Just being a cop takes a lot of courage being an "out" lesbian on the force takes a bit more.
By Donna J. Wade
Originally published in the Lesbian News, May 1995
For years, the thin blue line was more a hangman's noose to a lesbian officer's career than a support system. Fortunately, in major metropolitan areas, at least, the environment seems to be changing
On April 29, 1992, rioting erupted in Los Angeles at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues after the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged in the assault on Rodney King. The LAPD, realizing it was outnumbered, ordered all units out of that intersection to regroup.
Officer Lisa Phillips and her partner, Officer Dan Nee, were on patrol in the area when a radio call came out about a woman in a vehicle being assaulted by the angry mob. The radio was silent for what seemed like forever -- no one wanted to disobey the direct order to stay out of the area. But Phillips and Nee decided that not responding contradicted the oath they had taken "to protect and to serve," and made their way to the scene.
As they drove at a snail's pace through the gathering throngs at the intersection, the officers observed an 18-wheeler, which they later learned was piloted by Reginald Denny. (After the officers left the scene, Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and beaten severely by rioters).
A block or so away, they spotted the victim: a small Asian woman in a subcompact car. A man knelt on the hood, smashing the windshield with a two by four, and another suspect held the still seat-belted, blood-drenched victim by the blouse, pummeling her in the face with his fist.
As the black and white approached the victim's car, it was pelted with bottles, bricks, benches, anything that could be picked up and thrown. The windows were shattered one by one by the barrage,, until only the rear windshield remained.
There was no time to don riot gear, so, protected only by their sometimes bullet proof vests, Phillips and Nee quickly formulated a plan.
"We were sure we were going to die," recalled Phillips.
Nee instructed Phillips to give him her forearm, and began writing on it.
"If anything happens to me, I want you to be the one to notify my wife, not some suits from the department," he told her as he shakily scrawled his wife's name and phone number.
Phillips then took Nee's forearm and began to write. "I know this isn't exactly the way to tell you this, but in case anything happens to me, here's my wife's name and phone number," she told him.
He took the news matter-of-factly, and they set about doing their job: weapons drawn, Nee was able to remove the victim from her vehicle while Phillips provided cover.
"I was screaming and cussing like a crazy woman," said Phillips.
While attempting to get back to their unit, Nee was hit in the back of the head and knees by bottles hurled by the rioters, and went down.
"I kept yelling at Dan, 'get up, get up'. Which he finally did, thank God."
After placing the victim in the glass-strewn back seat, the rear windshield exploded, showering the occupants with shards of glass.
There was only one way out, and as they approached this opening in the crowd, someone pulled a vehicle in to their path to block them. Their only other possible escape was to begin driving over the rioters.
"I don't know what came over the other driver, but just as we thought our only option was to start running people over, he moved his vehicle so we could leave," Phillips said.
An event that seemed an eternity had taken only a few short minutes. The officers transported the woman to the hospital, barely alive, but in time to save her life.
Officers Phillips and Nee were awarded the Medal of Valor, the highest honor given by a department to its officers. After the award, Phillips officially came out to the LAPD and the community.
This is just one of the stories of the dynamic and successful "out" lesbian officers I interviewed for this story: two Medal of Valor winners, the others diligently working in quieter ways to help change the way law enforcement views lesbians and gays.
While their stories are not all as dramatic as that of Phillips, the fact that they came out at all is indicative of how the environment for gay cops is changing for the better.
While I acknowledge that interviewing a handful of officers cannot possibly give the total picture of what it's like for lesbians in police work, their stories are inspirational and pioneering instances of chipping away at the walls of homophobia that forced us, not so very long ago, to "watch our backs: in the field for surprise attacks not only from the bad buys, but from other officers.
Detective Janet Hunter, a 4-year veteran of the Gardena, CA Police Department, has seen more action in her short time carrying a shield than many officers see in their entire careers.
