LGBTQ cops want Pride organizers to 'stop seeing us as the enemy'

Out and proud LGBTQ cops include, clockwise from top left: Jaime Deer, Ana Arboleda, Jason Samuel, Greg Abbink, couple Taylor Mack and Nicole Wallace and Nicholas Tees. (Photos courtesy of subjects)
Out and proud LGBTQ cops include, clockwise from top left: Jaime Deer, Ana Arboleda, Jason Samuel, Greg Abbink, couple Taylor Mack and Nicole Wallace, and Nicholas Tees. (Photos courtesy of subjects)

Ana Arboleda, a 12-year vet of the New York Police Department and a proud lesbian, will never forget the mix of fear and joy she felt the first time she joined the New York City Pride March, in uniform, as part of the Gay Officers Action League New York (GOAL-NY), a volunteer-led organization that addresses the issues of LGBTQ cops and the community at large.

“It was a very, very proud moment,” Arboleda, 35, tells Yahoo Life. Though she’s since marched many more times, that first one in 2001, she recalls, “was nerve-racking. I felt like I was preparing to go on a first date! But then there was this uproar from the crowd the moment we started marching, and people were saying ‘thank you!’ and ‘you’re so beautiful in uniform!’ and it was the most amazing feeling, to see your coworkers run up and hug you and say ‘I’m so proud of you.’ Even talking about it now gives me chills.”

But this year’s march, slated, as always, for the last Sunday in June — timed with the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, a major flashpoint in the LGBTQ-rights movement — will be different. And not only because it will be virtual.

A long-brewing tension between the NYPD and LGBTQ activists has come to a head this year, resulting in NYC Pride organizers announcing that GOAL’s members are no longer welcome to march in uniform (and it’s unclear whether they’re welcome to march at all, according to GOAL-NY). An official NYC Pride statement notes, "Effective immediately, NYC Pride will ban corrections and law enforcement exhibitors at NYC Pride events until 2025."

The decision was a result of a year-long internal process by Heritage of Pride (HOP), the nonprofit that runs NYC Pride’s annual activities, which are back in person only to varying degrees this year.

Part of those discussions included creating a task force to help the organization better “serve the entire community,” Sue Doster, co-chair of NYC Pride, tells Yahoo Life.

Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality
Photos by Leandro Justen
The Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality, pictured here in 2020 and happening again this year, was a response to the official NYC Pride. (Photos: Leandro Justen

“The events of this past year have really shined a spotlight on some of the aspects of racial inequity, especially as they relate to policing. In some ways, it requires a response from all of us,” Doster explains. “A move like this talks about not so much where we've been [in the queer rights movement], but where we want to go in creating a future where everyone can celebrate at Pride and feel safe to express their Pride in whatever way they want to.”

The line in the sand followed, or came in tandem with, that of other Pride organizers around the country — including in cities like Charlotte, Denver and San Diego, where police have either been banned from marching in Pride events or from policing them, with organizers opting to hire private security instead.

Decisions like these are responses to underlying tensions between the LGBTQ community and police that have a long and complicated past, with queer people historically harassed and persecuted by law enforcement — most famously, though not only, through the 1969 raid at the Stonewall Inn, at which a routine police shakedown at the gay bar led fed-up patrons to stand up for their rights to exist, prompting the days-long uprising.

Police officers arrest a female, later identified as Ryan Segin, 18, after she attempted to lit a Blue Lives Matter flag in protest, ahead of the Pride Parade, in Philadelphia, PA, on June 10, 2018.  (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
In Philadelphia — where the official Pride event has been abruptly canceled this year — tensions were high in 2018, when police officers arrested a woman who lit a Blue Lives Matter flag in protest, ahead of the Pride Parade. (Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The tensions persist, according to a May 2021 study from the Williams Institute, which found that “LGBQ people are six times more likely than the general public to be stopped by police” and that “nearly one in four LGBQ people say they are unlikely to call police in the future.”

Still, organizations like GOAL (founded in NYC but with chapters around the country), Protect and Defend and others have led staunch efforts through policy changes, training courses and resource groups with city leaders to create a better environment not only for LGBTQ cops but for the community as a whole, including victims of police brutality.

But while the NYPD publicly apologized in 2019 — 50 years later — for its part at Stonewall, acrimony, since then, for many, has escalated, tied in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement and frequently-violent responses from police.

Reclaim Pride, a splinter group from the main NYC Pride, was formed in 2019 to host a separate, sponsor- and police-free counter event called the Queer Liberation March, slated to happen again this Sunday.

“One reason Reclaim Pride was founded was that the NYPD had been allowed to take control over the HOP parade — from determining the route to determining where they could start and finish, and also because the NYPD has continued not to be a friend or an ally to poor and working-class Black and brown queer and trans people,” Reclaim Pride cofounder Jay W. Walker tells Yahoo Life.

