To a lot of NYC gays, Oklahoma is just a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but it also happens to be an actual state, one where things are subtly changing for queers, partly thanks to the efforts of a 25-year-old firebrand. Chickasha-born Jacob Jeffery has devoted himself to starting Pride Walks — marches through town, augmented by speeches and information booths — that have brought openness and a sense of community to rural places that didn’t have much before. The response has been surprisingly positive, proving that some queers just need a little nudging out of the closet and some haters tend to melt when faced with real-life gay humans. Much as I generally detest feel-good stories, I talked to Jacob and was totally won over.
Hi, Jacob. How did your activism start?
I became a gay activist in 2009, when I started self-discovering and asking questions that went nowhere. We didn’t have GSA [Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network] or Free Mom Hugs [a pro-queer group] or even PFLAG [Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] where I grew up. You had to go three hours away. From age 12 to about 16, I didn’t know there were things out there such as resources. I thought, I’d better just say [my sexuality] to myself or tell my best friend about it. But I wanted to start opening up and being vocal. My grandparents were hippies. My grandmother raised me with 1960s music and vinyl records all day long.
And that turned you gay? [Laughs]
No, honestly, I watched the live-action film Scooby-Doo. And it was Freddie Prinze Jr.! I thought, “You’re a cute boy.” I was 5. I knew right then. I remember coming out to my grandparents. My grandmother said, “What do you want us to say? ‘Shame on you?’ No, we’re going to say we’ll always love you.” They were my biggest supporters.
What about your parents?
I don’t know much about my father. My parents divorced when I was 2, and after that, I lived with my mother. I came out when I was 13, and my father said, “No son of mine will ever be gay.” He would tell me, “Who are you? I don’t have a son.” It actually made me a better person because I realized I don’t ever have to waste time on him — I can focus on more positive people. My mother has slowly come over and started to accept it more. At first, she hated that I was gay. She was hypocritical. She would cry over movies like Prayers for Bobby and Brokeback Mountain and how it affected the person coming out, yet when her own son did it, it was a no-no. She couldn’t accept it. That’s what gave me strength to go to different counties and do the first Pride rallies, to show the inclusivity instead of things being divided.
You were in school at the time?
No, I dropped out [because of] my sexuality, in 2013. It got very bad, to the point where I tried ending my own life. There was nothing we could do in the small town. There was verbal abuse, as well as a kid who brought a pocket knife, and he wanted to cut my neck.
Did you report the incident?
No. I called my mother and bawled like a baby. That’s when she started to realize she should be more supportive of her son. The principal saw the whole thing on the security camera. He suspended both of us for a week.
Why suspend the victim?
I don’t know that either. He was very rude and would objectify people. “The rich people, I got your back. The poor and middle class, y’all are the problem.” He was gone with the next school year and the next principal was really sweet — but at that time, I was already dropped out of school.
When did you have your first gay romance?
The beginning of my sixth-grade year. I was 13. Ironically, I had a fifth-grade bully who used to push me down, and he asked me on Facebook if he could apologize in person. We went out to a movie and then he kissed me and said, “I always liked you. This is why I pushed you down. I didn’t know how to act on my feelings.” As a joke, I said, “So we resort to domestic violence?” He was, like, “Totally.” We dated for six months, then realized we were better off being just friends.
More prodigiously: How did the Pride Walks come about?
I went to rural communities and saw that there were no Pride organizations.
We tried to get a sense more about the towns. We’d apply for permits and start hosting Pride Walks — walking down Main Street with Pride flags and posting about it on Facebook. This June, we put on the first-ever drag show in Duncan [population 22,529]. It was done in a very heterosexual bar and they were open to this. There was no hate, no resistance. About 300 people showed [who were] LGBT, plus there were even straight people.
So there’s never been any blowback? I find this hard to believe.