On December 1, 1995, at 10:30 a.m., Hunter and Officers Ronald Bruce and Erick Lee responded to a call of an armed and dangerous suspect in their area. The officers pursued the individual to a family residence where he barricaded himself and held the occupants hostage.
While awaiting the arrival of the SWAT team, the three hostages exited the rear of the residence. One of them was an invalid elderly man, another an hysterical female carrying a two-year-old. Armed with an assault rifle, the suspect had a clear shot at all three hostages from the home's bay windows. Hunter, Bruce and Lee ran into the driveway of the residence to protect them. In doing so, the three officers placed themselves in great jeopardy, should the suspect decide to open fire.
Without regard for her own safety, Hunter shepherded the frantic woman and child to safety, with Officer Lee providing cover. Her partner, Officer Bruce, struggled to help the invalid man, but both stumbled and fell. Hunter returned to help her partner and the last hostage to safety.
On April 25, 1996, Detective Hunter became the second openly-lesbian police officer I know of to receive the Medal of Valor.
In his nominating statement, Chief Richard Propster noted, "The actions of Officers Hunter, Bruce, and Lee, endangering their own lives for the safety of our citizens, represents an outstanding example of bravery and dedication to the highest standards of law enforcement."
Hunter came out to the department after completing her probation, the fourth woman on Gardena PD to come out.
She did so, she says, out of an inner pride, not because she wanted to flaunt it, as many officers assumed she would.
"When I came out they said, 'Now she's going to be parading it down the halls.' But I didn't. I just wanted to be able to take my life partner to department parties, like all the other officers."
It was easier for her to come out than for many others "because I'm at a supportive department. I have support from my chief all the way through the ranks, including my partners."
Detective Linda Lane, a sixteen-year veteran of the Seattle, WA Police Department, agrees that the attitude of the department's top cop sets the tone for how diversity is accepted. Lane happens to work for one of the nation's most progressive police chiefs.
An amiable African American with a wickedly subtle sense of humor, Lane has been out of the closet since she was hired, but didn't advertise it.
"If I had a steady girlfriend, they all knew. If we separated, or if the straight officers got divorced, we all took care of each other," she said.
Currently assigned to burglary/theft investigations, Lane cautioned that it may not be a good idea for lesbians to come out before completing the academy and probation.
Most instances of discrimination are subtle. She found out about the few instances of discrimination involving her after-the-fact, such as the time someone else answered a call for the originally assigned officer, because he didn't want to work with her; but Lane claims she never felt unsafe.
"Most of the cases of harassment out there are individual, and not condoned by the administration," suggested Mary Boyle, an eleven-year veteran of the Chicago, IL Police Department.
"When the top administrators of a department set a supportive tone, it's easier for people just to be police," she said. "Most of the oeople who are out on Chicago PD are women, who, overall, are not having a difficult time. I've had more incidents involving remarks people made about not wanting to work with me because I'm a woman, with no mention of my sexual orientation."
The president of LEGAL (Law Enforcement Gays & Lesbians) International, Boyle feels that when a person has come to the point where they are comfortable with themselves, it's better for the officer to come out.
"People respect you more when you come out, because you have the 'guts' to be who you are."
"People have told me, over the last six years or so, that they were not open when they were hired, but when their sexual orientation was revealed at the academy, they sensed a difference in how they were treated," Lane added.
She feels that coming out can be a positive step after some experience on the job, once you've build a reputation. Lane was accepted by her peers after showing, early in her career, that she is a no-nonsense professional who can hold her own, and who won't run from a fight, especially if it's the fight for the freedom to be who you are.
"It's everyone's individual decision to come out, or not, in their own time, but I think your soul suffers if you don't," she said.
LAPD Motor Officer Lisa Turvey has never gone out of her way to hide her sexual orientation, nor has she exactly been an outspoken advocate, choosing instead to change people's attitudes by building a solid reputation as a good officer.
Only the second woman motorcycle officer in the department's history (as of this writing there are four female motor cops out of the 250 city-wide), Turvey is a 10-year veteran of the department, beginning her career first as a line reserve officer, then moving to traffic.
