A question of pride: Should LGBTQ cops march in uniform?

Kadia Tubman
Reporter
Sacramento Police Officer Jeff Kuhlmann, left, marches with his boyfriend, Los Angeles Police Officer David Ayala, in the 2015 San Francisco gay pride parade. (Photo: Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

When Jay Brome was a California Highway Patrol officer, he never marched in uniform at an LGBTQ pride parade. It wasn’t allowed. He would never be able to because, after 20 years on the job, he was forced to leave.

From 1996 to 2016, Brome said, he faced discrimination and harassment for being a gay officer on the highway patrol.

“My whole career I was told, ‘You're a problem,’” Brome told Yahoo News. “‘You're not a team player. You're not being harassed. It's a personality conflict.’ It's hard for 20 years to be told you don't matter. And it's not like I was dressed in drag or had a rainbow sticker on my car, which is nothing wrong with that, but when you're in such a hostile environment, you suppress who you are.”

The alleged harassment started in the six-month live-in academy in West Sacramento, where an instructing officer tried to ridicule Brome in front of his class. “He told me I needed to take off my skirt and start acting like a man. And honestly, I don't know where that came from. Once [my classmates] saw that an officer in uniform could go after me, then I was free game.”

Brome said he “tried to just ignore it like I've done most of my life,” but he instantly recalled a traumatizing moment of harassment in the academy: a gun-takeaway training session with another cadet whose unloaded weapon he had to wrestle away.

Jay Brome at his graduation from the California Highway Patrol officer academy. (Photo: Courtesy of Jay Brome)

“He's right next to me, holds the gun right at my head and says, ‘I know you're gay. Tell me you're gay and I’ll pull the trigger.’”

Brome froze, a response he is still bothered by over 20 years later.

That former classmate, Brome pointed out, has been promoted to sergeant. “Every officer that harassed me has been promoted,” he said.

In his two decades in uniform, he knew of only two other openly gay men on the force.

As Pride Month culminates in marches and demonstrations around the country, Brome’s experience points to how LGBTQ cops in uniform still have a divided identity: as members of a minority that has historically been oppressed and harassed by police, and as law enforcement officers proud of their service. At one of the biggest marches, in New York City, a vocal activist group is demanding that officers, LGBTQ or otherwise, not march in uniform or armed, to show solidarity with generations of LGBTQ people who were traumatized by police in years past.

After he graduated from the acaedmy, Brome felt lucky to receive his first choice in placement, San Francisco, where he had grown up and expected a friendlier environment within the force. But it turned out to be horrible, he said.

“It was so antigay because I think officers had to prove, ‘Oh, we're in San Francisco, but we're not gay.’ It was a weird dynamic.”

Brome filed complaints through memos, emails and direct approaches to his superiors.

The harassment he faced included being called names and having his locker defaced and his award plaques and car carved up.

But worse, he said, “I wouldn't get backup, which wears on you when you're at scenes and you call for backup and people don't show up, because then it's your life. The message was perfectly clear, to shut up and do your job.”

He transferred to different offices around the Bay Area, hoping his experience would change, but he said it didn’t get better.

Jay Brome with former Vice President Al Gore. (Photo: Courtesy of Jay Brome)

“It got to the point where I was on antidepressants, I was in counseling and I became suicidal,” he said. “I would drive around in my patrol car and I would just get these sudden urges to pull out my gun and shoot myself. And so my doctor said, no, you got to get out of this environment.”

Brome, who said he naively became an officer because he thought it would be an honorable career and also provide financial stability given that he grew up on public assistance, took a stress leave in 2015 and officially retired in 2016, the year he filed a civil lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol and eight officers for harassment and discrimination. His case is currently on appeal after it was thrown out by a Solano County judge because the statute of limitations on reporting the incidents had run out.

“I had to leave about 10 years early,” he said. “So I lost 10 years of retirement, 10 years of pay, 10 years of overtime.”

Brome said he understands why some members of the LGBTQ community don’t want cops marching in pride parades around the country.

“I think it's a valid argument,” he said. “It covers a lot of things. It covers Black Lives Matter [and] all the trans people who are being killed.

“But as a gay officer,” he added, “I also see the need for departments to represent our communities.”

His advice was for police to “march as an LGBTQ contingent.”

“The fact that they’re police officers should be secondary,” Brome said, encouraging LGBTQ officers to participate in pride festivities to help change the perception of law enforcement as “all white-male-dominated, egocentric, racist, sexist, homophobic departments.”

