Transgender Law Enforcement Officers Live in Fear of Backlash

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A New York thruway dispatcher lost her job. Then she was fired as an officer working at a VA hospital, ultimately settling out of court.

After numerous interviews and applications, she struggled to find a police department to employ her, ultimately landing in a small New York department.

Her glaring problem? She’s transgender.

Insider spoke with six transgender current and former law enforcement officers, three of whom requested anonymity out of fear of backlash for speaking openly about their treatment on the force and for disclosing being transgender. Their identities are known to Insider.

Each of the law enforcement officers are affiliated with the Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs, a private online group where officers and sheriffs can safely discuss their gender identity. The group’s founder, Julie Callahan, told Insider the organization has roughly 6,000 members around the globe, with approximately 3,700 based in the US.

But Callahan said only around 500 members globally are actually “out” about their transgender identity — fewer than 10%.

Coming out for many in the queer community is inherently difficult due to fears of violent backlash and a lack of acceptance — and transgender police officers told Insider those fears are magnified to even greater extremes.

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Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty ImagesShow less

Transgender acceptance is growing across the US, but it’s taking time to permeate police departments.
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Elizabeth Viggiano for InsiderShow less

Reasons for staying in the closet

While transgender acceptance is slowly rising across the country — a Pew Research Center report from July noted that 42% of US respondents know someone who is transgender — members of law enforcement are still tasked with meeting with a whole mishmash of people from all backgrounds on daily basis.

With an unpredictable general public, some transgender officers told Insider they sometimes fear how people will react if they’re identifiably transgender, colloquially referred to as “clockable.”

While working at an airport in an area post-security check line, Callahan said she feared the possibility of someone attacking her and using her government-issued firearm against her. She said that fear reached an apex after one traveler approached her while working to say, “You’re disgusting and you ought to be shot” because she’s transgender.

But for the most part, transgender officers told Insider their fears lie within their own agencies — not the general public. Almost every law enforcement officer Insider spoke with said they were supremely concerned about coming out to their coworkers.

The first time I showed up in female clothes, my captain muttered, ‘Oh God, here we go.’ Anna Lange

One non-binary officer located in the Southeast said it would be too much to come out at work, even though they don’t think there’d be any negative repercussions.

“I don’t think I get any backlash, but I just don’t want to go through it,” the officer said. “I’d rather not deal with the hassle.”

The southeastern officer may have a point: Nearly all of the transgender law enforcement officers told Insider they experienced some form of turbulence and blowback from their department after coming out.

Anna Lange, a sergeant at the Houston County Sheriff’s Department in Georgia, is currently suing her department for refusing to pay for gender confirmation surgery. She came out to her department in 2017.

“The first time I showed up in female clothes, my captain muttered, ‘Oh God, here we go.’ I had coworkers saying I was just doing this for attention,” Lange said.

She said being transgender while working in law enforcement is a lonely experience.

“The ridicule and isolation that I think a lot of people receive is just terrifying because we’re aware that there’s plenty of jokes made behind our backs in private by coworkers that it just makes it difficult to take that stand and come out,” Lange said. “It’s kind of scary.”

The Houston County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment due to the ongoing lawsuit.

Tyler Kinzler, a transgender male officer based in California, told Insider that while his work partner was accepting, he later learned other officers had been saying behind his back that he might be trans.

“I ended up meeting with my commander and just saying ‘This is going on; I’d rather just come out,'” Kinzler said. “I’d rather just be up-front, like I have nothing to hide. I’m okay with who I am.”

But for the previously mentioned New York officer, she said she fears her coworkers who know she’s transgender won’t have her back in dicey situations.

“If I’m going to a serious call where there’s a knife or a gun, I might not get backup as quickly or they might not come at all,” the officer said. “There’s a couple of people at work who won’t even look me in the face.”

She said that while it luckily didn’t happen on a dangerous call, a coworker once neglected to pick her up like they were supposed to, forcing her to walk the hilly distance back to the station.

“That was a very passive-aggressive way of saying they didn’t appreciate me,” she said.

The queer community’s rocky relationship with policing

Police holding gay rights flag

 

Seattle police officer Phil Ocker, right, laughs with a parade participant after being handed a rainbow flag during the 45th annual Seattle Pride Parade Sunday, June 30, 2019, in Seattle.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

As some law enforcement agencies grapple with accepting transgender officers, so do many people within the queer and transgender communities who have repeatedly spoken out about police misgendering transgender victims and calling them slurs.

Transgender officers told Insider that the “Abolish the Police” and “All Cops are Bastards” movements promulgated by some in the queer community has been isolating for them.

“The LGBTQ+ community isn’t very police friendly,” a Midwestern former officer told Insider. “I kind of felt like I was an island unto myself. I didn’t know any other trans people let alone a trans police officer.”

You’re treating us the same way that you’re hoping other people won’t treat you Tyler Kinzler

Kinzler, the California-based officer, said he’s lost several close friends because of his job.

“The general comments are that if you are a cop, you’re part of the problem,” Kinzler said. “It doesn’t matter that I’m trying to be a good cop and be a good example of serving my community. That just doesn’t compute with them.”

Kinzler said it’s ironic that the transgender community treats its own this way, especially considering how transgender people routinely worry about their peers not accepting them.

“It’s like, you’re treating us the same way that you’re hoping other people won’t treat you,” he said.

Callahan, the founder of TCOPS, told Insider that many of its members try to keep a “low profile” and actively avoid speaking with LGBTQ organizations because they fear the negative repercussions of speaking out when frustrated.

One particular example, Callahan noted, is the exclusion of several police departments around the country from joining Pride parades.

“We’ve had many discussions and asked for assistance from our officers who basically said, ‘I’m afraid that my family’s going to be attacked and so I’m not going to participate in any of those kinds of discussions with the community,” Callahan said.

Kinzler said he was remarkably disappointed by the exclusion of uniformed officers at his local Pride parade.

“For me, that was such a special time for me to be able to go marching in a parade in my uniform and be proud of who I am, and to show people that there are good people that are among law enforcement and they’re people within your community,” Kinzler said.

Staying an officer to make a difference

A police officer stands guard as President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at an evening rally on August 15, 2019 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

 

A police officer stands guard at a political rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, on August 15, 2019.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Each of the law enforcement officers Insider spoke with said they take pride in their work and feel they can use their experiences to make a positive impact on their communities, both in the field and by affecting departmental policy.

“Being a badge-wielding trans person is almost like wearing armor,” the New York officer said. “My position gives me the ability to effect change in the small way that I can.”

The New York officer said she’s been able to make a positive difference on the force using her unique experiences.

“I have had a serious impact on decision-makers in law enforcement,” the officer said. “I’ve had these really scary instructors at the police academy come up and say they’re happy to have me there because I can help them solve some problems in law enforcement and that I’m a benefit to the profession.”

The Midwestern former officer echoed that point, adding that she wants to rejoin the profession when the time comes.

“I like solving crimes, for example, they’re like puzzles to me and I enjoy it,” she said. “Not to mention the added benefit of helping somebody, making them whole — just solving these things made me feel good.”

And despite her legal battle with her own department, Lange said it’s important for trans police officers to ignore any backlash or hate and be true to themselves.

“There’s always going to be the naysayers out there,” Lange said. “But any trans person will know you’ve got to ignore half of that and just keep doing you.”

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