"I know these guys have to know .I was talking about it to an old partner a few weeks back and said 'I really don't give a damn what you think .I'm gay so now that I've confirmed it for you, what's the big deal?' It wasn't a big deal to him," Turvey said.
"Motor School has a reputation for being very difficult. There's a high wash-out rate, for the guys as well as the women. But what's impressive is that LAPD would not lower the standards to achieve gender or minority balance goals, so any officer that's been through motor school knows, the way it's set up, you can't get through it on your gender or minority status. So, if you do graduate, it's a given that you are just as good a rider as any other officer. That presents you with an automatic credibility the minute you complete the school. It's difficult, but it's not unattainable if you work hard, like everything else," Turvey offered.
She hopes that once women see it's not an impossible goal, more women will apply for the school and to the department.
Turvey is currently off-duty, mending from on-duty injuries sustained when her police motorcycle was struck by a suspected drunken driver.
"I'm convinced I have an angel on my shoulder, because another split second, and I probably wouldn't be here," she said.
The openness with which many lesbian officers conduct themselves today was only a hoped-for "someday" kind of dream for myself and other closeted officers when I entered police work in the early 1970s.
Living in the deep South, I never seriously considered coming out, since every job application I completed from a major police department included some clause that indicated that suspicion of homosexuality is grounds for immediate termination or disqualification.
The verbage may have varied, but the message was crystal clear.
By the time I accepted a position on a small department outside of Atlanta, I'd become rather complacent about life in the closet.
After I came out to my family, and survived the brunt of my mother's venom, and what little contact I had with my folks during my career was when mother found enough scotch-induced courage to phone me and tell me how disgusting and perverted she thought I was. I certainly didn't want any of those attitudes to surface in the minds of the Bubbas who might have to decide whether or not to save my life.
I did the requisite things to "pass", although, surely, no one needed a road map to figure it out. I invented boyfriends conveniently stationed overseas in the military when we had department holiday parties, so it wouldn't seem odd that I attended solo. When I accepted a position in St. Louis, and found I'd have to go back through the police academy, I was comfortable enough with closet life that it never occurred to me to come out there either .
Until the day that an instructor at the academy, during a domestic violence class, stated the following (and I will remember these words until the day I die):
"Suppose you get a call to a family disturbance, and you get there, and it's not really a family at all, it's two dykes fighting. Now, if you're like me, and you don't get turned on by the thought of two dykes working up a sweat on each other with a dildo, you're not gonna handle the situation very well."
I was flabbergasted, first because those ignorant words had come out of the mouth of a police sergeant in an instructional setting; secondly, because I knew for a fact I was not the only gay person in that class. So, I waited until the instructor called a break, went up to him, and came out.
For me, the long-running internal conflict before I came out took more toll on my psyche than the few problems I encountered after. There I was in a profession where personal integrity was paramount, and I'd spent the majority of my career lying, hiding and denying. So it's gratifying for me to be a witness to law enforcement's current shift in attitude.
This reflection by no means intends to suggest that homophobia doesn't still rear its ugly head.
"There will always be a few (officers) that are homophobic, but you'll find that in any profession," said Turvey.
Janet Hunter agrees, and contends that homophobic officers have problems with other minority groups as well, and sooner or later that will become apparent.
"Now days, those officers don't last too long on the job, where in the past, they were the heroes."
Lisa Phillips, LAPD's openly-lesbian liaison to the gay and lesbian community, agrees that there will always be some homophobic officers, but "the environment at LAPD, anyway, is 1996, is more conducive to being yourself," Phillips offered.
"It's not perfect, but what is? You hear comments here and there, but who doesn't, in any job? If you are applying to LAPD, and you are out and comfortable with yourself, stay that way. Remaining true to yourself, conducting yourself with dignity, demands respect from others. Overall, I've had a very, very good experience and would not go back in the closet for anything. I get a lot more done being who I am than pretending to be something I'm not, and the department understands that," she added.