New York Police Department members kiss in front of Stonewall Inn during the annual Gay Pride Parade in New York June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
NYPD members celebrate in front of the Stonewall Inn during the annual Pride March in 2015. (Photo: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

Still, despite his belief that policing is systemically “white supremacist and sexist and misogynist and homophobic,” adds Walker, “I do think these queer cops perhaps come into policing possibly for the noblest reasons, and perhaps they honestly want to keep the public safe. I don’t doubt that many, if not all, are thinking of representation mattering and that just by their very presence that that is doing the work.” But, he believes, “that’s not enough.”

There are two schools of thought within the community: one that “believes cops should be allowed to march,” Julian Sanjivan, co-president of InterPride, a global collective of Pride organizations, tells Yahoo Life, “and those who don’t think Pride is a place for cops — especially in uniform, because of the way minority communities…have historically faced oppression and violence and police brutality.”

But as Sgt. Michael Crumrim of Austin, Texas., founder of the Lesbian and Gay Peace Officers Association, tells Yahoo Life, there is particular significance to marching in uniform. “The whole purpose of Pride, I know, is a protest… but it’s also to show your authentic self, to let everybody see you for who you are,” he says. “It almost puts us back in the closet, to say ’you can march in Pride, but not in uniform.’”

In the midst of the controversy — as well as the celebration and fierce, continuing fight for equality in this Pride month — Yahoo Life spoke with some of the people at the center of the debate: LGBTQ law enforcement.

Below, hear from the many who shared their personal stories, giving their own take on what Arboleda so succinctly explained: “I’m proud to be a member of NYPD — but equally proud to be gay.”

Police Officers Taylor Mack, left, and Nicole Preston, Philadelphia Police Department

Nicole Preston, 35, knew she wanted to help people her entire life. When her cousin was murdered due to gun violence in January 2004, the Philadelphia native’s drive to make a difference in her community only grew. Now, 15 years after joining her city’s police department, she hasn’t looked back.

She’s even engaged to a fellow police officer, Taylor Mack, and both are new members of Greater Philadelphia GOAL.

“For me, I live freely every day,” Preston tells Yahoo Life. “I don’t need a month to [celebrate] anything because when you live freely every day, it doesn’t change.”

Preston says she gets both sides of the current debate. “I understand where certain people come from when it comes to distrust in the community and the police,” she says. “But at the same time, people need to realize we're just as human as they are. We’re just as out and happy and proud to be what we identify as — just like them.”

Mack, whose father and grandfather were also Philadelphia police officers, disagrees with the idea of banning uniformed officers from Pride (which just this week imploded in Philly). “I wanted to continue the good tradition of my family’s name and keep up those high standards,” she says. That includes leading by example.

“My role is important,” she explains. “I'm myself. I can identify as what I want to but I can also do the job. I can help and connect with the community. I am me, but I stand with you no matter what.…I'm trying to bring people together and not create a divide.”

But that, she believes, is what decisions to keep cops out of Pride are doing. “It’s kind of disheartening because I feel like with LGBTQ-plus people, it’s about including everybody no matter who you are or what you identify as. But then to say, ‘Oh, because you're a police officer and you wear a badge, you're not allowed to be associated with us.’ I feel like we fought so hard to get rid of that divide and to unify us that it's a bit disheartening.”

Sgt. Jaime Deer, King County Sheriff's Office

Sgt. Jaime Deer of Seattle, in law enforcement for almost 25 years, doesn’t mince words when it comes to how he feels about Seattle disallowing LGBTQ officers to march in uniform.

“I’m really pissed, basically. It’s disappointing, it’s ridiculous,” Deer, the first transgender officer in the Seattle police department, tells Yahoo Life, noting that if he can’t march in uniform, he won’t march at all.

“Obviously, we can keep getting better. But to have the representation we have now…is pretty amazing, and to then push you out? How do you continue to have those allies?” adds Deer. “I’ve had a lot of straight, cisgender police officers say, ‘Having you here has helped open my eyes to see from another perspective.’”

Deer, 48, grew up in a small town, as did a lot of fellow cops. “All they know is what they see on TV and in Hollywood… But when they are serving alongside you, they start to understand the bias… and they think, this is no big deal. They’ll ask me questions, especially if they come across someone who’s trans, like a suicidal teen — they’re going to call me no matter where I’m at.”

One of those many calls included a trans male youth with an unsupportive father. “I took him aside and said, ‘Just so you know, it does get better…when you graduate, you can start to live your life more than you can now,’” remembers Deer. “His face shifted from being sad to smiling.”

Deer, who’s been marching since about 2010 with his wife, before his transition as well as since, says that in past parades he’s been “pulled to the crowd to be given hugs, to be told ‘thank you’ by people who are crying, to be told, ‘we never thought we’d see this day… It was overwhelming.”

