Good cop gay cop: from the beat patrol to the precinct house, gay and lesbian police officers are shattering the blue wall of silence.
gay and lesbian police officers are shatering
the blue wall of silence
Amid the flourishes of full police regalia, Officer Anthony
Crespo beamed as he strode across a stage set up in front of
New York City police headquarters to accept the Medal of
Valor from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. On that crisp fall day
last September, he became the first openly gay officer in the
city's history to receive a medal for heroism. Crespo was
being honored for a 1995 incident in which he rescued a
female cop being held at knifepoint by a suicidal man who had
walked into the precinct station. Crespo shot the man, who
later died, but not before the deranged man stabbed Crespo
in the chest, puncturing his left lung. The Medal of Valor
ceremony was "definitely the high point of my career,"
says Crespo, who is liaison officer to the gay and lesbian
community in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.
But the reactionary side of law enforcement was also on
full display that day. Immediately after the ceremony
Emergency Services Unit officer Lawrence Johnston, who
had just received a medal presented by the Gay Officers'
Action League for his bravery in ending a crazed man's
shooting rampage in 1995, marched up to GOAL New York
president Edgar Rodriguez and returned his medal.
Johnston declined to comment on his motivation, but Patrick
Burke, a board member of Johnston's union, told the New
York Post, "Personally, he has nothing against gays, but his
wife and children felt humiliated" by his receiving a medal
from GOAL. Burke also noted that homosexuality "goes
against [Johnston's] religious beliefs."
In many ways these two events at the NYPD ceremony
accurately portray the complex work environment faced by
gay and lesbian officers in this most macho of professions.
There has been great progress since the early '90s, when
Daryl Gates, the disgraced former Los Angeles police chief,
smugly declared that there were no gay officers under his
command. An increasing number of cops are bravely coming out
and speaking their minds when they hear homophobic comments
or witness unequal treatment of gays. Organizations like GOAL
and the Golden State Peace Officers Association, California's gay
cop alliance, have further increased their clout.
These efforts are already being felt by young openly gay
officers like San Francisco's Michael Robison, who joined the
force in 1992. "The older gay guys in the department were the
first ones who were brave enough to be out," he says. "I'm treated
like one of the guys." Robison says that when work-related
problems do arise, officers--who depend on one another for 100%
support--feel free to talk to one another. "The `good ol' boys'
system is on its way out, and the newer generation that's replaced
them sees things from a more open-minded standpoint. We have
a common saying among people in the department: `When you're
at work you're all wearing blue.' I really hand it to the people who
came out back then because they really-paved-the way for us."
Pressure is also being exerted from the outside. Unlike the
U.S. military, where the Republican-controlled Congress has
retained homophobic policies, local police departments are feeling
the heat from city councils and progressive mayors to be more
responsive to the communities they protect. Now, many cities
have gay-sensitive police chiefs. "Los Angeles is one of the most
ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the world and has always
had a thriving gay and lesbian community," wrote Bernard Parks, chief of
the Los Angeles Police Department, in a prepared statement to
The Advocate. Yet, he admits, "for many years there were no
openly gay or lesbian employees in the LAPD." That's changing,
however, as the nation's second largest city actively recruits gay
men and lesbians. "There are now dozens of sworn and civilian
personnel who openly identify themselves as gay or lesbian.
Lesbians and gay men hold highly sensitive positions in elite units
within the LAPD, such as the office of the chief of police,
internal affairs, training division, and recruitment unit,"
according to Parks. "I am pleased with the work of these officers.
As chief of police, I set the tone for the LAPD. In that capacity
I have made it quite clear that gay and lesbian officers will not be
treated as second-class citizens by anybody under my command."
In fact, the LAPD even has an officer who works as a liaison
to the gay and lesbian community. "It's an incredible opportunity
to bridge the gap between an institution that has been known for
not treating gays and lesbians fairly and a community that has
been fearful of it," says Lisa Phillips; 39, the openly lesbian
officer who holds the liaison position. "Being openly gay allows
me to stand in the middle and let both sides come together." Still,
openly gay police officers are concentrated in urban areas and
represent a small percentage of most forces. Today, there are
only about 15 openly gay and lesbian sheriff's deputies out of
8,000 in Los Angeles County (which is a separate jurisdiction
from that of the Los Angeles Police Department), according to
LAPD officer A.J. Rotella, who is president of the Golden State
Peace Officers Association. Yet even these small numbers are
changing the homophobic ethos of entire departments.
