A framed photo of Martin Luther King Jr. sits near the window of Richard Ogden’s downtown law office. It serves as a daily reminder of a phrase Ogden likes to use.
“We’re all in this together.”
Ogden, who was recently appointed by Gov. Brad Henry to the Board of Regents for the Regional University System of Oklahoma, has made the fight for equality and civil rights part of his life’s work.
But instead of marching through the streets of Alabama, Ogden strives for fairness by living as an openly gay man in Oklahoma. The red state is not known for, what Ogden calls, “friendly” social policies.
But this is home, and it has been his entire life.
A fourth-generation Oklahoman, Ogden earned his undergrad degree from Oklahoma State University and went on to law school at the University of Oklahoma.
Although he attended the state’s two largest universities, he said he’s still a product of a regional system for which he now serves as a regent. Both his father and uncle attended Panhandle State University outside of Guymon in the wake of the Great Depression and eventually settled their families and law practices in the area.
Next to Ogden’s paper-stacked desk is the chair his father used when he was elected to the state House of Representatives. Tattered and worn, that chair represents one of the greater influences in Ogden’s life ” his father, a man who he said was re-elected as a district judge after his death with 90 percent of the vote.
He became a lawyer in large part because of the influence of his father and uncle, Ogden said. And it was not easy.
Ogden graduated from law school in 1989, amidst the oil bust. Even while he watched his friends leave the state, Ogden could not bring himself to follow.
“I made a conscious decision of staying,” he said. “Oklahoma was and is my home.”
Even when that home is not always hospitable, Ogden cannot abandon it. In fact, he feels a certain responsibility to help shape the state’s future, hence his work with the Cimarron Alliance, a political action committee for the LGBT community, and The Winds Family House, which provides housing for those living with HIV and AIDS.
And it also explains his enthusiasm for his new position as a regent. His main goal in that position is to make financial aid as easily accessible as possible to the 50,000 students who go through the state’s regional universities.
Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, is a close personal friend of both Ogden and his partner of 12 years, Mike, and was a staunch supporter of his nomination. To illustrate Ogden’s dedication to the job, Rice tells the story of his confirmation hearing.
Once a person has been appointed by the governor and a senator agrees to carry the appointment, the hearing is more of a formality, a fact he warned Ogden of, Rice said. Nevertheless, Ogden showed up with a large legal briefcase full of notes.
“Richard came prepared for a three-hour grilling of questions, so he’s very serious about everything he gets involved in,” Rice said with a laugh. “I think he was a little disappointed that he only got one question.”
This determination of purpose fits within Ogden’s characterization of himself as hardworking and goal-oriented.
One of his goals has always been and continues to be just doing what is right. And he credits this attitude as something innately Oklahoman.
“I also believe that the majority of Americans and also Oklahomans are fair-minded and just people,” he said. “Very few people are truly bigoted.”
This belief is what helps sustain him when living in Oklahoma becomes challenging. Times like when Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, speaks.
“When I hear very hurtful things from certain politicians suggesting that gays and lesbians are a greater threat to America than terrorists, (I think) how absolutely disrespectful that is to the thousands of people who have served their country and defended us, giving their lives fighting terrorists,” he said.
“But people like Sally Kern do not represent the majority of Oklahomans. I don’t believe the majority of Oklahomans feel that way. “¦ Look at the response. Sally Kern was not just criticized by the gay community, but everyone.”
It is with this unwavering belief in the fair-mindedness of most people that Ogden continues to serve the state of Oklahoma, both with charities and community organizations and now in an official state capacity. Ultimately, he has great hope for the future of the state, starting with the 50,000 students he’ll oversee.
“Everything is still moving, but I believe in the right direction.” “Nicole Hill
photo Richard Ogden.