In 1993, I was 32 years old, married with 2 young children, and working as a patrol Deputy in the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. My mom called me one afternoon and told me that my dad had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and that he had, at most, a couple of weeks to live. Tragically, the cancer had advanced so far that by the time he was diagnosed, there was nothing the doctors could do. He died 10 days after the diagnosis. My dad was the most kind-hearted, strong, and hardworking man I have ever known. He worked for more than 30 years as a plumber-pipe fitter to support our family of 7 and even though we often had to be very thrifty, he made sure that we were provided for. Most of all, he and my mother gave us so much of their love and attention that we never felt deprived. If anything, it was the opposite because both he and my mother doted on all of us. His death opened up a part of me that I had compartmentalized a long time ago, which is that I had known from a very young age that I was “different” and that my sexual orientation did not match those of my friends and family members. However, because of the fear of being ostracized by school mates and others outside of my family, I repressed it. I know that my family would have been fine with my being gay and would have accepted and loved me just the same, but the times were such that being openly gay and pursuing a career in law enforcement was not an option. One has to understand that this was in the 1960s and 1970s, when being gay or lesbian was generally considered to be deviant and and shameful. As far back as I could remember, I wanted to be a police officer or in law enforcement, and I knew that I had to live a heterosexually-oriented life if I were to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a police officer. So I entered the police academy after graduating from high school, started working at a patrol officer for Carlsbad PD, got married, and started a family. After a couple of years, I transferred over to the Sheriff’s Department. When my father died, an overwhelming sense of grief and sadness washed over me because he was gone, but also because I had never shown my father the full measure of who I am. That left me with a huge sense of regret because I felt that he deserved to know everything about me, but it was too late. I wanted to be honest about myself and with the people who matter so much to me. Soon after my death, I made the momentous decision to come out to my wife and 2 kids (who were then 10 and 12), my mom, brothers and sister, as well as my in-laws and their immediate family members. My wife and I worked out an arrangement with the kids that served us and them well over the years until they graduated from high school.
I did not come out at work at that time, however, since the culture at the Sheriff Department – and no doubt at any law enforcement agency – was still very homophobic. Over the course of the next few years, I tried to keep a very strict separation between my personal life and work. At work, I was perceived by others as heterosexual. I was very well liked, quickly achieving several awards, and looked upon as a leader. I was also very social on and off duty with work friends, and very active in the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. However, little by little, word got around the department that I was gay. That’s when I started to notice a definite change in the attitude and actions of my colleagues and supervisors in the department. I began to experience situations where I had partners who wouldn’t assist me on radio calls. Deputies who I thought were my friends distanced themselves from me, and in several cases, stopped socializing with me altogether and kept it strictly “professional”. I would often find myself at priority calls with no cover deputy or cover deputies who took a time to arrive. I stopped having cover Deputies show up to assist on traffic stops. So, I just did my job and did it alone most of the time. However, there were also Deputies and supervisors who made it clear that my being gay did not matter one iota in their perception of me, and it was the support of these individuals that kept me focused my job. I did not want anybody in the department to make my sexual orientation an issue, and I was determined to prove to everybody that not only could I do my job well but I could do it better than they could. I’d like to think that my being gay made it easier for me to empathize with members of our community that have historically felt marginalized or alienated from law enforcement, which made me work harder to go the extra mile to see what more I could do to better serve and protect them, especially the youth in these disadvantaged communities. It helped a lot that the Sheriff at the time was something of an outsider himself, having come from another law enforcement agency and was of Jewish background. He understood social stigmatism and being different from the prevailing majority. One day, Sheriff Bill Kolender called me into his office and he told me that he had heard that I was semi-out at the Department. He was very supportive, promised to watch over me and made me promise to tell him if anyone was harassing me. I thanked him and asked him to let me do it my way. I said that would be able to take care of myself. Until the day that he had to resign from the department because of failing health, I know he continued to watch over me though.
