The Other Side of Oklahoma is the Progressive One

Lindsey N. Bartgis

Media coverage of Oklahoma highlights this state’s conservative and extreme legislation on everything from militias, to gay marriage, to restrictive abortion laws. But Oklahoma also has a growing progressive movement.

On Tuesday April 13, Rachel Maddow highlighted a story about individuals wanting to form militias in Oklahoma. And in spite of the fact that in 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City was bombed by a man known to be connected with a Michigan militia, the current Oklahoma Tea Party movement is pushing legislation that would support the development of militias in Oklahoma. Media coverage of Oklahoma highlights this state’s conservative and extreme legislation on everything from militias, to gay marriage, to ever-more restrictive abortion laws. Given this coverage, I would like to point out one of the less publicized aspects of Oklahoma — its growing progressive movement.

I know seeing “progressive” and “Oklahoma” in the same sentence may be shocking at first, but it is true, there are progressives here. I am one of them. I am co-founder of Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice (OK4RJ) and our main goals are to provide factual data for women and men seeking information on abortion, informed birth choices, sexual health and education, and the latest legislation in Oklahoma. Earlier this month, 10 students and alums connected with OK4RJ, the University of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State University attended Hampshire College’s Civil Liberties and Public Policy conference: From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom. This is arguably one of the largest gatherings of community activists and feminist students from around the country and Oklahoma had a huge presence.

Needless to say, this event was a new experience for some of our Oklahoma constituency. It was refreshing, though, to see how open and forthright the conference presenters were with their progressive plans, which is not a common occurrence in our red state. For many of us it was transformative, providing a safe space to think and speak out about how central reproductive rights are to our health and lives – even in the middle of the country.

While at the conference we had the opportunity to bond over the ways in which many of us had been directly affected by terrible OK reproductive health policy. For example, we had a great group discussion about who had received the craziest public school sex education. My favorite was the story about a teacher taking a blue (male) piece of construction paper and a pink (female) piece of construction paper, gluing them together, and then pulling the sheets apart. The lesson being that you leave pieces of yourself on others when you have sex. Obviously we have some work to do to improve sex ed (and lots of other things) in Oklahoma.

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This is why we came back motivated to provide other women (and men) in Oklahoma who were not able to travel to Massachusetts with additional opportunities to develop alliances and strategists that make sense for our state and region. A lot of liberal groups tend to shut out anyone who is not completely aligned with their views. We know that approach won’t work in Oklahoma. Our work will have to actively seek out the moderates and people who define themselves as “pro-life.” And we will have to work hard to connect progressives in Oklahoma. We have grown up in such isolation, constantly going against the grain, and with virtually no support from the Liberal East or West coasts, that many of us are worn down and afraid to search for one another. OK4RJ is working to build bridges, find the common struggles that exists, and build a network of safe places to discuss our beliefs, ideas, and activism. The response to our organization has been outstanding, people are excited, they want to get involved and we are providing an outlet for them.

OK4RJ and other progressive groups in Oklahoma have a long road ahead, but just remember the next time you hear “militia,” “climate change denier,” or “traditional marriage” in association with Oklahoma, you can also think of “OK4RJ,” “growing progressively,” or “active minority.”

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