When officer Susan Sasso joined the Chicago Police Department ( CPD ) in 1990, the exam she was given to get her badge still posed questions about same-sex attraction on the psychology portion of the exam.
Pictured: GOAL ( Gay Officers Action League ) takes part in the 2007 Chicago Gay Pride Parade. Photo by Tracy Baim. Officer Marty Ridge. Photo by Andrew Davis
When Capt. Nancy Lipman, a 22-year veteran of the force, was a rookie she heard a lieutenant at roll call say we should go back to Germany and bring back the ovens to use on 'faggots': 'I wondered whether the officers sitting around me experienced even a fraction of the horror that statement evoked in me. Such a statement would never be tolerated today. Whatever their personal feelings, top administrators recognize the professional and political consequences of anti-gay discrimination.'
A number of factors can be credited for the progress the CPD has made since then. Lipman said that ' [ t ] he younger generation of officers come on the job with more open minds than those who joined years ago. Almost all have had contact with gay persons, be it family member, neighbor, fellow student or friend. They're able to put a face to the bigotry they might witness and find it harder to accept. We are no longer the invisible minority we once were.'
The journey towards acceptance for Chicago's GLBT officers has not been easy. The effort has required a lot of sacrifice, education, perseverance and hard work. A major part of this march towards acceptance has been the emergence of GLBT activism within the department.
Susan Sasso has been with her partner, Karen Calahan, for 22 years, and has been partnered with Calahan on the police force for 17 of those years. When Sue joined the CPD 18 years ago she soon became one of the founding members of the groundbreaking group The LGPA ( Lesbian & Gay Police Association ) . 'When my partner Karen joined the CPD in 1986 she noticed that there wasn't an organization for LGBT officers,' Sasso said. 'In 1991, a year after I joined the force, Karen and I, along with Dorothy Knudson and Mary Boyle decided to create an organization for LGBT officers. We called it The Lesbian and Gay Police Association because lesbians we were always either omitted from the name or listed second in an organization title.
'Dorothy Knudson and Mary Boyle took care of most of the original paperwork, both had previous experience from non-police organizations. The four of us set up the mission statement, by-laws and constitution. The charter was granted in 1992 and the department was notified of our existence. The CPD requires all police organizations wishing to be recognized to submit the name, address, phone number and list of executive officers. There wasn't a problem with the Department or the Fraternal Order of Police recognizing the LGPA, the problem was with them treating us like other organizations.'
Progress came slowly, but things started to change. 'Part of the reason for our success was that we never gave up,' Sasso said. 'When we were put off by the superintendent's office after requesting a meeting, we kept calling. We were finally granted a meeting. They realized we were not going away. We had a similar problem with the CPD Training Academy; we felt lesbian and gay officers should speak to the recruits about LGBT sensitivity, it took several years and numerous request letters, but we were finally allowed to be part of the training, on our own time of course.'
Sasso continued, 'One of the things I told the recruits during training was that a person's sexual orientation has nothing to do with the job they do. What a person does in the privacy of their own home does not effect you, you must be professional and treat everyone with the respect you would want for yourself and your family.'
In addition to education, the LGPA made strides on other fronts and was instrumental in getting Domestic Partnership for City Employees, Bereavement Leave for partners of LGBT officers, as well as adding sexual orientation in Section 10-2 of The Fraternal Order of Police Contract regarding non-discrimination. The organization was active in recruiting officers for the force from the GLBT community and succeeded in getting the first LGBT liasion officer into the heavily gay/lesbian 23rd District.
Another important accomplishment was the LGPA's fight to receive funding from the The Fraternal Order of Police for a float in the gay-pride parade. The request had been repeatedly denied because the organization was not an ethnic group. Sasso explained, 'For the first few parades we marched and/or drove personal vehicles that displayed the LGPA banner. After pointing out that the FOP gave support to other 'non-ethnic groups,' they helped fund our parade entry. Although most have retired at this time, many high-ranking CPD members felt we were a disgrace to the uniform. In order to wear our official police uniforms in the Pride Parade, we were told to write a request and send it through channels. ... The 23rd District Commander signed our request, then it went to the Area 3 deputy chief, who denied it. When the superintendent found out it was denied he sent it back to the Area 3 deputy chief for approval. Eventually, we got it. We have been allowed to wear our uniforms in the pride parade ever since. Jamie [ Richardson ] has the original copy of the request where you can see the denial whited out and approval written over it.'
