Donna Jaconi slipped out a side door one night at Hepburn’s, a lesbian bar tucked away on 12th Street in the Gayborhood in the early ’90s. A fight had broken out and the cops were on their way. And Jaconi didn’t yet want her colleagues to know she was gay.
At the time, if you were gay, you were told to walk in pairs around the neighborhood. Expect gay bashing. Be wary of cars slowing down next to you. Always know where to run and hide.
Eighteen years later, Jaconi’s not just an officer in the Philadelphia Police Crime Scene Unit. She’s also interim treasurer of the force’s new Gay Officer Action League of Greater Philadelphia, a local chapter of a national organization that brings together lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender police officers. The group of more than 60 officers will be holding its first formal elections in January.
“We’re unique as a police department, because you’re putting your life in this other person’s hands,” Jaconi said. “We got to be able to count on each other. If you met me on the first day, I’m not gonna be like ‘Hi, I’m Donna, I’m gay.’ But get to know me. I’m a good cop. And then eventually it comes out.”
Other police departments across the country have established GOAL chapters including in New York, New England and Chicago, but in some of the cases of chapter formation, it came after a negative incident of bias or discrimination. This group of LGBT officers says the Greater Philadelphia group came out of a want to get more LGBT officers working as cops.
The new leaders of GOAL say it’s still difficult to recruit LGBT officers. The department has been promising to recruit in the community since 1989, but unlike the racial or gender makeup of the department, sexual orientation is harder to measure, largely because many officers aren’t out at work. Some don’t want to be or say it doesn’t matter. Others say it just eventually comes out.
“I never felt like walking in on my first day and saying like, ‘Hi, I’m the genderqueer trans representative here in the department.’ It was just me,” said Jo Mason, a transgender officer in the 14th district. “You figure out that I’m a great cop and a great person, and if you want to get in bed with me, then it’s something we need to talk about, I guess. But other than that, it’s more of an individual struggle.”
Conversations have been going on for the better part of a decade surrounding whether or not Philly cops should establish a group like GOAL, and those calls often mentioned Thomas G. Kalt Jr., who was a Philadelphia Police officer for just three weeks. He was also the department’s first openly gay recruit. In 1999, just two days after telling his commander he was resigning, Kalt shot himself to death.
Now the new members of GOAL wear his badge number — 1735 — on their seal. Cpl. Kristen Aversa of the 26th District said it helps other gay officers remember the plights of those who came before them.
“We just want people to give us the opportunity to get the message out,” Aversa, a lesbian who is out at work, said. “You have a lot of veteran command staff — we just want to open their minds a bit. We don’t want a fight. We expect a certain level of resistance, but if they could just give us a chance. Like baby steps. They would see that we’re just trying to make a difference.”
So over the last year or so current leaders of GOAL who are on an interim leadership basis have been working with Nellie Fitzpatrick, the city’s director of LGBT Affairs, as well as the Philly LGBT Police Liaison Committee and now-retiring Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel to formally establish the group. They’ve also got the support of the police union, as well as Mayor Michael Nutter who congratulated the group in a video.
Joe Ferrero, a straight, married police officer in the 6th district which covers the Gayborhood, works on the Philly LGBT Police Liaison Committee and has helped lead the effort to establish the chapter.
“I’ve had some people approach me and be like, um, where are you going? You wanna tell us something?” Ferrero said of his involvement with GOAL. “And I’m like, no. Why? Does it matter? I’m still the same guy you’ve known.”
GOAL holds monthly events for dozens of new members who aren’t only from the Philadelphia Police Department, but represent Delaware County probation officers, sheriff’s office workers, federal postal police and officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Many aren’t out on the job. Others are trying to help fellow officers to feel comfortable in their own skin in an environment free from bias, and show the LGBT community that, yes, some cops are like them.
“If you ask somebody to describe a police officer, when you do it, you picture a guy, he’s tall, he’s muscular, he’s got a stern face,” Mason said. “Then when all of a sudden, you see somebody in the uniform and you go, wait a second. Thats just like me. That could be me.”
So when Aversa wore a police department fleece jacket to a GOAL display at OutFest in October, one man asked her: “So are you just cold or something?” When she explained that she’s a lesbian and a corporal in the force, the man responded that he “could talk to her all day.”
Others at OutFest in full uniform attracted droves of people who Aversa described as saying, “oh my God, you wear a badge, and oh my god, you’re actually a lesbian?”
Sharon Corrado, a lesbian working as an officer in the 6th district, said telling community members about the chapter can establish a camaraderie that didn’t exist before. Some of those efforts involve community outreach and education; some has to do with recruitment and reaching out to the LGBT community to tell them that they can be police officers and their sexuality shouldn’t stop them.
Of course there’s still work to be done to improve police – community relations in the LGBT community. The establishment of GOAL comes after several years of work by the LGBT Police Liaison Committee. One of the major policies to come out of the work of that group which brings together cops and community leaders is a directive that tells police how to work with transgender individuals, whether they’re a victim, a witness or an alleged perpetrator. And today, every cadet is trained in LGBT sensitivity.
The officers in this group believe change will come over time. Mason recalled when he and Fitzpatrick, the director of LGBT Affairs, were walking through the Gayborhood during OutFest this fall, just taking in the scene. When they strolled past ICandy, a gay bar on 12th Street, hundreds of under-21 teenagers were celebrating in the streets — with their parents cheering them on.
Twenty years ago when Donna Jaconi was running out the back door at Hepburn’s, that type of celebration probably wouldn’t have happened.
Now, these officers say, they can have a sense of pride.
“The first day I put on that badge, there was an immense amount of pride, and there is no reason I have to take that badge off to be proud of every other aspect of who I am,” Mason said. “For me to stand up and say, ‘I’m a trans person, this is who I am,’ I shouldn’t have to ignore the badge or put it away. They can exist together.
“I want to add a little bit of rainbow to the thin blue line.”
Any officer interested in joining GOAL or looking for more information on the group can email Jo Mason at firstname.lastname@example.org.