The Stonewall Inn in New York City. (Photo: Jerry Engel/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)

The relationship between the LGBTQ community and police has long been frayed. Since the 1969 Stonewall riots, which were born from police raids and abuse in New York City's gay-friendly spaces, LGBTQ communities have resisted police. The gay liberation movement organized the first “gay pride” march a year after the uprising, in resistance against oppression by police.

Earlier in June, which is recognized as Pride Month around the country and nationally by a presidential proclamation, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill issued an apology, admitting that officers’ actions during Stonewall “were wrong — plain and simple. ”

“I vow to the LGBTQ community that this would never happen in the NYPD in 2019,” said O’Neill.

The apology came just in time for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and the celebration of World Pride in New York City, where millions of people are expected to gather Sunday. For some activist groups, however, the apology came 50 years too late and is undermined by police officers marching armed and in uniform in pride parades.

“It's very easy for the police commissioner to apologize for something that happened 50 years ago, when they weren't there or a part of the police force, but [he] cannot apologize for what's still happening today when trans people are still being killed and trans people are still sexually assaulted quite regularly by police officers,” said Francesca Barjon, an organizer with Reclaim Pride Coalition. “I've had people tell me that they get stopped by police and are harassed, insulted and misgendered. So to act like the NYPD are a safe LGBTQIA+ space is ridiculous.”

The Reclaim Pride Coalition formed after a contingent of resistance groups like ACT UP New York, Rise and Resist, and Democratic Socialists of America marched in the 2017 New York City pride parade, advocating against corporate sponsorship and police presence. Before they were set to march in the 2018 parade, they delivered a list of concerns and demands to Heritage of Pride, the organization that has run the NYC pride march for 35 years, as well as to the police commissioner and the mayor's office, calling for them to prioritize community groups, Natalie James, a co-founder of Reclaim Pride, told Yahoo News.

A police officer applauds during the New York City pride parade in 2016. (Photo: Mel Evans/AP)

The group took offense that “Heritage of Pride did not act as an advocate for the community against the NYPD, but instead saw themselves as partners with the NYPD.”

“We felt that it was inappropriate that the contingent called the Gay Officers Action League [GOAL], representing the NYPD, was being honored with a place towards the front of the parade, being allowed to march in full uniforms, being armed and so forth,” said James. “First of all, given the history of where this event came from, which was an uprising against police oppression and barbarism, but also the ongoing brutality against especially the most vulnerable members of our community such as people of color, especially transgender women of color, we felt it was very inappropriate to honor the NYPD in an event like this.”

Heritage of Pride responded in a statement, saying it has “worked hard to forge a strong working relationship with the NYPD, a relationship that enables one of the world’s largest LGBTQIA+ events to be as successful as it is.”

“Aside from the free speech nature of the March,” the organization added, “it is also important to note that GOAL had to sue in federal court to secure their right to wear their uniforms, and receive all the honors bestowed on other Department fraternal organizations that participate in parades and marches. That is a touchpoint in the movement, and Heritage of Pride holds that in a place of respect.”

Pride organizers acknowledged that debates around the issue of law enforcement groups marching in pride events are not unique to New York City.

Four years ago a group of protesters disrupted the Chicago pride parade for 10 minutes, staging a “die-in” to draw attention to police brutality faced by African-Americans in the LGBTQ community.

Four black LGBTQ activists, who became known as the “Black Pride 4,” were arrested in Columbus, Ohio, in 2017 after blocking the parade route in protest of violence against queer people of color and trans people. Members of the “radical LGBTQ+” group No Justice No Pride were arrested that same year near Stonewall, where they had broken through barricades in an attempt to stop law enforcement from proceeding through New York City's pride march.

As a compromise, Minneapolis required officers to march out of uniform after Twin Cities Pride organizers faced a backlash for trying to restrict police at their annual event.

Armed police officers outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

On-duty officers guard pride events for security, as with most public gatherings in major cities. And since the 2016 mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, LGBTQ advocates have called for heightened security at pride events, including more police.

But for organizers like No Justice No Peace’s David Thurston, police presence doesn’t make him feel secure, “as a black person with a mental health condition and has almost been killed by cops twice.”

“When I see a cop with a gun, I don't feel safer. I feel more at risk,” Thurston told Yahoo News while taking a bus from Washington, D.C. to New York to support Reclaim Pride. “This issue [around police at pride events] exposes a major fissure in thinking in U.S. society. For the majority of white folk, especially middle-class and wealthy white folk, they do feel that cops make them safer because cops respond to them and don't treat them like subhuman beings. But if you are Latinx, black, indigenous, gender-nonconforming, a trans sex worker, cops are a threat.”