Sometimes. Some have a basic need to scream out hate, but then they’ll come to the event and learn that we’re including not just LGBT, but anyone with a difference, and they’ll start understanding and taking part. I’ve never seen an act of violence. We’ve had five to six Pride Walks — three in Duncan, the other three in Chickasha and other towns. I don’t like to go to the bigger cities like Oklahoma City to do Pride events. I feel it’s more needed in the smaller towns. They feel so alone. Oklahoma City has a whole section just for LGBT: “District 39” is the gayborhood. [The area has had Pride events for 30 years.]
Has anyone told you these events have changed their lives?
A group of high school students told me they finally stood up for who they are because they saw us in a newspaper. Also, a transgender female came up to me not long ago and said she’s been to at least three of our Pride Walks and she doesn’t feel alone anymore. I want to hear stories like these. I want to see them doing the same thing I’m doing. Also, an elderly heterosexual lady said, “This event would never have happened in our time. But I love the gay people. They’ve inspired me to feel love, and my husband feels the same. We’re so happy there’s someone standing up where no one else did.”
You are quite accomplished for 25.
Someone called me a junior Harvey Milk. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’d say it’s a good thing because he was an inspiration to many people during his time. It’s powerful to watch him in documentaries, uniting gays, Black, white, and trans in such a big area.
But let’s not whitewash the overall situation here. In general, Oklahoma is way less queer-friendly than New York, right?
Yes, because we’re more red than blue. Some Republicans love the gay community, but predominantly, they don’t accept us. They pretty much hate us. I go to some areas where they don’t like gay people and used to chase people out. I’m risking my life so others feel safe. I feel like I do it every day. With all the hatred coming, not just to the gay community but to every other community, it’s a risk just to walk out the door some days.
I assume you’re a Democrat?
I don’t even have any status. I’m just myself.
But surely you can’t align with Republicans, considering what you just said about their views on queers, not to mention their mania for demonizing drag queens and pushing “Don’t say gay” bills?
True. But my grandparents raised me to love everybody. My grandmother couldn’t stand Donald Trump, but she said, “I still respect the president. I don’t respect what he says on Twitter, but I’ll respect him because he’s the commander in chief.”
Growing up, did you always have the righteous urge to change the world?
Yes. From an early age, I always told myself I want to be a voice for something. I wanted to be a preacher and use my voice to preach love and acceptance.
I feel like too many people use the Bible for what they choose to use and that’s why so many wars have started and so many lives have ended.
Do you advocate for LGBTQs in Oklahoma to come out, despite what they might face?
I’d say yes, but depending where you are. If you’re in one of the bigger cities, it’s easier to do that. Where I’m from, you face homophobia and racism and fear of not being able to go to school the next day because some people want to beat you up. At first, I was scared for people to come out and be themselves. Over time, I’ve gathered resources such as LGBT hotlines, and I tell them, “Whenever you feel comfortable, come out. There are issues, but these are the ways to end them. If you’re being bullied, report it. If you see someone else being bullied, stand up for them. Be a voice.” I’m happy to be that voice of reason for southwest Oklahoma.
What are your thoughts on the recent midterm elections, whereby the threatened “red wave” failed to materialize? Was that a mass rejection of the Republican agenda?
I’m not really open to discussing politics, but my thoughts regarding the midterms are that regardless of whether you identify as a Democrat, Independent, or even Republican, we should be fighting together rather than being labeled and fighting against one another. We can all agree that this world needs to change and that the only way to do so is for each of us to take a stand for what is right.
What are your plans for 2023?
We’re committed to bringing changes, love, and hope to those who feel voiceless and unseen and feel as if they are not worth love. Last October, my partner and I created Rural Oklahoma Pride. We visit the rural areas of Oklahoma to spread knowledge about the LGBTQIA community and to bring resources, education, and diversity. We work to organize Pride events and festivals in smaller towns. Our goal is to spread the word that they, too, are welcome to host Pride celebrations and events at any time. Being alone hurts, and we don’t want anyone to experience that. Due to a lack of adequate resources and support, especially in our smaller towns, it can be difficult to be who we truly are. ❖
Michael Musto has written for the Voice since 1984, best known for his outspoken column “La Dolce Musto.” He has penned four books, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.
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