“Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and professional life…” These words are from the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics and part of the oath law enforcement officers are required swear commitment to upon being hired as a sworn officer in jurisdictions throughout the United States. For a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person still in the closet, swearing an oath to these words can be the genesis of an ethical dilemma that can create a career-ending “catch-22.”
There are all kinds of reasons LGBT people remain closeted including internalized homophobia and shame. But in law enforcement there are also many external factors that prevent an officer from being “out” about who they are. The amount of homophobia that exists in law enforcement varies, but at least one study completed by UCLA’s Williams Institute, published in 2015, says that homophobia remains a pervasive problem in the profession. For many closeted officers, it is our own culture that stands in the way of an officer coming out and being their full, true, authentic self. It is this homophobia that sets up an officer to violate one of the basic, but arguably most important, parts of the oath they swore to abide by.
A law enforcement officer’s word is everything, especially today, in an environment where trust in police is low. The United States Supreme Court decision of 1963 in Brady V. Maryland continues to stand as the basis for terminating the employment of a law enforcement officer who is found to be untruthful. So here is the “catch-22” hiding in the closet. If an officer cannot be truthful about who they are because they will face rejection, denial of special assignments or, worse yet, termination, then they are forced to lie to co-workers and supervisors in even routine kinds of conversations. Some argue that sexual orientation has no place in the law enforcement work place, but think about it. What is the first question you get asked by co-workers on your Monday? “Hey, what did you do this weekend?” You might reply with something like, “I went to the movies with my…..” Straight or gay, we have to come out all the time and we disclose our sexual orientation often by the simple reference to a boyfriend or girlfriend. When a closeted officer chooses to change the gender of their partner to satisfy the need to be seen as straight, the road of dishonesty begins.
Having to lie to your co-workers and supervisors about who you are and your personal life is stressful. Over time this kind of stress can manifest itself in forms of depression. Being dishonest about even something in your personal life can further the shame and fear already felt by being in the closet. It also directly empowers those critics who may truly be out to get you because of homophobia or simply because they don’t like you.
In states with employment protection based on sexual orientation, an officer who is gay is more protected from termination than one who lies about who they are. The answer to this “catch-22” is to be honest and to be “out” as the person you are. Employment protection laws can actually protect an officer who comes out or who discloses their sexual orientation from retaliation and termination. But these laws cannot protect an officer who lies. The threat here is serious and real. Under the Brady Decision, a chief executive could declare an officer who lies about their sexual orientation as “Brady damaged” and terminate the officer on those grounds. There is likely little an officer fired for this reason could do to reclaim their job.
In today’s world where social media records and shares so much of our lives, it would be pretty difficult for any gay or lesbian officer to be active and honest in their personal life while keeping it all a secret in their professional life. Rumors are bound to develop over time and the officer in the closet puts themselves in a position much like someone who could be blackmailed for a secret they possess. Remaining closeted gives power to your critics and enemies. I’ve seen this happen so many times and the oppression only gets worse over time. The way to disarm them of this power is to be honest and to be “out.”
Now in 2016, I don’t believe an LGBT law enforcement officer can reasonably afford the risk of being in the closet. It will eventually catch up with you and cause a potentially career ending ethical dilemma. The bottom line in 2016 is that if you can’t come out of the closet for whatever reason, don’t get into law enforcement or at least wait to join the law enforcement profession until you are confident and ready live an “out,” honest, and authentic life. If you are already in the profession and in the closet, it’s not too late to end the lies and eliminate the risk to your career that I’ve described. Reach out and find a way to come out and leave the “catch-22” in the closet where it belongs.