Nearly all gay and lesbian cops have stories to tell about their
own experiences with homophobia. The tales range from playful
ribbing to the crassest kind of harassment imaginable. Most gay
cops will say that they expect--and don't mind--a little good-spirited
sexual banter on the job. But when teasing becomes persecution, gay officers,
who can be forceful when necessary like most police officers,
increasingly won't tolerate it.
Generally, lesbian officers seem to have less difficulty being
out than gay men. "It's a lot easier being a lesbian cop than being
a gay cop," says openly lesbian Travis County, Tex., sheriff
Margo Frasier, who runs the county's 1,200-person sheriff's
department. "The occupation is dominated by heterosexual
males. There's this bizarre idea that a woman that's a lesbian is
somehow one of the guys. A gay officer is more of a threat to
the whole macho mystique. The women in my department are
much more open than the guys. There's no concern from the
top, so it must come from other officers." Openly lesbian San
Francisco police officer Paget Mitchell agrees. "Gay men always
have it worse," says Mitchell, whose girlfriend, Susan Nangle, also
is a San Francisco police officer. "My [male police] partners love
the fact that I'm gay. They can now talk about their girlfriends
with you. They think women are women and gay women are cops."
Like many women in law enforcement, Frasier began her
career in the corrections department. Before affirmative action it
was easier for women to get work in corrections than in police
departments because of most states' requirements that female
guards supervise women inmates. In many states women prison
guards were not allowed to "go to codes"--prisonspeak for
handling violent outbreaks--out of concern for their safety. But
wardens quickly discovered that, compared to their male
counterparts, female officers could often bring different skills to
bear on volatile situations. "We're not afraid to talk our way out
of something," says Lt. Lena Van Dyke of New Jersey's Southern
State Correctional Facility, who legally changed her last name for
humorous effect. "It doesn't always have to be physical. When
you've got two men face-to-face, you've got to prove who's the
bigger. We can deescalate a situation a lot of times just by
Many lesbian law enforcement officers say they have
faced greater obstacles because of their sex rather than their
sexual orientation. "I get strange looks sometimes from other
sheriffs," says Frasier. "But that has a whole lot more to do
with gender. They don't even get past that point to deal with
the other issue. I have been the object of some very
discriminatory behavior, but it doesn't have anything to do
with my sexual orientation." Today, Frasier is one of just 21
female county sheriffs out of some 3,200 in the country.
The feelings of discomfort, however, seem to run much
deeper with gay male cops. Before Rotella came out, he says,
two officers tormented him relentlessly for eight months. "I
had pictures of women with penises and my name on them
placed in public settings," he says. "They put up a paper
license plate on my truck that said, GAY 4 U." Rotella says he
went to his commander, who dismissed the officers' behavior
as juvenile pranks. Rotella met with better results after taking
his complaints to higher authorities. One of the offending
officers, who was found to have been visiting similar terrors on
at least four other officers, was dismissed from the force. The
other was suspended.
But even, when the abuse is not so glaring, genuine
discomfort with gay men often lurks just beneath a polite
veneer. Officer Dave D'Amico, who is the only openly gay
cop in the 70-officer Asbury Park, N.J., police force, notes the
uneasiness he sees among straight officers when he conducts
sensitivity-training classes. "When you talk to straight men, if
they think of two men kissing or making love, they get
disgusted to the point where they're ready to throw up," he
says. "If it's two women, they think it's a turn-on." LAPD
police officer Jim Parker recalls an incident in which a group of
straight male officers were chatting pleasantly with a well-respected
openly gay officer. "As soon as he walked away,
one guy said, `Can you believe a dick goes up that ass?'" Parker
In the rough-and-tumble world of policing, nothing debunks
a stereotype like a bit of heroics. Last October openly lesbian
Atlanta officer Pat Cocciolone was shot in the
head at point-blank range responding to a domestic-violence
call at the home of Gregory Lawler. Her police partner, John
Sowa, was killed. Amazingly, Cocciolone survived and is
recovering at home, according to a spokeswoman for the
Atlanta police, who adds that Lawler has been charged with
Sowa's murder and with aggravated assault on Cocciolone.
