As a 21-year-old in the Deputy Sheriff Basic Training Academy, Dante Austin listened while his instructors “breezed over this idea that there are LGBT officers.”
The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office had already hired him, knowing that he lived with his boyfriend.
“In week one, there were lots of comments and remarks that people made that bothered me,” said Austin, who turned his reaction into a presentation on cultural diversity later in the training program at Penn State, University Park.
Before Austin addressed the issue, he talked with another man, who was the only other gay cadet he knew in the program. The cadet, 33 at the time, had not come out to his friends and family, much less colleagues at work. But during Austin’s presentation about gay men and women in law enforcement, the cadet came out.
“He comes from a small county, but now he’s out with everyone at home and in his office,” he said.
Austin has been open with his colleagues since the beginning — even in an office of 300, “if someone comes out, everybody knows about it,” he said — but recently he gained the opportunity to form a brotherhood and sisterhood with other out law-enforcement officials from the region.
A ‘GOAL’ accomplished
The Greater Philadelphia Gay Officer Action League, called GOAL, started in earnest this fall, after being discussed for eight months. Nellie Fitzpatrick, director of the city Office of LGBT Affairs, said the organization is for all LGBT-identified law-enforcement officials and includes Philadelphia police officers, probation and parole officers and some officers from Bucks County.
GOAL chapters also operate in New York City, Chicago and New England.
Mayor Michael Nutter called the group “a fraternal organization of LGBT law-enforcement officers working to create positive change … by supporting LGBT officers and their families,” in an announcement posted to YouTube in November.
“I feel a difference already, even just with the small amount of people we have jumping on board with us,” said Donna Jaconi, a Philadelphia police officer in the crime-scene unit and interim treasurer of GOAL.
The organization’s more than 60 members voted on its office holders this month. Results will be formalized in January. A mission statement and website are expected in the new year.
Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, the outgoing LGBT liaison with the Philadelphia police, called the group “one of the shining jewels” of his tenure.
“It’s a start to take on LGBT issues inside the department,” Bethel said earlier this month at a City Council meeting, where he was being honored for his career accomplishments.
Austin of the sheriff’s office said his supervisor was the one who first told him about GOAL and encouraged him to join.
“I typed up this nice memo asking the sheriff,” Austin said. “He said, ‘Yea, absolutely.’”
Fitzpatrick said it “speaks volumes for setting the tone for change” to have department leaders support GOAL and its officers.
Katie Lankford, a police officer in the 22nd District in North Philadelphia, said the visibility of officers in GOAL could bring change to non-LGBT members of the force.
“What would give most people pause is the ‘locker-room talk,’” she said. “When you hear people say ‘dyke’ or ‘gay’ as an insult, you think, Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this.”
“It’s just words to them,” Lankford continued. “They’re trying to fit in and be funny and they don’t understand the consequences.”
Austin remembered feeling stressed when his interview for the sheriff’s office included a standard question about how the people the applicant lives with might react to the applicant bringing a gun home at night.
Jaconi had a similar experience with the police department.
“When you do your interview and it’s like, ‘Who do you live with?’ Do you say, ‘My roommate’ or ‘My friend?’ Do you lie?”
“Words have weight,” Fitzpatrick said. “Words change relationships.”
The fact that these LGBT officers have camaraderie with each other helps.
Jaconi said not every officer who participates in GOAL is out at work or with family.
She remembered one person who was still closeted at a recent meeting.
“It’s a big step, coming out to everyone,” she said. “I saw every single person from GOAL text that person and say, ‘Are you okay?’ It felt good to have this group.”
Out in the community
Fitzpatrick, Jaconi, Lankford and Austin met up in the parking lot of the 22nd District on a recent Monday evening. It was mild for December and the mood was jocular as the officials organized donated toiletries in boxes covered in wrapping paper and gift bags.
Fitzpatrick had arranged for GOAL officers to take the items to Divine Light, a new LGBT-housing shelter on North Hutchinson Street. Sakina Dean opened the 31-bedroom home this fall and Deja Lynn Alvarez took over as the director this month. Alvarez also works with the Trans-Health Information Project at GALAEI: A Queer Latin@ Social Justice Organization.
Six GOAL officers presented the toothbrushes, deodorant and shaving cream, among other things, to a roomful of nearly 20 Divine Light residents on Dec. 21.
“This is the first time they did anything as a group,” Fitzpatrick said after hugging a number of the residents. “It’s for you guys. It’s to reach out to the community.”
Many people in the room had tears in their eyes, from the residents to Alvarez.
“A lot of us have had bad experiences with the police, especially in the trans community,” Morgan Drake, 22, told the police officers while thanking them for the donations. “I just hope that from here, you can help other officers that aren’t that familiar with our community to be a little bit more respectful and not so quick to lock us up.”
The Divine Light resident told PGN she had interacted with some police who did not respect her pronouns. She was happy to meet the gay and transgender officers at the shelter.
“It’s a big message that says our community is now part of the law, not only breaking it,” Drake said. “It’s nice to know there are people like me in the field.”
Another Divine Light resident, Leah Smith, 24, agreed that it made her feel safer to be introduced to LGBT police officers.
“These officers can level with us to understand where we’re coming from,” she said.
Smith told PGN she has felt afraid to stand on street corners for fear the police would think she was soliciting.
“When I see cops, I go the other way, just to refrain from anything,” Smith said. “It’s a good feeling to feel that we matter even to the law.”