When I “officially” came out, so to speak, I did it in a very public way. I was (and still am) on the County of San Diego’s pension board (SDCERA) when the State of California was wrestling with Proposition 8, which was a referendum that had passed in 2008 that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry. SDCERA staff had arranged for the annual Board retreat at a hotel that was developed and owned by one of the largest backers of the referendum. I registered my total objection to the use of this hotel, arguing that SDCERA should not in any way support a business that sought to deprive some SDCERA members of what I thought was a fundamental right. I was outvoted. A reporter from the San Diego Union Tribunes asked me after the board meeting if I was gay, and I told him “Yes”. I followed up on that unexpected question with an explanation that my sexual orientation was not the issue and that the real issue was about making a statement in favor of achieving equality for all Californians and against prejudice and discrimination. My statements – all of them – appeared in the paper the following day. I had never intended to talk about my sexual orientation in this way, but in retrospect, I am glad that it happened. Based on the comments that I got from the Deputies – many of whom were gay but were still closeted – I think this made them feel less isolated and gave them a sense of validation.
I am now a Commander with the Sheriff’s Department, which is pretty high up in the hierarchy. However, I believe that there is still latent homophobia in the Department, and it flows from the upper leadership down to the ranks. It is subtle, but it is still there in terms of performance evaluations, career advancement, job assignments, and out-of-office socializing. The days of out-and-out bigotry against lesbians and gay in law enforcement are pretty much over, but there is still a lingering perception among closeted deputies who believe that coming out is risky because the culture within the department is still very much a straight white male dominated one. Anyone who does not fit in this mold are relegated to a second class tier. Because of this, I am one of a handful of openly gay deputies in a Department of more than 4,000 officers and non-sworn personnel. But then, my Department’s record on diversity and inclusion in general has been abysmal. There are no women Commanders or above, and only 1 minority officer (an African American male) in the upper command staff of the Department.
I recently decided that I would run for Sheriff against an incumbent who has been in office for 10 years. If elected, I would be the first openly gay male Sheriff in US history. But this is not the reason why I am running. I am running because I believe, among other things, that our department needs to embrace a change toward greater diversity and inclusiveness, that there is a tremendous amount of value in having a police force that looks like and understands the diverse needs of the community it serves. I am running because I believe that we have to focus on the youth – including LGBT youth – in our community. This means outreach to them while in school, educational programs in law enforcement, and integrating their opinions and concerns into the law enforcement strategies of our organizations. We in law enforcement need to do something today to break the cycle of fear and alienation in some parts of our communities, especially in communities of color and the black community. Our leaders in law enforcement need to own up the fact that some police officers and policies are flawed – such as implicit bias against LGBT, women, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities. Just as important, we need law enforcement leaders who embody a commitment to using the tools of law enforcement to work for social equity and justice.
If there is any advice that I would give to those pursuing a career in law enforcement, especially somebody who is LGBT, I would tell them to go for it. Today, our country is in the midst of an unprecedented national conversation on community-police relations. Now more than ever, our communities need police officers from all walks of life – LGBT, people of color, women, Muslims, and all other segments of our population. I know that diversity alone will not solve the challenges that confront community policing today, but it is key to closing the gap between the officers and the people they are sworn to protect. Such diversity can help to build trust and confidence in the police: the more a police department reflects the composition of the local population, the higher the department’s reputation among residents, which can provide a foundation to build further trust, coupled with other needed reforms.
Policing is a noble and great calling. In my 32 years of working in law enforcement, I’ve gotten to know many great individuals who have committed themselves to a life of service over self, an existence of putting their lives on the line in order to make their communities a better place, because that’s who they are. They want to get rid of gangs from terrorized neighborhoods; they want to help shut ins who’ve been all but forgotten by society; they want to keep a young transgender kid from being mercilessly bullied.
I would remiss, however, if I did not advise young LGBT, minority, and female individuals considering a career in policing to be aware of the subtle, but present, racism, homophobia and misogyny that is still embedded in the culture of many policing departments and agencies. By doing their jobs well, if not better than their colleagues, they will prove to everybody in their departments that one’s gender, sexual orientation, race or creed does not define one’s abilities and performance. Having to go the extra mile to prove something to one’s colleague is a burden unto itself that straight white males never have to do (I call it straight white male privilege) but will be a part of the experience. And when you do excel at your work, that itself may engender hostility from your colleagues and superiors who think that the gay or lesbian officer is getting too “uppity” or that they are getting shown up by the African-American officer. This is changing for the better somewhat, especially as more and more LGBT, people of color and women move up the ranks of the policing organization, but it is still not where it needs to be – which is true inclusion and total respect for a fellow officer, regardless of how different they may be from you. Think long and hard about whether you are willing to commit to taking on this extra burden. This will take heart, it will take fortitude, and it will take courage.