When I was growing up, one of my favorite movies was “Blazing Saddles.” I think it was also the first R-rated movie that my younger brother and I went to. Aside from memories of my sibling literally laughing in the aisles, I also remember the striking figure of Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart, the handsome black sheriff with a droll sense of humor (who fought both the bad guys and the racist townsfolk he was protecting). Here in Philadelphia, we also have a handsome black (deputy) sheriff, Officer Dante Austin. We spoke to Deputy Dante about his role as the first LGBT liaison to the Sheriff’s Office and his time in military service during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.
DA: I was born and raised in Philly. I’m 25 and, outside of my time in service, I’ve been here my whole life.
PGN: I’ll say you have packed a lot into 25 years already.
DA: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m trying.
PGN: What were some of the things you liked to do as a kid?
DA: I’ve always liked sports. I ran track all through school but I was also a big nerd so I liked to read a lot too. I grew up in a household with five of us: an older sister, younger brother and sister and my mother.
PGN: I understand that you, like our former president, were raised by a single white mom.
DA: Yes, yes, I’m biracial. My dad is black, brown hair and brown eyes and my mom’s white, blonde hair, blue eyes and I’m somewhere in between. Dad wasn’t really around, so she was the one that raised us. We grew up in the Northeast and I was predominantly around my family on the maternal side, so I always felt like the “black kid” — the black cousin, the black grandkid — and then I’d visit my dad’s side and I was the “white boy.” I’d hear, “You talk white!”
PGN: I’m mixed on both sides, so it didn’t really matter. I used to joke that we all looked and sounded like the Cosby kids, though that’s not such a great reference these days! But back to you, who was a favorite teacher?
DA: Hands down, without a doubt, Mrs. Reiss. She was my second-grade teacher and I’ll never, ever forget her. I keep in touch with her regularly and, in fact, we just had breakfast together recently.
PGN: A favorite book?
DA: There’s a series by Dave Pelzer, the first book is called “A Child Called It” and it’s incredible. He suffered terrible abuse as a kid; his parents treated him like an animal and didn’t even use his name, they just called him “It.” The second book is called “The Lost Boy” and it’s about what happened when child services removed him from the home and the last book is called “A Man Named Dave: A Story of Triumph and Forgiveness.” It’s very inspirational.
PGN: Were you a very compassionate kid?
DA: Oh yeah, my birthday is Feb. 24 and I’m a Pisces, so yeah, I’m a little sensitive. [Laughs] Though I prefer to say I’m in tune with my emotions. I take relationships, whether they’re familial relationships or friendships or romantic relationships, pretty seriously.
PGN: What was an early sign you were gay?
DA: In seventh grade, I had this best friend and you couldn’t tell me the guy didn’t walk on water. That was about the age when people started dating and he started seeing this girl. I hated her. I’m not a hateful person, but I hated her with every fiber of my being! And there was no reason for it but, of course in hindsight, it was pure jealousy. I’d be mad if he talked to her on the phone too much or when he told me he was hanging out with her, it was awful but I didn’t really have a clue or a name for how I felt. Once I got to high school, though, I figured it out.
PGN: How did you come out?
DA: I had the same girlfriend from freshman year until 12th grade. We broke up at the beginning of our senior year. There was an openly gay guy at school and he was really cool. No one bullied him and he was really accepted by the other students. He was also really handsome. I decided to befriend him and within a couple of weeks I came out to him and we started dating. That was over the winter break so, in that time, I made a full departure and by the time we went back to school I was out of the closet and had a boyfriend. Which is how I came out to my friends and the rest of the world. Prior to dating him, I did come out to my little sister and on Dec. 20, 2009, I came out to my mom. It was the single, solitary hardest thing I’d ever done in my life, still to this day.
PGN: How did she take it?
DA: Well, I’d enlisted in the military my senior year as well, and two weeks before I’d told her about that. I was her oldest boy and I had made her extremely proud and I was afraid that by coming out all that was going to go away. She didn’t take it well at first, not at all. As a matter of fact, I ended up moving out and living with one of my best friends and his family. Since then, she’s come a long way. She actually lives not too far from me so I see her all the time and we’re very close.
PGN: I’m surprised; usually mixed families tend to be more open-minded.
DA: Well, my mom’s Christian and my dad’s Muslim. So there was a lot going on. Fortunately, I had my sister. She’s my best friend in the world. Everyone thinks we’re twins. And we went through similar things, from our parents splitting up to being biracial and LGBT and …
PGN: Wait, she’s gay too?
DA: She’s bisexual. We actually came out together. We walked up the stairs together to tell our mom.
PGN: [Laughs] Well, no wonder your mother was thrown: That’s a lot to process at once!
DA: I know! She was upset about grandkids, that whole gamut.
PGN: Oy vey! We forget, we have years to figure out what’s going on with us and then give them 10 minutes to get used to it. In your mom’s case, times two!
DA: I know!
PGN: What made you decide to go into the military?
DA: My older sister enlisted three years before me and I really admired what she did. I also knew I wanted to go to college and I didn’t want to have student loans so I took her route.
PGN: What did you do?
DA: I was in the military intelligence corps and then after training I was in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, training for deployment. My unit never deployed and last year I was honorably discharged after serving my time.