Sgt. Nicholas Tees, Philadelphia Police Department

For Sgt. Nicholas Tees, the decision to go into law enforcement was simple. “It sounds cliché, but I actually enjoy helping people… I either wanted to be a cop or a firefighter,” he tells Yahoo Life.

But doing so meant that coming out was put on the back burner — for decades.

“I knew I was gay since I was 10 or 11. A lot of kids always called me names… but life took me in a different direction,” Tees recalls, sharing that he was molested by a sibling at a young age, which, though it led him to therapy, compounded the delay.

“It was a domino effect… I would blame that on why I was who I was, and I chose to hide it for a very long time,” he says. “I got married to a woman, had two beautiful kids, until, at the age of 35, I was going downhill, and I knew I needed to move on and really accept who I was.”

Acceptance on the force came quickly, and now, 20 years in, Tees, of Greater Philadelphia GOAL, believes the open presence of LGBTQ police helps make change both within the force and in the community at large.

It was something particularly salient, he says, in 2016, just after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that killed 49 people and injured 53.

“Prior to that, there had been people vocal on social media about how they didn’t want us to march. But that day, when we marched, there was an overwhelming response and people were so happy to see us, because they recognized that we have to work together,” Tees remembers.

He adds that while he understands both sides of the current cops/no cops Pride discussion, “we have to come to the table and talk, and until we do that, nothing will ever change.”

Sgt. Ana Arboleda, New York City Police Department

Ana Arboleda found her way into policing through both her Columbian heritage and her gay identity as a kid growing up in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights — home to sizable Latino and LGBTQ populations, which she says saw both good and bad treatment by cops.

She didn’t come out right away — not while in the police academy, at least.

“We have to acknowledge the police enforcement is still a very white, heterosexual, male-dominated job… so I wanted to see how they were with the gay thing first,” Arboleda, vice president of GOAL-NY, says.

Today she’s passionate about bringing change within the NYPD. “That’s why I wish [Pride] would stop seeing us as the enemy, but as an ally. We are here to be visible, to remind everybody we are gay and we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere,” she says, noting that she’s one of the instructors for a 4.5-hour LGBTQ sensitivity training, through GOAL, for all new recruits, and that GOAL works with LGBTQ community organizations including the Ali Forney Center, for homeless LGBTQ youth.

“Whenever they need something, we try to do something for them,” she says. “It kind of hurts for [others] to not see how visible we are to the community, and not see that work.”

Police Officer Jason Samuel, New York City Police Department

Jason Samuel, also of GOAL-NY, entered law enforcement quite unexpectedly. While he did have family members in the field, he didn’t “intend to continue any sort of legacy.”

Now, he says, “I know it may sound saccharine, but I find helping people and solving problems awesomely satisfying. My current assignment as a crime scene investigator has only reinvigorated that drive — investigating crime scenes, searching for the truth, giving voice to victims, speaking for those unable to do so for themselves.”

At the same time, Samuel says, “There’s no doubt we’re experiencing a racial reckoning,” and that it’s affecting how he perceives his role in the community.

“As a person of color, as a first-generation American, and as a gay man, equality, justice and equity aren’t mere abstractions, but concrete intentions,” he adds. “They’ve been forever at the forefront of my mind.”

Through LGBTQ-supportive work both in and out of the department — sensitivity training, policies about how to relate to transgender or nonconforming arrestees and more — Samuel believes he’s in a good position to make change.

“Our queer siblings need to know that the Gay Officers Action League, a fraternal organization of gays in law enforcement, will continue serving as an advocate for our community and a conscience for the Department,” he says.

Senior Police Officer Greg Abbink, Austin Police Department

Greg Abbink of Austin, Texas, struggled for most of his life with his gender identity and says that he’s finally found his place in law enforcement, where he transitioned publicly in 2015, after a decade on the job.

“It was amazing,” he says of how he was received. “I know that’s not always the case, but I felt very safe.”

Abbink, who says his wife has been incredible through his transition, says he found his way to policing through the advice of a high school guidance counselor during a painful adolescence. “I grew up in a very conservative family, and so little was known or ever spoken about, so my family assumed I was a tomboy,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any role models… So, I just struggled internally with it for 39 years. Finally, my nephew came out as trans, at 17, and that just gave me the courage… That was my push.”

After coming out to his colleagues, his department sent him to San Francisco to train with a transgender officer there. He returned armed with information to share with incoming cadets about how to interact “with more empathy” with trans and gender nonconforming folks.

He’s practiced what he’s preached many times — most notably by connecting with a transgender youth during a volunteer gig at a local foster home, and continuing to mentor him. “I’ve been like a father figure, because he has no family,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ve been a role model who is transgender and who is successful and positive and living the American dream.”

This August he’ll march, as in past years, with the Lesbian and Gay Peace Officers Association.

“We in the LGBTQ [policing] community are asking that people be authentic, in all settings,” he says, “allowing members of the community to see us beyond our uniforms and badge — and to see us as human beings.”

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