Investigators later uncovered a cache of firearms, bomb-making
manuals, explosives, and literature on right-wing
militia groups in Lawler's apartment. The task force
investigating the bombings at Centennial Olympic Park in
1996 and an Atlanta lesbian bar in 1997 is conducting a probe
Van Dyke, who is in charge of 63 officers at Southern State
prison, recalls how she won the respect of her straight male
peers. "I work in an all-male prison," she says. "There were
two guys fighting, and I took one of the guys down. From
then on, I had earned mine."
A slightly less risky way to put an end to the fag jokes is
by court order and seven-figure jury awards. Rotella says he is
suing his agency for the alleged incidents of harassment and
also for discrimination, because he believes he has been passed
over for promotion because he is gay. The New York chapter
of GOAL won the right to recruit officers during the New
York City gay pride parade last year in a settlement reached
with the department. Many local departments have abandoned
the practice of questioning new recruits about their sexual
orientation during polygraph tests because the practice
violates many states' discrimination laws. In Miami Beach,
Fla., former police officer Peter Zecchini also is going to court.
Zecchini says he experienced every cop's nightmare when--on
five separate occasions in the early '90s--fellow officers refused
to respond to emergency-backup calls. "Every policeman in
the city is supposed to drop whatever they're doing and get
over there if an officer needs emergency assistance," Zecchini
told The Miami Herald. "I was scared to death."
If incidents like these could happen in a gay mecca like
Miami Beach, such fears are exponentially greater
among gay officers in rural and suburban areas, so the majority of
gay cops in these areas remain closeted. Dave, 25, who had been
out since high school, felt, compelled to go back in the closet when
he made a career change and became a sheriff's deputy in an
affluent Denver suburb. "It's extremely stressful," he says. "People
make comments about gays that are not correct. I'd like to stand
up for myself. But I don't want to put myself in the position
where one day I'm relying on one of these deputies to back me up
and they don't come because I'm gay. This career depends on a
team atmosphere. At this point I don't want to do that to myself."
Many officers have adopted an
informal "don't ask, don't tell" policy
on the issue of their sexual orientation.
Parker does nothing to conceal being
gay, but because of his macho bearing
many of his heterosexual peers assume
he is straight. Such unwarranted
assumptions can lead to hilarious
consequences. "My boyfriend is a cop
too, and we've gone on patrol
together," says Parker. "It's just
really funny." Parker says he
intends to remain closeted (although
this story may open the door a little)
until he has proved himself to other
officers on the force.
Most gay officers would agree with
Parker's strategy. They say it's best to
prove your mettle first and come out
only after you are entrenched in the
system, with allies to back you up.
Officer Michael P. Carney, who joined
the Springfield, Mass., police
department in 1979, left the
department in 1989 after a personal
struggle with his sexual orientation led
to heavy drinking and extreme
depression. After coming out Carney
yearned to return to the career he
loved so passionately. During his
reinstatement hearing with the police
commission, he came out to his
interviewers. And despite a spotless
record, the commission rejected his
application three times.
The day after Carney filed a complaint with the Massachusetts
Commission Against Discrimination in 1992, his picture and his
coming-out story were splashed across the front page of the local
newspaper. "That morning I received over a hundred phone calls
from people I knew from high school, friends I hung out with, and
officers I'd worked with," Carney says. "Everyone was calling me
in support of me--not one negative thing.... Everybody was on my
side." The commission eventually found "probable cause" that
the Springfield Police Department had violated Carney's civil
rights. The police department agreed to reinstate him, though it
refused to admit that it was guilty of any wrongdoing. Today,
Carney works for the Springfield police chief and in November
was a guest at the White House Conference on Hate Crimes,
during which he met President Clinton.
