomans by offering educational programs that promote awareness of and sensitivity to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) identities and issues, advocating on behalf of LGBTQ Oklahomans on a local and statewide basis and supporting initiatives that benefit LGBTQ Oklahomans and their allies both individually and as a community.

2. CAIR Oklahoma  Council on American-Islamic Relations strives to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Lake Overholser Muslims and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.

3. YWCA  Women come to the YWCA in times of crisis, as survivors of rape or domestic violence. They come for job training and career counseling. They come for childcare. They come for health and fitness. They come for a variety of reasons. But they come.

And they leave with a renewed spirit, new skills and stronger lives.

4. Catholic Charities  Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City offers services to a variety of people, including immigrants and those living in poverty and are often the victims of persecution.

5. Expressions Community Center Expressions offers free HIV and syphilis testing and other resources for the LGBT community.

6. The Peace House The Peace House is an education and advocacy center for a wide variety of justice and peace issues, including human rights, economic justice, environmental sustainability, nonviolence and peace.

7. Social Justice Ministry Network  The Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC) has established a Social Justice Ministry Network throughout Oklahoma. The network will be comprised of a representative from each congregation belonging to the 16 Communions of the OCC.

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