Ask openly gay Officer John Smith if things have changed in the Los Angeles Police Department, and he replies that he can now walk down the hallway “and not have people poke fun at me.”
That small measure of decency would hardly seem to be a hallmark of progress, but in a department long known for its hostility to gay men and lesbians, it does stand for something.
“We have come a long ways,” said Smith, a 12-year veteran of the force who publicly revealed his homosexuality in 1991. “But,” he added, “I’ll tell you something, we have a hell of a long way to go.”
Three years after the arrival of a gay-friendly police chief and two years after the landmark settlement of a discrimination lawsuit, the department appears to have feet planted in both the new and old eras.
On the new side are a number of public steps that would have been unimaginable a decade ago: Uniformed LAPD officers marched in the color guard of this year’s Los Angeles gay pride parade. The department just appointed an openly lesbian officer as liaison to the gay community.
There is an openly gay police commissioner, Art Mattox. Recruitment advertisements are routinely run in gay publications and the department is officially co-sponsoring an upcoming convention of gay law enforcement officers.
“In 1995, people have no reason not to come out,” remarked one openly gay officer.
Judging by the numbers, however, many still disagree with him. On a force of 8,200 sworn officers, only about 10 to 15 gay men and lesbians (depending on who is counting) are comfortable enough to be public about their sexual orientation. A few dozen more are said to be open to a select few of their colleagues.
Anti-gay sentiment, though somewhat muted, has hardly disappeared. Derogatory cartoons still get tacked up--and left--on bulletin boards. Gay officers complain that they are subject to different standards of discipline than straight officers. While some gays have won promotions, others believe they have been passed over because of their sexual orientation.
“The climate is not accepting,” said one gay officer whose advice to gay recruits is “remain closeted.”
Sgt. Mitchell Grobeson, whose lawsuit led to a sweeping 1993 settlement mandating the end of the department’s anti-gay practices, was relieved of duty in June and is facing department charges that, among other things, he wore his uniform without permission at various gay community events while off duty.
He is preparing to file another suit claiming that he has been retaliated against and that the city has not met many of the settlement terms.
Department officials counter that they have made improvements. “It appears to me we have kept the spirit of that settlement and accomplished most of [its] goals,” Cmdr. Tim McBride said.
“We have an 11,000-member organization,” he said. “You can’t just run out and do a quick fix and wave a wand. . . . Are we where we want to be? No, I don’t think so. I think we’re en route and we’re making some good progress.”
From their perspective outside the department, gay advocates say they see gains--but not enough of them.
“The rhetoric is right,” said Roger Coggan, legal services director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. “There are good people in the right places doing the right things. But when you look at movement of the department as a whole, it’s quite disappointing.”
“If there’s anything to characterize the LAPD today, it’s uneven,” he said. “I think the challenge facing the department is to even out the performance and to bring along those parts of the department that aren’t up to snuff.”
Underlying that challenge is the task of reshaping the ethos of an organization nurtured on a paramilitary vision and run for years by a chief (Daryl F. Gates) who once said of gay police officers: “Who’d want to work with one?”
“I don’t feel in terms of the overall culture very much has really changed,” said former Police Commissioner Gary Greenebaum.
“I think the main problem is a fear of the de-masculinization of the LAPD,” mused Greenebaum, who resigned from the commission on June 29. “It’s tied up with women in the department and gay men in the department. There’s a whole lot of resistance. . . . It’s a part of the LAPD that has a very strong militarist aspect. It goes against the grain of that image.”
Hired to refashion the department along more community-oriented lines, Chief Willie L. Williams has set a supportive tone. But “there’s a big cavern between him and the streets,” Smith said.
Whether Williams has not sent his message forcefully enough or the Gates-trained ranks are simply deaf to him, contempt for lesbians and gay men persists.
Sandra Farrington-Domingue, co-chair of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Police Advisory Task Force, said she heard of command staff walking past an anti-gay cartoon tacked to a station bulletin board. Similarly, she was told that a note with the word faggot scrawled next to the name of an openly gay officer was left for days on a board.
Officer Natasha Benavides, who filed a discrimination lawsuit against the department last year, said that despite Williams’ pronouncements and the Grobeson settlement, co-workers continue to make derogatory comments and supervisors ignore them.
“If [they] feel that comfortable still doing that, the reality is not much has changed,” Benavides said.
In testament to the unevenness Coggan referred to, other gay officers report that their complaints are taken seriously.
Smith said he privately confronted a patrol team who referred to him as “the guy who doesn’t like women,” knowing that if he went to the command staff about it, they would “overreact and pound these guys.”
Still, Smith maintains that gay officers are held to a stricter standard than straight officers.
He pinned a pink triangle, a gay symbol, on his uniform as a form of outreach to the gays who live and run businesses on his San Fernando Valley beat. But while he said supervisors wink at all manner of unauthorized buttons and bracelets worn by straight officers, he was ordered to get rid of the triangle.
“When the city talks about community-based policing, where is it for the gay community?” Smith asked.
Perhaps the greatest hope for change rests with new Police Academy graduates.
“The entry-level officers . . . appear to be much more tolerant, much more accepting, much more willing to work with a diverse community,” said Grobeson, whose attorney has filed a lengthy claim with the city as a precursor to a lawsuit.
While he acknowledges improvements in the department, Grobeson said he has seen little sign of profound change. “I believe there’s a very serious lack of commitment to anything more than public relations. What is lacking is a serious commitment to substantive changes.”
He declined to discuss the charges filed against him, as did McBride.
Grobeson’s attorney, Bert Voorhees, characterized them as “absolutely without merit.”
Even in gay police circles, Grobeson is a controversial figure. There are those who view him as a pioneering hero and those who accuse him of being a self-aggrandizing publicity hound who is largely to blame for his most recent difficulties with the department.
And that schism is illustrative of yet another problem hindering gay LAPD officers: They fight among themselves.
“The lack of [team playing]--of gay officers supporting each other--prevents a lot of gay officers from [coming out],” said Police Commissioner Mattox.