No one is more acutely aware of the stress created by homophobia on the job than its victims.
Some who have felt its sting declined to be interviewed for this story, such as the LAPD's Virginia Acevedo, whose discrimination lawsuit against the city of LA is pending.
But the case of former Connecticut State Trooper Stacey Simmons illustrates how the system can be manipulated to wear down a person's resolve, depleting their "fight," in an effort to force an undesirable from its ranks.
A social psychologist once suggested to me that in the study of group behavior, when a deviant (anything other than the norm) is introduced into a group, a series of events is set in motion. The group first tries to get the deviant to become like them, conform to the norm. If they do, they are marginally accepted, or at least tolerated by the group. If that doesn't work, the group ostracizes in the hope that the deviant will go away. When that tactic proves ineffective, they attack.
Many of these elements are present in Simmons' account:
An eight-year veteran of the department, Simmons originally had no idea she wanted to be a cop, even though her father is a 33-year veteran of the same department. In college, to fulfill the need for an elective, she enrolled in police science class.
The instructor, an advisor to the Commissioner (the State Police's chief), gave her the department's application and encouraged her to apply. She didn't tell her father until halfway through the process because their relationship was rocky at the time -- due to her lesbianism. But she applied and was accepted, becoming only the fifth woman on the department.
The academy, located in an old monastery, was "like how I envision Marine Corp boot camp," Simmons recalled.
For five months, recruits stayed overnight through the week, permitted to go home only on weekends. For the first three months, other than superiors, the only person with whom you were allowed to converse was your roommate. The lone woman in the class, Simmons spent three weeks in silence.
In physical training, the instructor ran alongside her screaming "You here because you want to be a man?" The instructors paired her with an out-of-shape US Navy vet, and forced her to do whatever portion of the training her partner could not finish, in addition to her own. She constantly performed extra push-ups, chin-ups and the like, because they were trying to shame her partner into better performance.
After graduation, Simmons drew a "country troop" assignment, a group of troopers who not only covered the highways, but provided services to smaller communities that lacked their own police force. Because it allowed her to do criminal investigations as well as policing the highways, she loved the assignment.
The band "2 Live Crew" scheduled a concert in the area, and the department anticipated gang bangers from larger cities would descent on the small community. The lieutenant in charge appointed a special cadre of troopers to work the concert, for paid overtime, and said he wanted "the biggest guys" to work the detail.
Two of the troopers assigned didn't want to work, but were ordered to. Because Simmons wanted the assignment, and was passed over because she is a woman, she filed a grievance with the union, and was promptly transferred.
Management played the "geographical card" as the reason for her transfer, because Simmons happened to live between the two posts, but she believes it was retaliatory for having filed the grievance.
An openly gay state representative consulted with Simmons about coming out on the job, as a means of testing the state's gay rights bill, which had been passed in 1991.
With that in mind, Simmons asked to be the department's liaison to the gay community, only to be told there was no need for one. After clearing it with her superiors, who told her she could speak to the press but not represent the department or discuss its policies, Simmons gave her first interview about being an openly gay trooper.
When the article appeared in print, she was given a negative rating by her supervisor, saying she showed poor judgment in speaking to the press.
Simmons challenged her superior. "You can't do this. It's against my right to free speech," she told him.
She felt she'd shed a positive light on the department in the interview, so she petitioned the lieutenant to rescind the reprimand, but he refused, responding "so sue me."
The police union challenged the superior, and Simmons was, again, promptly transferred.
After the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU took the case, she was talked into mediation, rather than filing a lawsuit.
The department management agreed that the rules and regulations were unconstitutional and they rescinded the negative rating.
"I thought the department was learning," Simmons said, recalling that small victory.
After her assignment to a gang unit, Trooper Simmons spent a year undercover, infiltrating gangs, and making drug buys, but she was soon drummed out of the unit on a trumped up charge that she didn't cooperate well with the other agencies involved in the operation. The only option presented was to transfer out of the unit or bear the brunt of an Internal Affairs investigation.