D'Amico had been working for eight years in the New Jersey
prison system before an incident gave him the courage to come
out to his colleagues. "One day I was sitting in the officers' dining
room," says D'Amico. "There was an inmate who walked by who
was extremely thin and feminine in his characteristics. He was
HIV-positive. A very good friend of mine said, `Look at the
faggot. All faggots should die of AIDS.' That angered me so much
inside. It set something off. So I came out before a lineup, which
was in front of 62 men and my lieutenant. I told everyone that I
was gay and that if anyone had a problem with it that they could
come talk to me. They thought it was a practical joke. They
didn't believe it. So I had a party with my lover. Seven straight
cops came. I had to kiss my lover on the lips for them to believe
that I was gay." D'Amico says he hasn't suffered any negative
consequences from coming out, though several straight officers
have tried unsuccessfully to convert him to heterosexuality.
Even in rural areas a few trailblazers
like prison officer Van Dyke are finding a
surprising degree of acceptance after
coming out. "When we got married I had a
reception here in town, and I had quite a
few officers and their spouses," she recalls.
"We have 100 houses in the town we live
in. It's not like living in the city. These
guys ride around with guns in their pickup
trucks. We're real redneck. For them to
accept me and to bring their wives and
husbands, knowing what they were going
to find--a lesbian marriage and a lesbian
reception--is fantastic. I'm accepted for
my lifestyle and my partner the same way
that anybody else is."
The act of coming out for gay and
lesbian officers is primarily about being able to be as open about
their personal lives as their straight counterparts. In most cases
they don't see their sexual orientation as relevant to their law-and-order
duties. "When I'm at work I turn off my sexuality," says
Rotella. "I'm there to do the job. The fact that I'm gay has
nothing to do with my performance on the job. I don't wear a
rainbow flag or pink triangle on my uniform that would denote me
as a gay man." There are, of course, occasions when an openly
gay cop is better-suited than a straight one to tackle certain cases.
In cities with large gay populations, police chiefs often find it
preferable to have openly gay cops work on gay-bashing incidents and
domestic-violence cases between same-sex partners. "Gay people who I deal
with out on patrol stereotype the police as being fascists," says
Parker. "I have had gay guys say, `You wouldn't understand,' when I
go to fights between them." When Parker reveals that he is gay, he
says, the confidence level of the other party immediately increases.
When the roles are reversed and gays and lesbians are themselves
the perpetrators of crimes, most gay cops feel little sympathy.
They believe that crimes like public sex and drug use in dance clubs
should be prosecuted just like any other. "The law is the law," stays
Rotella. "I think that the [gay and lesbian] community should start
taking responsibility and start discussing why some are in bathrooms
playing around in the first place."
In fact, most police departments require their officers to report
any crime they see--on or off duty. "Our job is 24 hours," says
Carney. "When I see something, I act on it. If that results in an
arrest, then that's my job, and that's what I'm going to do. I might
be helping somebody by locking them up. I'm not going to enable
somebody by looking the other way." Other officers take a less
involved approach. "I'm not going to save the world," says one
cop, who wanted to remain anonymous. "If I saw someone doing
drugs, I would get away from it. None of my friends do drugs. But
sometimes they'll introduce me to someone who does. They know
immediately to tell their friends not to do it around me. If I saw
someone with a whole bag of crystal or K, that would be different."
Scott Ouellette, a 33-year-old reserve officer in Los Angeles and
Parker's boyfriend, also finds the prevalence of drugs in some gay
circles a problem. "Walking the thin blue line in a world
of circuit parties and drugs is the greatest challenge for me, says
Ouellette, who enjoys attending dance parties but is reminded that
he is always on duty.
