Not long after New York City police Detective Brian Downey slides into a corner seat at Philip Marie, a restaurant serving American comfort classics in Manhattan’s West Village, the owner drops by. He’s all smiles as he shakes Downey’s hand, welcoming him back for the umpteenth time.
“This place, it’s been good to us. They support us,” Downey says. “I want to support people who support us.”
Support is something of a loaded word for Downey. As a member of the NYPD, his job is to help and protect the public at large. But as the president of the force’s only LGBTQ fraternal organization — the Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL — his other role is to serve and support his brothers and sisters dressed in blue … and rainbows.
Gay police officers straddle two worlds: Outside the force, they are sometimes viewed with suspicion by their own kind. As part of the force, they’re navigating the very institution largely responsible for the violence that led to the modern gay rights movement. It can be a dizzying experience, knowing that the policies and practices of the NYPD haven’t historically aligned with their activism.
But Downey and others credit GOAL, a 36-year-old organization started at a time when many cops stayed in the closet, with bringing them wider recognition and respect among their fellow officers.
“Even in the short time I’ve been here, things have changed dramatically from [former Commissioner] Bill Bratton’s last term and now with [Commissioner James P.] O’Neill. We’re respected, and we are looked to for guidance,” Downey says. “And, believe it or not, we’re considered the cool kids — the queer kids are the cool kids.”
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, the gay rights movement was born out of a riot against the police. In 1969, New York City officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village, sparking violent protests and clashes that lasted six days.
And back then, as now, the struggle between being both a cop and a gay activist wasn’t easily reconciled.
In 1981, NYPD Sgt. Charles Cochrane stood up at a city council meeting and outed himself. “I’m very proud of being a New York City policeman, and I’m equally proud of being gay,” he said to a stunned audience. He was testifying in support of a bill that would ban discriminatory hiring practices based on sexual orientation. Cochrane recognized the need for a sea change and, with the Stonewall riots still fresh on the city’s mind, started GOAL the next year.
Today, GOAL has more than 2,000 members from police agencies across the tri-state area and chapters in Philadelphia, Chicago and greater New England. The groups attend AIDS vigils, host meet-and-greets for neighbors to connect with LGBTQ officers, sometimes over coffee, and march in pride parades to show their visibility among a community still raw over the history of past tangles with police.
“Bridging the gap between the community and the NYPD is one of the most important things we have been able to accomplish,” says Sgt. Ana Arboleda, vice president of the NYPD’s GOAL. “It’s an ongoing process, yes, but it’s important for the [gay community] — which has this mentality based on history that you can’t be both gay and a police officer — to see that there are gay cops out there. And it’s important for the police department to see that we are part of their workforce.”
That message resonates with Carl Locke, an NYPD detective and a member of GOAL. Before he joined the force 17 years ago, Locke was a social worker and director at the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, where he investigated cases of police violence against the gay community.
“When I came into the police department, I came in because there’s only so much change you can [enact] on the outside,” he says. “Sometimes you have to to fix from within.”
And that change has, indeed, been noticeable — especially where optics are concerned. The NYPD is one of the most diverse police forces in the nation and has a handful of openly transgender administrators and uniformed officials.
On June 12, a few weeks before this year’s Pride Parade, Downey stood at the front of an auditorium in New York’s police headquarters for an annual event to honor the city’s gay officers. Hundreds of gay cops and their straight allies were standing as the national anthem played. But the focus wasn’t on the U.S. flag; instead, the crowd was gazing at the transgender flag and the LGBTQ rainbow flag hoisted up, side by side.
“That was a historic moment,” Downey says the next day at Philip Marie. “The transgender flag — flying in police headquarters — is something I don’t think I would’ve ever imagined seeing five, 10 years ago.”
Members of GOAL see themselves as activists within a police department that has been historically slow to change. Even as recently as a few years ago, GOAL wasn’t allowed to hold Pride Month events, like the one this month to recognize their gay colleagues, at police headquarters.
But the tide has changed, in part because of GOAL’s work and the state inspector general’s mandate to make the NYPD more inclusive of transgender and gender-nonconforming citizens. Since 2012, the department has provided inclusivity training, led by members of GOAL, to talk about implicit biases and has directed every officer to take an inclusivity refresher course, which cadets are required to initially complete while at the academy.
And for other GOAL members outside of the NYPD, such as Lt. James Tracy of the Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, police department, the ability to be openly gay while in the police force is important to make those meaningful changes.
Before coming out at work, Tracy kept his boyfriend a secret from coworkers. His boss made disparaging remarks about his sexuality, which resulted in a series of legal suits. But overall, he says, his presence on the force has had an impact on his small police department.
“They see me as a good cop because I do my job, and they haven’t changed the way they treat me,” Tracy tells NationSwell. “And that was super-important for me, that they didn’t act differently.”
Despite progress made at their workplaces, members of GOAL say that same acceptance is harder to come by within their own community.
“There are a lot of people who don’t like police officers,” says Locke. “There have been plenty of times when people are just not happy you’re there. But it’s a little different getting it from your own community, because they of all people should know you’re doing something to make a change.”
Police officers taking part in pride parades have gotten pushback the past few years, as more awareness and media presence has focused on unfair treatment of black citizens and the unsolved murders of transgender people.
“I do feel that we have to constantly remember that we’ve come so far, but also how easily things can get taken away,” says Locke, adding that it’s important to remember the police’s part in the history of the Stonewall uprising. “But it’s also a time that we celebrate who we are. Pride is much more complicated than just a protest.”