She is convinced the repeated transfers were a way of pressuring her to resign.
Simmons stresses that she received tremendous support from both her union and her peers, management's selective interpretation of the rules was the problem.
On numerous occasions, Simmons conducted sexual diversity training for other agencies, but each time she requested permission to do this in uniform, the request was denied. One of only two openly-gay officers in the entire state, when she asked to wear her uniform at the gay pride celebration, she was again denied permission, although Irish, African-American, and Latino troopers wore theirs to their respective cultural festivals. When challenged on this glaring act of discrimination and asked for an explanation, her superiors said they had "neither the time nor inclination to explain."
In September 1995, Simmons attended the 2nd International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Criminal Justice Professionals in Palm Springs, CA, an event co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Department. She was asked to be part of the honor guard. Once again her superiors refused her permission to appear in uniform. For her, that was the final straw. A good trooper, loyal to her department, it hurt her most to be told "that I wasn't worthy to carry the American flag."
When specifically requested by the Boston Police Department to appear in uniform and conduct diversity training for the academy, Simmons was required to forward a written request from the Boston Chief of Police to the Commissioner. The formal request was made, but, again, denied. Instead, she appeared in civilian attire on her own time to conduct the training. A second official request a month later was also denied.
Tiring of the constant struggle, Simmons contacted an attorney and filed a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations and gender discrimination. Three days after the suit was initiated, fearing retribution, Simmons took two weeks vacation, during which she sensed she was under both physical and electronic surveillance.
"You can only draw so much heat before you really start to sweat," Simmons claimed.
"I know I educated that department," Simmons said. "A number of troopers came up and expressed support for me, but only when we were one-on-one. If the commissioner is targeting you, what message does that send to those in the lower ranks? It gives them permission to do it, too. I loved my job. The day I resigned was the saddest day of my life -- it made me physically ill."
A neighbor pinned a note to her door after the story broke in the papers.
"Isn't it ironic," the note read, "that they can trust you with a weapon, and to enforce their laws, but not to reveal a part of your identity?"
Attending the Criminal Justice Conference provided Simmons with some hope that things in the rest of the country are not like her experience in Connecticut.
"I came to LA, saw Chief Williams and the command staff turn out for this event in support of their officers, and thought it was great. It was foolish that I had to file a lawsuit. I never wanted to do this. It was a very gratifying job, and I loved it," Simmons commented.
Since relocating to LA, where she resides with her new partner, Lisa Phillips, Simmons is unsure of her future plans, her experience in Connecticut having tainted any desire to continue in law enforcement.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do now. I will probably apply to LAPD after I reach the point where I can stop wondering 'is it going to happen again?'. Every sign I see tells me it won't, but once it's happened to you, it's hard not to wonder," she said.
It has been LAPD Sgt. Yana Horvatich's experience that situations like Simmons' are becoming increasingly the exception rather than the rule. In her seven-year tenure on the department, she has seen sexual orientation become more and more a non-issue.
"I don't know if I'm just lucky, or what, but I have no complaints, and have had nothing but positive experiences with this department." She saw no need to come out during the hiring process because "for me, it wasn't an issue. I never had any sexual orientation questions posed to me, and I didn't offer any information. Right now on the department, I'm not out in the sense that I wave banners or flags or anything there are a few select people who know about me, and it's never been a problem for them. They're the ones who matter to me in my life, and my profession, so if it doesn't bother them, it shouldn't matter to anyone else. But you know, I'm 38 years old, never been married, have a roommate who's a female motor officer, so what do they think? That I just haven't found the right guy?"
"It's my position, too, that if anybody on the department were to ask me, I'm not going to make up stories. It's also not something I'm going to advertise. Even if I were heterosexual, I would not talk about it. I'm a very private person, I keep my private life private, regardless."