PGN: You were in service during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
DA: Yes, and I was extremely closeted, for good reason. In my service packet, there were hundreds and hundreds of papers and one of the pages focused on homosexual conduct and how it was prohibited. The theory was that no one could ask you what your sexual orientation was and you weren’t allowed to tell anybody. Homophobia breeds in that type of environment. Once DADT was repealed, I still didn’t come out. I was worried about the way those that served with me would receive me in an army that, for men, was predominantly straight. I was in a unit that was also predominantly Caucasian so I was already one of the only black persons and I didn’t want to also be the only gay person in my unit. Until my last year, and then I came out to everyone.
PGN: How did that happen?
DA: There was a huge event with an awards ceremony for us. It was a black-tie, or in our case a dress-blue, event. I decided to take my then-boyfriend as my date. I’d told some of the other soldiers before about me, but the majority of them did not know and it was a big shock. I’ll say we got overwhelming support, though clearly there were some people uncomfortable.
PGN: You just like to drop that shoe, don’t you?
DA: Yeah, I guess my coming-out stories are always a little dramatic.
PGN: Did you ever come close to being caught during DADT?
DA: No, I took a lot of precautions. My boyfriend was in my phone under a girl’s name. When I was in basic training, he’d send me letters and would use a nickname to sign them and would not use any name on the return address. We never mentioned anything LGBT in our letters, at all. That would have been a literal paper trail. Other soldiers had pictures of their significant others in their lockers; not me. I was very cautious.
PGN: What did you do next after you left?
DA: While I was in the military, I got hired by the Sheriff’s Office in Philadelphia. I was a student at Penn State Abington but I left to go to the academy and I’ve been in the Sheriff’s Office ever since. I love it.
PGN: Did you surprise them too or did you come in as an openly gay man?
DA: With any law-enforcement agency, they do a background check and there are a series of questions about the people you live with. So I disclosed to them that I lived with my partner. I came out publicly to everyone else during a speech at the academy. We do a block of instructions on cultural diversity that touches on sensitivity, language barriers, religious differences, etc. They only briefly touched on the LGBT community. By then I was very gay — I had a man, I was out to my family — and after my time in the military I refused to ever be closeted again. So when we got to the communications block of training, where all the officers were required to give a speech, I focused on LGBT issues.
PGN: And it seems like you’ve had mostly positive reactions.
DA: Yup, absolutely. The Sheriff’s Office has been incredible. This month last year, they allowed me to do a whole presentation, Power Point and all, for the department. Something I’m particularly proud of, we do a lot of public events, parades and such. We go to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Puerto Rican Day Parade, but I wasn’t seeing people showing up for LGBT events. Part of that is because of the underrepresentation we have in law enforcement. I wanted more community outreach and visibility. So they asked if I wanted to become an official liaison, which allowed me to implement some of the things I wanted to do with some weight behind it. I’m not just the gay officer speaking up, I have an official role. The past year has been incredible; we’ve done trainings and donation drives and shown up to talk to queer youth and been at OutFest and at Pride. It’s been busy and exciting.
PGN: How do you think being openly gay has made you a better officer?
DA: When people are comfortable with themselves, they’re easier to get along with. And as LGBT officers, we know where the resources are; a lot of the straight, cisgendered officers don’t know about The Attic or Mazzoni Center … what special needs an LGBT youth or homeless person might have. So we share our knowledge with our fellow officers for them to use to help those in need. I’m actually working on a resource guide with everything from the significance of pronouns to a list of organizations all on a card they can carry.
PGN: What’s an occasion where you had to school another officer?
DA: I’m always schooling people. A lot of it is just ignorance, it’s not meant to be malicious. Though I did I have one officer ask me, “We don’t have a straight parade, why do you need a Pride parade?” I gave him a lecture on the history of Pride as a response to police brutality and the meaning of straight privilege, the idea that he never had to walk down the street and think twice about holding his girlfriend’s hand or lie about the pronoun of his spouse or fear for his safety for some small PDA or being kicked out of his home because of who he was. He was never bullied in school because of being straight. I said, “Once LGBT kids stop being bullied or kicked out of their homes, once we have protection in housing and employment, once we’re not killing ourselves or having our trans sisters being killed at significantly higher rates, then I’ll entertain your question. Until then, instead of asking us why we feel the need to be screaming in the streets holding marches, be grateful you don’t need one.”
PGN: Love it. OK, last time you sang for someone?
DA: It was probably at Yakitori Boy. I love karaoke. Probably something from Bruno Mars.
PGN: As a macho ex-military guy, what are you afraid of?
DA: Water bugs. If I see even a dead one, I make my partner Tito get it.
PGN: What does Tito do?
DA: He just graduated from law school and is studying for the bar. Eventually he’ll probably run for office.
PGN: If you could bring anyone back to life for 15 minutes, who would it be?
DA: No question, Mom-Mom, my maternal grandmother. She was the second person I came out to. She was the backbone of our family and one of my best friends.
PGN: A time when you felt, “This is why I became an officer”?
DA: I met this kid in a courtroom about two years ago. This person was in custody for some petty crime. The kid always presented as a cisgender boy and I just assumed he was straight, then one day they came into the courthouse presenting fully as a female: long hair, makeup, nails, leggings, the whole 9 yards. When I sat in the courtroom, I heard the staff misgender this kid over and over and over. I knew the kid wasn’t listening to what was going on because of it. Immediately after the hearing, I pulled the kid to the side and introduced myself and shared my story about what it took for me to come out and let them know how brave I thought they were, how much fortitude it took for a young trans girl of color to be true to herself. We kept in touch and she just graduated high school last week and asked me to come to her graduation ceremony. I went and it was like, Wow, she just wanted someone to be there who would be proud of her and I was so, so proud. They gave me two tickets and Tito and I went. It was a beautiful moment.