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A gun and badge for gays: becoming an openly gay police officer used to mean facing harassment and rejection. Now departments across the country are actively seeking gay recruits.

Los Angeles Police Department officer Michael Jolicoeur is looking for gay men and lesbians. But it's not part of an investigation. As the department's gay and lesbian recruitment coordinator, the officer, himself gay, is hoping to convince them to join the force. And by the end of summer he will have attended no fewer than 16 gay-related events with his message of inclusion and career opportunity. "Most of the [straight] recruits don't have an issue with [gay recruits]," he says. "They've grown up with friends or family who were out. It's not like it was 10 or 20 years ago."

In June the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department will each have a booth at the LGBT pride festival in West Hollywood, Calif. Later in the summer they will host a recruitment day at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, and both departments are sponsoring the 2006 Gay Games in July and will send gay officers to Chicago in hopes of wooing good recruits at the Olympics-style event.

Jolicoeur and his department are offering starting salaries that range from $51,114 to $55,248. Officers receive automatic raises after their six-month probation and another raise a year later. Those who are bilingual earn 2.75% to 5.5% more for their language skills. And benefits for gays include medical and dental insurance for their domestic partners and the same pension benefits that straight spouses get.

Being an openly gay officer once meant facing harassment: antigay graffiti on lockers, uniforms soaked in urine, and calls for backup ignored by fellow officers. But times have changed for gay men and lesbians in blue. Many large police departments, some by court order, now include sexual orientation issues in their training, approve of uniformed officers marching in gay pride parades, and have "no tolerance" policies for antigay behavior. "If you are an officer who does not want to heed the training and you do something that is biased, you will pay the consequences," says Atlanta officer Darlene Harris, noting that an officer in her city, Larry Smith, was fired last year over allegations that he called five gay men "faggots" and "cockroaches" after arresting them for walking through a park after it closed.

Police departments in cities across the country now have designated liaisons to the gay population. Harris says her department's original LGBT liaison had created a safe work environment that made her feel comfortable being out from day one. Indeed, welcoming environments and communities have led to a dramatic increase in the number of openly gay and lesbian officers in America. In 1996 voters in Travis County, Texas, which includes Austin, elected one of the nation's first lesbian sheriffs, Margo Frasier, who went on to serve for eight years. In late 2002, Ron Forsythe of Sulsun City, Calif., became what was reported to be the nation's first out police chief. In 2004 voters in Dallas County, Texas, elected lesbian sheriff Lupe Valdez.

Two groundbreaking court decisions made it easier for gay officers to come out, says Jon Davidson, legal director for the gay rights group Lambda Legal. First came Romer v. Evans in 1996, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that denied gay men and lesbians antidiscrimination protections, clearing the way for other states to protect gay employees. Then the nation's high court struck down antisodomy laws in 2003. In states with such laws, courts had rifled that police departments could refuse to hire gays and could fire officers who came out because they were presumed to be engaging in an illegal activity.

But even officers whose departments seem to be doing everything right say many colleagues remain closeted. "They're scared that they will be the subject of harassment and jokes," says out sergeant Brett Parson of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. Parson estimates there are 100 closeted officers in and around the District of Columbia. "And the ultimate fear is that no one will back them up because they're gay," he said.

"It's been difficult, but nothing like what I thought it would be," says Cleveland police lieutenant Mike Dodge, who decided when he joined the force in 1990 to "become straight no matter what it took." Dodge came out in 2002 after divorcing his wife and hasn't experienced much in the way of harassment. Yet his fledgling support group for gay officers in Ohio recently moved its meetings from a gay and lesbian community center to a "neutral" spot because so many are closeted.

"Some of the departments actively recruiting from the gay community still have to overcome some bad history," says Davidson. Thomas Figenshu, who served as a California Highway Patrol officer from 1983 to 1993, won $1.5 million in damages after other officers used derogatory names to describe him, posted antigay cartoons on his mailbox, and urinated on clothes in his locker. Retired gay sergeant Mitchell Grobeson settled a lawsuit in 1993 against the LAPD for antigay harassment, then filed suit again in 1996, claiming the department violated the settlement by not implementing antiharassment policies. And in November of last year, Patrolman Michael Kurz--who was still active in his New Jersey township's force as of press time---filed a lawsuit after being outed and taunted by coworkers.

Still, for many gay officers in departments nationwide, being openly gay has become much less of a struggle. "It's become a nonissue, which is the way it should be," says Don Mueller, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department who joined the force in 1990 and came out in 1992. "It hasn't hurt my career at all."

Henneman also has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco magazine.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:CAREERS
Author:Henneman, Todd
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:May 9, 2006
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