The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that a large majority of its 28,000 anonymous respondents, nearly nine out of 10, reported being “harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted or mistreated in some other way by police” while doing sex work or while the police assumed they were doing sex work. More than half (57 percent) of survey respondents said they would feel uncomfortable asking the police for help if they needed it.

Gay rights activist Jim Fouratt across the street from the Stonewall Inn on June 3. Fouratt witnessed an arrest at the bar on June 27, 1969, that foreshadowed the Stonewall riots. "I see this police car in front of the Stonewall," he said. "Suddenly the door opens and this one police officer comes out ... he's got a very stocky woman dressed as a man." (Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP)

“Oftentimes the people that say that they need police around them to feel safe tend not to be part of a persecuted minority group racially or in terms of immigration status. They tend to be white people,” said James, whose coalition will be hosting its own march, the Queer Liberation March, which will run concurrently with the World Pride march Sunday and retrace the route taken in the first gay pride march, in 1970.

“In our march, we want to center marginalized people and we want to elevate the status of marginalized people. Many of them simply would prefer not to be around police officers because they have experienced brutality or they know people who have experienced brutality.”

Police will be present at the “people’s political march,” but mostly for security, a given, James conceded.

“We recognize that there's a reality that the police will be there,” James said, but added that “there are a lot of people that feel less secure with having police there. For instance, undocumented people and people of color who have had trauma with the racism of the NYPD.”

For the officers marching in the main pride parade, James, like Brome, advised them to “put your queer identity forward, put your police identity or your work identity to the back, recognize there are people in this community, the LGBTQIA+ community, that have been victimized and even killed by the NYPD. And in consideration and respect to those victims and their families and friends, put your queer identity forward.”

But NYPD Detective Brian Downey, who has marched in uniform in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia for the past 10 years, plans to follow through with the tradition on Sunday at World Pride.

James O'Neill and Brian Downey at the 2018 New York City pride march. (Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Downey, who is the current president of New York’s Gay Officers Action League, said he’s grown tired of the debate over cops at pride events, and noted that contrary to media reports about protests, he feels more than welcome, especially in uniform.

“The response is overwhelmingly — overwhelmingly — positive,” Downey told Yahoo News. “Because people realize that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to go into an institution and effect change from within. People realize that we're there to support our community, and we bring our struggles inside of these agencies and these institutions, and that's a very powerful, profound thing.

“The first time that I ever participated in pride was marching in my uniform as part of GOAL,” continued Downey. “And for me it was the most liberating thing, because I thought that [for those] people who view the police as the protector of their power and their privilege, I felt like I was bucking the system. It was the ultimate slap in the face to the establishment.”

About four out of five LGBTQ Americans, including people of color, welcome police participating in pride events, including marching in parades, a recent poll conducted by BuzzFeed News and Whitman Insight Strategies found.

Downey considers GOAL a civil and human rights organization within the law enforcement community that not only provides refuge and support for LGBTQ officers who face discrimination from being out or depression from being closeted but also brings about structural change within their agencies and departments.

The group, which was founded in 1982 by Charlie Cochrane, the first openly gay NYPD officer, has made breakthroughs in the criminal justice community in terms of visibility, sensitivity training and community relations, Downey pointed out. They just don't “come out and spike the football.”

For example, when LGBTQ civilians wanted to hold a vigil for Pulse shooting victims outside the Stonewall in 2016 without a permit, Downey told Gay City News, “I quarterbacked that,” and noted that “the [police] department leaned on GOAL more than any other time in history.” It was a contrast to the 1998 vigil for Matthew Shepard, the victim of a homophobic murder, when vigil-goers were arrested for not having a permit.

Downey said he doesn’t discount the experiences of LGBTQ people who’ve had negative experiences with law enforcement, whether as civilians or as members of the force.

“The profession is not without sin. Nobody's perfect,” Downey said. “We work to effect change inside of the system ... we walk in when people are at their worst, and unfortunately sometimes we're not at our best, and there's a lot of work to be done. We accept that challenge, and we're working to change the system every single day.”

The support for these officers is in sharp contrast to one of their first marches, when a group of officers on patrol and horseback turned their backs on GOAL members as they paraded past them.

“We're marching to show the world that we're here and we're not going away, to [show] the people that are in our community that need to see us,” Downey said. “We march to remind the actual agencies that we work for that we're here and we're not going anywhere. You have to deal with us.”

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