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Playing nice, finally

A decade ago, you could hardly find a gay cop in town. Today, a more LGBT-friendly approach
is transforming the Toronto Police Service

Josh Wilson was a 16-year-old high school student in 2000, the year when five male Toronto police officers stomped through the women-only Pussy Palace bathhouse night, an operation that seemed more like a panty raid than policing. At the time, the raid wasn’t on Wilson’s radar—he lived in Hanover, Ontario, and wouldn’t come out to his family for another two years. But he’s had an education since then. Now a special constable with the Toronto Police Service (TPS) court services, Wilson is responsible for training new recruits. He includes a discussion of the Pussy Palace raid in the LGBT session.

“It’s something we certainly can’t hide or pretend it didn’t happen,” says Wilson, now 29. “It’s important that our officers know—it’s important that everyone knows—what happened so it won’t happen again. When I tell the new recruits about it, they’re shocked.”

What a difference 13 years make. Wilson is part of a new generation of TPS cops who are comfortable with gay, lesbian, bi and trans people and their issues, often because they are gay, lesbian, bi or trans themselves. Though no one would claim macho cop culture has completely purged its homophobic streak, there are signs of progress in the recruitment strategy, in the training and in police culture itself. Around the time of the Pussy Palace raid, I remember calling the TPS about a news release which listed the various ethnicities and language skills of the newest crop of police officers, asking if there were any out cops in the mix; up to that point, I hadn’t been able to track down a single out officer. I might as well have asked if they had recruited any avowed terrorists.

Now the TPS actively recruits LGBT officers. And when they found that recruits were going back into the closet in training, they started sending in a mentor to support them in staying out. “When studying, everybody’s an A-type personality with lots of macho jock guys,” says Wilson, who didn’t come out in class. Meanwhile, an LGBT Internal Support Network (ISN)—one of several identity-based support networks that are increasingly common among Fortune 500 companies—was formed in 2009. It now has about 50 members, 15 of whom participated in this year’s Pride parade. Wilson, who is ISN co-chair, suggests that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“In my workplace, there are at least five officers who are not part of the ISN,” says Wilson, who got his start working at the CN Tower after studying at Seneca. “People may be out in other parts of their life and they may want to keep their social life separate. At first I didn’t have a huge interest in the ISN because I didn’t feel I had any issues I needed to overcome. But I started to discover what it stood for and I liked it.”

After events like 2010’s G20 debacle—where, among other affronts, trans people were inappropriately detained by police officers who didn’t follow TPS’s trans policies—or the killing of Sammy Yatim on an empty streetcar this summer, Torontonians justifiably and necessarily find themselves asking the police, “What went wrong?” But in the case of police attitudes toward LGBT issues, it might also be fair to ask “What’s gone right?” You hear fewer reports of homophobic cops now, fewer accusations that police ignore crimes against LGBT people. Reports of gay-bashing are up—which sounds bad until you look at how underreported the crime used to be because people were afraid to go to the police.
How did the police get so much better (though not perfect) at working with LGBT people? You have to start at the top.

The 1981 bathhouse raids have a special place in Canadian history, up there with the FLQ crisis. Dramatic, sure, but so long ago. But the relationship between the Toronto police and the gay community remained mostly toxic for a couple more decades. Sometimes it seemed like a warped game, with the police and mainstream media regularly hinting at some imagined dark gay underworld. After police officers raided the Bijou porn theatre in 1999, for example, the district supervisor in charge of the gay village denied secret deals to tolerate “illicit sexual activity” in the gay community, as the National Post put it. When Kyle Rae, Toronto’s first openly gay city councillor, criticized the officers responsible for the Pussy Palace raids, the officers sued him for defamation. No matter how egregious police actions, there was always a hint that LGBT people had brought trouble on themselves.

The disdain flowed both ways. In 2000, when newly minted police chief Julian Fantino, now a Conservative cabinet minister, hosted his first-ever Pride reception in lieu of going in the parade, he faced a protest on the other side of the fence. Community leaders like Rev. Brent Hawkes worked hard to build a better relationship, but it seemed an impossible task.

“There’d be a conflict and a source of anger and we wouldn’t even be aware of it,” says TPS chief Bill Blair. Blair’s 2005 appointment seems to have rewritten an otherwise depressing script. Having spent his early career downtown, policing the village and working with gay officers, Blair started from a position far more informed—and far less paranoid—than Fantino. But it was his vision, as much as his background, that formed the backbone of what was to come. His decision to shift toward community-based policing—getting cops out of their cars and onto the streets where citizens could get to know them and vice versa—meant recruiting a more diverse workforce who understood and fit into Toronto’s many communities. Sexual diversity, along with ethnic diversity, was part of that recipe.

“I remember the discussion 15 years ago about recruiting in the LGBT community,” says Blair. “They’d say, ‘We know they are already with us, we don’t have to recruit in that community.’ But we had to do more than that.”

A primary engineer of the new approach is André Goh. Stints with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and as equity coordinator with the Western Australia Police Service gave Goh many of the tools he needed to sell his vision when Blair hired him eight years ago as manager of the Diversity Management Unit. “They wanted the service to be a place that was welcoming, not only for police officers, but for communities of every race, orientation and creed. But they didn’t know how to do that,” says Goh, who is openly gay. “So you start with what’s possible.”

While some changes would take a generation—the ingrained attitudes of officers who grew up when homophobia was acceptable being slowly diluted by younger officers—Goh identified others that could be achieved more quickly through policies, procedures, processes and practices. The TPS looked at how it recruited and promoted officers, engaging in a three-year project with the Ontario Human Rights Commission to eliminate bias internally and with the public (the results are expected to be released at the end of the year). It added LGBT language to official documents, which sounds trite, except that making words a part of regular discussions makes it more difficult to snigger at and speculate about them.