A 13-year veteran of the force, Jamie Richardson wanted to be a cop since she was a teenager—specifically she wanted to be Starsky of TV's 'Starsky and Hutch.' For Richardson, the presence of LGPA in the parade was crucial in her decision to be an out officer. 'I was at the parade in 1995,' she said. I'd gone every year but this was the first year I'd gone as a police officer even though I was off duty. It was definitely a different feel. I was on the sidelines and looking around and thinking, please don't anyone recognize me. There were cops everywhere. Suddenly I looked up and saw this float going by and I thought, 'Oh my God, who are all those hot cops?' It was LGPA. I had to be one of them. That was when I decided that I was never again going to stand on the sidelines and I would never again going to go to work closeted.'
Sasso recalled those times: 'Our first couple Pride Parades a large part of the LGBT community didn't know what to make of us—some cheered, some booed. Now as our float goes down the street we hear nothing but applause, it makes me feel good to know that I was a part of the changes that have occurred over the past 17 years. We still don't have equal rights, but LGBT officers don't have to keep secrets any longer.'
Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the LGPA was that it provided a crucial support and networking tool for GLBT members within the department as well as law enforcement officers from various Midwest munipalities. The LGPA supported HIV-positive officers and some who transitioned from female to male while in the police force. In short, the group created and organized a community.
However, many early members were not out in their departments. Sasso explained: 'Most LGPA meetings were held in member's homes. Many were scared away when we had meetings at Ann Sathers. Our early members included many who only felt safe being themselves when they were with other GLBT members. Now we have out CPD commanders who would not have had such an easy time without LGPA breaking the ice.'
After 14 years of progress and formidable advances by the organization, the four founding women of LGPA split over the future and the vision of the group—specifically over whether to bring LGPA into the national organization GOAL ( Gay Officers Action League ) .
The Gay Officers Action League ( GOAL ) was incorporated by two New York Police Department veterans in 1982, becoming the first official police fraternal society in the world to represent gay and lesbian people within the criminal justice system. Since then it has evolved into an activist organization with chapters worldwide.
Three years ago the four founding women of LGPA stepped down and, in June 2005, passed the reins of the organization on to current president Richardson ( as well as to James LoBianco, who has since left the department to work for the mayor ) . During her first months as president, Richardson vowed to enhance and rebuild the organization. She sought to reestablish strength, stability and unity. 'To help solve the dilemmas and prevent any interdepartmental problems we decided to combine the two,' Richardson said. As not to offend the original forebears we still have LGPA, but we are a GOAL chapter as well. That's how we became LGPA-GOAL.'
Patrolman Martin Ridge clarified: 'Jaime had heard about GOAL and all the wonderful things that it was doing for its members. We started reaching out and found that there were numerous other Departments and LGBT officers nationwide that were working on the same things we were—education and training, Department recognition, community outreach, etc. Joining a nationwide organization and working with other GLBT officers together on issues that we were all experiencing was a no-brainer. GOAL is a great tool—a great wat to connect our department to other Departments and share information.'
LGPA-GOAL Board Member Captain Lipman added, 'LGPA-GOAL does great work for the community as a whole, representing concerns of the city's gay citizens in terms of police service and organizing, and participating in, several fundraising activities that benefit the gay community. Additionally, LGPA is a great resource for family and friends of gay and lesbian officers.'
LGPA-GOAL President Jamie Richardson continued to keep the organization moving forward. 'We did a lot with The Gay Games, which helped bring unity within the community as well as within the police department,' she said. 'That was inspiring. And membership in the organization has tripled.' Combining with GOAL also opened up the membership of the organization to other public safety officers such as paramedics, firemen, security guards, state troopers and 911 dispatchers.
Despite these accomplishments, Richardson quickly noted that ' [ t ] raining is probably the most important issue. I'm a big advocate for training within the department when it comes to the LGBT community. We've done three streaming videos. We did an informational video on our transgender community here in Chicago; another ... on alternative lifestyles that focused on the LGB community that had information on the [ then- ] upcoming [ 2006 ] Gay Games that were being held here in Chicago; and ... one on transgendered traffic stops so officers can be better educated.'
Ridge said, 'The transgendered traffic stop video came about after realizing that there were a lot of unanswered questions regarding proper seach procedures when dealing with members of our transgendered community. We were looking at possible lawsuits by not having proper procedures and training. The department heads said, 'Hey, you're right'. Before we knew it, we had a transgendered traffic stop video.' However, Ridge also noted that some things have become more difficult in terms of education. 'We used to have free reign to go into the academy for an hour or two and say, 'Hey—welcome to the CPD. We are gay and lesbian officers and we're here to give you a heads up on one of the communities you might meet out there who you might not be familiar with.' Going into the academy like that is no longer a given, but we're working on bringing that back.'
Lipman agreed: 'Training is a key issue. The police department needs to protect itself from complaints and lawsuits and the officers from individual liability. Training in a multitude of areas is a priority for the Department. By providing training, we ensure the most professional treatment of the LGBT community.'
Read the conclusion of this article in two weeks in the Sept. 3 edition of Windy City Times.