When a small number of Los Angeles police officers convene at an LAPD recruiting booth this weekend during a gay pride festival in West Hollywood, they will be pulling back the curtains on a secret society within Southern California law enforcement.
One by one and step by step, Los Angeles' homosexual lawmen and law women are publicly disclosing their private lifestyles. In doing so, they have stirred controversy among colleagues, incited some hostility from elements of the public, and won praise from gay activists.
Training officer John Smith of the Foothill Division insists that the department's primary purpose is to recruit good law enforcement candidates.
"There's no overt political statement here," Smith said. "Tomorrow we will be held to the highest standards of the LAPD and we will perform as such."
Nevertheless, Smith, the third active-duty member of the LAPD in recent days to publicly acknowledge a homosexual lifestyle, was striking a blow for the gay rights movement and pioneering a new and somewhat nervous era in relations between law enforcement and Los Angeles' gay community.
Smith said he plans to join Officer Sue Herold and police reservist Paul Butler, both members of the Hollywood Division, as well as a few more discreet gay officers at the recruitment booth during this weekend's gay pride celebration. Many of the gay officers, Smith said, are members of a heretofore secretive organization of Los Angeles-area gay law enforcers called Pride Behind the Badge, a group that claims 150 officers from the LAPD, Sheriff's Department, Highway Patrol and various local police agencies.
To gay activists, the recruitment effort and the gay law enforcement group represent a historic breakthrough in the gay rights movement within Southern California--one that New York, San Francisco and some other major cities experienced a decade ago. Gay law enforcers in San Diego recently organized a similar group.
Gay activists contend that Los Angeles law enforcement agencies are behind the times because of what they say are anti-gay attitudes and policies of such brass as Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and Assistant Chief Robert L. Vernon. Gates has long resisted pressure to direct recruitment efforts toward the gay community. Vernon, a fundamentalist Christian and deacon in his church, has sermonized against homosexuality.
Now, gay activists say, years of pressure from inside and outside the police force are paying off.
The actions of Herold, Butler and Smith coincide with a period of heightened activism within the gay community at large and deep controversy concerning the Police Department. Gay activists have pressed charges of discrimination, harassment and brutality in testimony before the Christopher Commission, which is conducting a review in the aftermath of the widely publicized police beating of Rodney G. King.
The LAPD recruitment effort--initiated by the gay officers and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Police Advisory Task Force--represents a departure from longstanding department practices. Gay activists and gay officers in effect outmaneuvered the department's policy. Gates, who on Wednesday voiced disapproval of the officers' plans to wear uniforms during the off-duty recruitment at the festival, grudgingly reversed himself the next day.
Gates, while complimenting the gay officers for their initiative, emphasized that he considers this weekend's recruitment effort a one-time event and not an alteration of department policy concerning gay recruitment. Gates maintains that sexual orientation is as irrelevant to the hiring of police candidates as their religion.
For Smith and other officers who have come out, there is no turning back. There are expectations that many other gay officers will soon be telling colleagues a secret they have been keeping for years. Their stance, they say, is both pro-gay rights and pro-law enforcement.
After years of largely closeted behavior, gay officers in Los Angeles said they were able to identify each other only after former Sgt. Mitch Grobeson filed an unresolved 1988 lawsuit shortly after his resignation from the force, claiming that he was harassed off the department by officers who correctly suspected he was homosexual.
Grobeson, now a member of the San Francisco Police Department, said before he came out of the closet, it was common for gay officers on the Los Angeles force to know of no others or perhaps know of one friend. He said he was besieged by calls from about 60 Los Angeles area lawmen who are gay, forming a loose-knit network. News of the informal group spread by word of mouth. Smith said founding members only recently decided to acquire a phone number and a post office box and incorporate as a nonprofit fraternal organization.