“If you say you’re including all religions and creeds, why won’t you say LGBT? We tried simple things like that,” says Goh. “I’ve said to the executive team: use LGBT more often in your speeches. For the chief, it came naturally to him. For many others—not that anybody was homophobic, they just had no experience. People would ask me, ‘Can I say dyke?’ The fact that people felt comfortable enough to show me their ignorance told me we were growing.”

The mind shift also means adapting on the fly. Goh says the force is currently supporting two employees who are transitioning; when one of them was uncomfortable with the policy of making a system-wide announcement of name changes, brass tossed the rule. When the LGBT ISN decided to produce an anti-bullying video (youtube.com/watch?v=2Pq-9_uJUnY) earlier this year, the brass jumped in; the chief appeared in the video and there was a media launch.  “It grew into a monster,” says Wilson. “Everybody wanted to get involved.”

Trust between the police and the community can be harder to build. Goh remembers a text he got about two years ago from a friend who was at Goodhandy’s (now Club 120), which is known for its sex-friendly attitude. “We’re being raided. I’m here. Why?” the text read. Goh immediately called the inspector on duty and found there was no such raid scheduled—policies developed post-Pussy Palace require officers to notify their superiors of any such operations. Goh discovered someone at the bar had called the police, making a false gun threat in the midst of a lovers’ row. The police turned on the lights to search for the perpetrator, who confessed.

The lights went off again and the party continued. The response had been merely Pavlovian.

While TPS has had an LGBT liaison officer since 2001, the officer is often spread thin. In the run of a day, the current liaison officer, Danielle Bottineau, might meet with one of a dozen community groups, talk to a merchant who has been accused of saying homophobic things to customers or work with officers doing an investigation that affects LGBT people. (She’s also organizing a law enforcement conference in conjunction with next year’s WorldPride celebrations.)

“A few months ago I got a call from a trans person who was assaulted in Scarborough,” says Bottineau, who has been with the TPS for 14 years. “When they reported it, they didn’t disclose as being trans. But they told me they felt they were assaulted because they were trans. So I had to assure the individual that nobody was going to pass judgement on them, but it was important information to know since it changes the investigation. It does become a hate crime.”

As charming as Bottineau is, you can’t imagine detectives welcoming yet another cook into an investigation’s kitchen. In the Scarborough assault case, the detective’s frustration was why the victim didn’t feel comfortable disclosing as trans in the first place. “Every officer’s reaction is different,” says Bottineau. “There still needs to be more of an educational piece out there for the officers. Knowing the terms and the language does make them approach individuals differently.”

Both Bottineau, who came out in her job interview when she joined the force, and Wilson say they’ve had few personal problems with homophobia in the force. There’s the occasional “That’s so gay” or the officers who teased Bottineau that they could turn her straight. But the two officers are quick to shrug it off.

“Police culture can be raw and intimidating. The guys will talk about whatever,” says Wilson. “I thought, ‘I should take part in these conversations, too.’ It took courage in the beginning to speak as freely about my life as everyone else does, but I’ve gained the respect of people I work with. I’ve seen people have these ah-ha moments when they’re with me. ‘Maybe I should think differently about this. It’s not as weird as I thought it was.’”

Which isn’t saying that going into the force as an out man was easy. “It was a scary thing to think about. Who knew what was going to happen?” says Wilson. “I certainly wasn’t afraid for my safety, but I was concerned for my mental health and my happiness. But my stance as I’ve gotten older has been that it’s normal. If you don’t have that self-loathing and shame, people don’t pick up on it and people don’t pick on you. I decided on day one I was going to be out of the closet and I was.”

While standing up for themselves seems an effective way for LGBT cops to change attitudes, it’s surely too much to ask of victims of crime and other vulnerable people.

“Not all of us are in a better space,” says Matthew Cutler, who is co-chair of the LGBT community consultative committee. “There are folks—whether they’re street involved or because they’re sex workers or because their gender identity doesn’t fit the normative profile—who are still experiencing a lot of challenges in their relationships with the police. Sure, the committee has a very different feel than it would have 10 years ago, but I wouldn’t say the work is done.”

 But the work has, for the most part, become proactive rather than reactive—a far cry from where things were a decade ago.

“We measure results in the reduction of violence and victimization, but also of fear,” says Blair. Certainly, the more out officers there are, the less likely straight cops will see LGBT people as weird and suspicious. And the less we all have to fear.


What’s happening in the rest of the world

Ignore Russia (just for a moment). Police forces in some far-flung locations are trying various strategies to win the trust of LGBT people.

London’s Metropolitan Police currently has more than 60 LGBT liaison officers who wear rainbow triangle badges when they’re on the job.

The small European state of Montenegro has established a national plan to improve the quality of life for its LGBT people. In the next five years, the government intends to increase police education on LGBT issues and “enhance the safety of the LGBT persons, social gatherings and social life.”

After the severe beating of a gay Baltimore man, the city police department established a special LGBT advisory council earlier this year.

This year San Francisco posted Safe Zone signs in the windows of 10 police stations designated as safe havens for members of the LGBT community.

The New South Wales police force in Australia has a Facebook page highlighting outreach and anti-homophobic efforts. Dozens of the force’s officers participated in Wear It Purple day, a high school program that supports sexual and gender diversity.

In August, South Africa’s deputy minister of police joined the country’s Free Gender Gay and Lesbian Organisation and Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) to celebrate Women’s Month. The government is also set to introduce new hate crime legislation to protect LGBT people.

A full decade after a damning report on discrimination against lesbians in the Philippines, the Metro Manila police force this year hosted its first series of LGBT sensitivity workshops aimed at uniformed officers.