Sooner State’s only out lawmaker, Al McAffrey, keeps up fight for LGBT equality amid barrage of anti-gay attacks after moving to the Senate
When a “birther” bill came to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the New York Times quoted then-state Rep. Al McAffrey as saying, “This is Oklahoma — we embarrass ourselves all the time.”
When it was McAffrey’s turn to pick a religious leader to deliver the prayer to open the session, he invited the Rev. Scott Jones. After Jones acknowledged his parents and his fiance Michael in the gallery, one fifth of the Legislature voted to strike the prayer from the official record, a first for that body.
And Republican state Rep. Sally Kern, known for her outlandish statements about the LGBT community, has called McAffrey the “most powerful” person in the Oklahoma Legislature.
“She said I have the gays and the gay agenda behind me,” McAffrey said recently. “Sally is so glad I’m out of the House.”
Earlier this year, the 63-year-old McAffrey was elected to fill a vacancy in the Oklahoma Senate.
As the Senate’s newest member, McAffrey actually has the least seniority, but he seems to have a knack for getting things done. And during his six years in the Legislature, LGBT advocates say he’s significantly changed the perception of gay people among a number of his colleagues.
McAffrey is a Navy veteran and former police officer who owns and operates a funeral home. He’s also the father of three girls, and the grandfather of eight — with a ninth on the way. His newest grandchild will be the fourth child for one of his daughters.
“You do know what causes this, dear?” McAffrey said he asked that daughter jokingly.
McAffrey said his family is very close, and it includes his partner, David Stinson, as well as his ex-wife, who’s now married to a doctor.
“She married money this time,” McAffrey quipped.
He described his partner as the typical stepfather to his grown children and a friend to his ex-wife.
“They love him one day and not the next,” McAffrey said.
McAffrey’s father was a Baptist minister who suspected his son was gay when he was growing up in the small town of Sulphur, Okla.
McAffrey said his dad once asked his sister about his sexual orientation before telling her: “I don’t understand it. What I do know is I love him and that’s all that matters.”
After graduating from Oklahoma State University in 1974, McAffrey enlisted in the Navy as a corpsman.
He later served on the Oklahoma City Police Department before going on to own and operate several successful small businesses.
McAffrey currently owns and operates OK Cremation & Mortuary Services.
McAffrey was first elected to the Oklahoma House in 2006.
He represented a district that included the Oklahoma City bombing site, downtown and the city’s gayborhood.
Last year, Senate Minority Leader Andrew Rice moved out of state. McAffrey announced his candidacy for the seat and was elected earlier this year in a landslide.
In fact, McAffrey has never won an election by a margin of less than 20 percent. In this latest race, he received two-thirds of the ballots cast.
And his new Senate district includes conservative South Oklahoma City.
“People knew I was gay,” he said. “That’s not the issue.”
His approach to running for office is much the same as that of Houston Mayor Annise Parker — to address his sexual orientation honestly and then talk about the issues that affect people.
“I applaud Annise,” he said. “She put herself out as a person who can get the job done.”
McAffrey said his campaign focused on jobs, taxes and services.
“I know the problems and concerns of my district,” he said.
Low-income people in his district were concerned that the governor would balance the budget after lowering income taxes by increasing property taxes, he said.
And while Medicaid funding comes from the federal government, the state controls how it’s distributed. He said his record shows he makes sure people get their benefits.
As a legislator, he hasn’t been able to advance any pro-equality legislation but has managed to kill some negative bills.
After the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Oklahoma Legislature decided it would reinstate its own version of the law. McAffrey convinced the speaker of the House that the state would lose millions in federal funding for the Oklahoma National Guard. He listed every city and school in the state that has a gay organization and explained that each member of those groups has friends and family members who supports them. The bill died.
“That’s how you kill bills around here,” he said.
Even when McAffrey can’t derail bad legislation, he’s often able to publicly embarrass some of his colleagues with pointed comments.
Just last week, the Oklahoma Senate passed a resolution reaffirming its support for “traditional marriage” by a 40–4 margin, despite already having outlawed same-sex marriage and adding a constitutional ban.
McAffrey asked the sponsor of the marriage resolution, “Is this going to be a campaign flier for you?”
Also last week, a Senate committee refused to give Jim Roth, an openly gay man who has been elected to local office in Oklahoma City, a hearing for an appointment to the state’s Election Board.
“Republicans claimed they were worried about my impartiality,” Roth said.
The same day Roth was refused a hearing, the Senate voted to appoint a Republican Party official to that board.
“That’s why Al called them out,” Roth said.
McAffrey said legislators were afraid of being labeled liberals if they voted for Roth.
Roth called McAffrey “ethical, a good role model and a great public servant.”
As a church-going former police officer, he said, McAffrey ironically fits the mold of an Oklahoma politician set by right-wing Republican U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, who always runs on “God, gays and guns.”
Denis Dison, vice president of communications for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, said McAffrey’s presence in the Legislature has a tremendous impact in a very conservative state.
McAffrey was elected by running in the right race at the right time after laying all the groundwork to establish himself in his community, Dison said.
“A lot of people are surprised when they hear Oklahoma has an out legislator,” Dison said.
“They have to deal with Al every day,” he said.
Gay issues change from “some East Coast thing to something that affects a colleague,” Dison said.
Although McAffrey has been unable to advance pro-gay bills — “Some day, the Supreme Court will rule that every state has to recognize marriages performed in other states,” he said —he is quietly having an impact on public policy behind the scenes.
An LGBT-inclusive hate crimes bill has never made it out of committee, and even an anti-bullying bill is having trouble gaining support — “Republicans say we don’t need it,” McAffrey said.
But in the meantime, McAffrey has launched his own personal anti-bullying program.
“We call school administrators,” he said. “They don’t want a senator calling.”
He said his office receives complaints of bullying not only from his own district, but also from other parts of the state. That’s one of the “perks” of being the only gay person in the Legislature, he said. He threatens administrators that if they don’t take bullying seriously, he’ll pass a bill making principals personally liable.
One school superintendent who’s a friend of McAffrey’s told him that a letter he sent was rather stern. McAffrey told the superintendent that the letter simply reflected how seriously he takes the issue.
As the state’s only gay legislator, McAffrey said he receives a number of calls from religious extremists.
“One guy called to tell me how bad I am and that God will punish me,” he said.
When McAffrey told him that his church, the Episcopal Church, supports him, the caller said he’d pray for him.
“I appreciate that,” McAffrey told the bewildered caller. “I think that prayer is so important.”
McAffrey said that with redistricting, his friend Sally Kern could have a tougher time being re-elected. She has a moderate Republican opponent in an area that’s become less extreme.
And after the November election, McAffrey may not be the only LGBT person in the Oklahoma Legislature. A lesbian is running for his old seat in the House. He tried to convince another lesbian to run for a Tulsa seat but she declined forthis election cycle.
While Oklahoma looks to pick up a second gay legislator, Texas remains one of only 18 states that lacks one. But at least four gay candidates are seeking their party’s nomination for House seats in Texas this year. McAffrey encouraged them, saying members of the LGBT community can win races in areas outside of traditional gay neighborhoods. He said his own district, which he described as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, is a perfect an example.
McAffrey said his advice to LGBT candidates is simply to be open and honest about who they are.
“You gotta get out there,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of your sexual orientation.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 25, 2012.