"You do find people on this department who are special, who will back you because you are a good officer and because you're a good person, regardless of your sexual orientation. They are out there," Horvatich asserted.
Currently assigned to Youth Services where she works with the Explorer Program, Horvatich first considered a law enforcement career before women on the department were allowed to work in the streets, so she pursued her education and her interest in sports, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Sports Psychology and Administration from the University of Southern California.
"I taught two years at USC, but it was not for me. I couldn't handle the 'publish or perish' emphasis. Researching and publishing an occasional article was okay, but I didn't like feeling my job was hinged on it."
In 1988, she thought she'd go listen to an LAPD recruitment seminar, never imagining she'd pass each of the steps along the way; the call from the department giving her an academy start date came as a complete surprise.
Horvatich sees the LAPD as a place she can take advantage of her education, her sense of direction and her focus to fulfill her long-term career goal to be a Captain at Training Division.
Her life partner, Lisa Turvey, full supports her. "Yana will be the first to tell you she didn't come on the job to be a street cop. She's going to promote because she has the skills to be in management, and there's nothing wrong with that."
Most of the officers interviewed agree that just as not every man is suited to police work, neither is every woman, but because there are so few women in the field, poor performances tend to stand out more, perpetuating the stereotype that women don't belong in police work.
"I've worked very hard to achieve my goals, and I don't want to give the message that anyone can come here and get a job, because that is not the case," Turvey said.
Mary Boyle in Chicago cites her own current situation to illustrate her belief in a significant change of attitude. Boyle repeatedly turned down offers from union members to run for a seat on the board of Chicago's police union, the second largest in the nation. She finally gave in when members informed her that they'd seen "what I've accomplished for lesbian and gay officers on the department, and they want that energy focused toward their concerns as well. And I'm no token. I am fully included in the strategy sessions and other important business of the union," she said.
With the recent trend toward community-based policing, increasing numbers of municipal police departments are adding gay and lesbian cultural diversity training to their academy curricula.
Many have appointed liaisons to their city's lesbian, gay and bisexual community, often open-lesbian or gay officers.
According to Lisa Turvey, the presence of these openly gay officers has helped both the community and the department.
"Though not that many officers are out, there are a lot who are known, some established senior officers who've been around the block. They get respect for that they can be mentors, and that's one element we've never really had before."
Closeted officers can unknowingly be a detriment, says Janet Hunter, making it more difficult for officers who are out.
"The more you try to hide something, you set up more mystique, more of a gossipy type of thing. If you'd just come out, it wouldn't be such a big deal," Hunter said.
One closeted officer discouraged Hunter from coming out, indicating that it would hurt her chances for promotion.
"I've only been on the department four years, and already I'm a detective. I don't think coming out has hurt," she indicated.
But Linda Lane understands why, even now, some lesbians choose not to come out, particularly those who've been on the job a long time; what used to be essential to survival has now become a comfortable habit.
"I admire and respect all our predecessors and just hope that the women who come after us appreciate what both our predecessors and we have done to help make it so they can be who they are without being afraid," Lane said.
While I'm sure that the experiences of officers in more rural or conservative parts of this country and abroad are very different from those in this story, it is encouraging to see how far we've come in a relatively short time.
We now have open recruitment in our LA community, uniformed officers marching in lesbian and gay pride parades, domestic partnership benefits for lesbian and gay city employees, not to mention officers going through the hiring process and academy open about their sexual orientation.
I am also heartened by the increasing caliber of new recruits I see in the academy's lesbian and gay cultural awareness classes I have taught since 1987.
Personally, I think Sgt. Horvatich, sums it up best: "Part of the reason I'm talking to you today is, if one or two women who read this article, and maybe have it in the back of their minds they'd like to try it, I encourage them to go for it. If they apply themselves, if they are intelligent and have good common sense, law enforcement can be an excellent career. I think LAPD is one of the most elite departments in the nation. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it. I would sponsor anybody willing to go through the steps."
Copyright 2007 Donna J. Wade / All Rights Reserved