Although much progress has been made in police departments in
the past few years, change comes grudgingly. But the bravery of a
handful of gay and lesbian cops in departments across the country
means that local police forces will at least be forced to take a hard
look at discrimination and harassment laws that apply elsewhere in
the country. Today's young recruits bring a more sophisticated
worldview to their jobs than most of their predecessors, and that
includes respect for gays and lesbians. Just ask Officer Carney, who
had to return to the police academy, which he had originally
attended 16 years earlier, as a condition of his reinstatement in
1994. Though he was a student, Carney was asked to teach the
sensitivity and hate-crimes classes. He took the opportunity to
come out to his class. The fallout? Carney was so popular with his
classmates that they elected him sergeant at arms. "I had a blast,"
Carney recalls. "I'm out as a gay police officer with a bunch of 19-year-old
recruits. They were all great. They all looked up to me. It
really blew me away."
Carney, then 34, went on to break the police academy record for
the 1.5-meter run. At graduation he won a physical training award.
"Most of the recruits who graduated with me went to the captain
and asked to work with me in the car because they wanted to learn
from someone with experience," Carney says. "That's what this job
is about. It's not about who you are. It's about working together as a
team. So many things have happened for the better since I've come
out. It's hard to look back now and see how many years I was so
RELATED ARTICLE: OUT BEHIND THE BADGE
City: New York
"In a country where the suicide rate
is highest among gay and lesbian
youths, being a visible gay police
officers makes you a real-life role
model and a symbol of hope."
Michael P. Carney
Rank: Officer, liaison to the
chief of police
City: Springfield, Mass.
Philosophy: "Being a police officer
is my whole life; being gay is
just a small part of me."
Jim Parker and partner,
Ages: 35, 33
Ranks: Officer, reserve officer
City: Los Angeles
Parker's philosophy: "Sometimes
the stereotypes of people in
the gay community--thinking that
all cops are straight--affect me
more than any discrimination I
face at work."
Rank: Probation officer
City: Newburg, N.Y.
Philosophy: "I try to be fair to
everyone, but it's hard when you
see gays guys come through the
system, because you know that
they are going to get picked on."
Rank: Sheriff, Travis County, Tex.
"If you can tell my
by how I carry out my
duties as sheriff, then
I do have a problem."
Lena Van Dyke
Rank: Lieutenant, South State
City: Heislerville, N.J.
Philosophy: "If you are out in
your department, your department
is going to be more aware
of the homosexual community
when they are dealing with it."
City: New York
Philosophy: "It's important for
people to come out and be who
they are so that they can be role
models to the youth and others in
City: Asbury Park, N.J.
Philosophy: "Being an openly
gay police officer, I'm committed
to serving the gay community as a
positive role model. We need more
professionals who are not afraid
to stand up and say, `I'm gay.'"
City: San Francisco
"It's not a job that you take for the
money. It's a calling for people who
want to help other in the community."
City: San Francisco
"Because I can be myself at work, I am able
to concentrate on the business of policing
and enjoy a healthy and happy
relationship at home."
City: San Francisco
"I am lucky enough to work in a city
where being gay is a nonissue. Because
of this, work is work, and my private life
is my own."
RELATED ARTICLE: CYBERPATROL
Gay and lesbian cops are everywhere--even
in cyberspace. Here
are some Web sites for people who
are already on the force and for
those thinking about joining.
NYPD Pride Alliance
Representing the interests of lesbians and gay
men in blue of the New York City Police Department,
the alliance maintains this site, which
provides the group's mission statement and by-laws
as well as links to other gay police groups.
Golden State Peace Officers Association of Southern California
This site features a whimsical graphic of a pair
of pigs jumping for joy and tips members off to
the annual "Pigs in Paradise" weekend getaway
in the resort town of Palm Springs, Calif.
Lesbian and Gay Police Association
Representing gay law enforcement personnel in
the United Kingdom, this site includes links for
suggested reading and other references.
Gay Officers' Action League
The official site of GOAL New York, the first chapter
in what has now become an unofficial network
of GOAL groups around the country.
Gay Cops, the book
Two reviews of the book Gay Cops by Stephen
Leinen. The 1993 book is the result of a decade's
worth of interviews with gay men and lesbians
who wear the badge.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Mar 3, 1998|
|Previous Article:||Digital queeries.|
|Next Article:||Don't ask, don't log on.|