Join Date: Mar 2001
Location: In front of my computer
A gay police story
Sgt. Brett Parson rides in his cruiser, groggy and unshaven, gripping a chai latte between his kneecaps. He will crisscross the city several times before the night is over. More sociological than geographical, his beat is gay Washington.
"Cruiser 9670, request assistance," the dispatcher calls.
"Brett, we got one of yours," a patrol officer radios.
Inside a Northwest apartment, a 39-year-old man has been beaten by his male partner. The victim is a lieutenant colonel who works at the Pentagon and can't show up at a military hospital with injuries caused by same-sex domestic violence without risking his career.
At the Giant on 14th Street and Meridian Place NW, a Salvadoran immigrant has run into his long-lost brother, only the brother is now living as a woman. When Parson arrives, he finds the figure in the dress slumped and bloodied, and the other brother is shouting, "He's a maricon," using a Spanish slur for homosexual. "Dios mio! My mother is going to kill herself."
The D.C. police department has a Latino Liaison Unit, an Asian Liaison Unit and a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Unit, but unlike the other specialized squads, the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit deals with the half-truths and complexities of sexuality.
When Parson teaches officers at the police academy how to deal with the gay community, he starts with Gay 101. They are blue-collar, white-collar, French collar and no collar. They may withhold the whole truth from you because their lives often are shrouded in necessary fictions. They might be uncomfortable dealing with you because they have been humiliated by you in the past.
But out on the streets, as on this winter night, Parson is miles beyond Gay 101. His squad knows how to deal. The small rainbow flags they wear on their uniforms are their passports inside. Once inside, they must walk a razor's edge, balancing protection and empathy with old-school, lock-'em-up law enforcement.
" 'We are here for you' is part of our message," Parson says. "But so is, 'You are under arrest.' "
"Lucy, I'm home," Parson yells as he walks through the door of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit office. After working out of cramped desks at police headquarters, the unit recently moved into a spacious office off Dupont Circle. The boxes are still being unpacked. There are case files, uniforms, a police radio and, "Queer Eye" indeed, lamps from Ikea. There are four officers on the squad, and like the gay community itself, they are still working out their identity. When Parson wants to hang a rainbow flag outside the office, one squad member protests.
"Gay, gay, gay," Officer Joe Morquecho says. "Why does everything have to be gay?"
"Gee, I don't know, Joe," Parson says, "maybe because we're the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit?"
They are butch, feminine, black, white, straight, gay, campy, bitchy, bourgie and fully armed. They can see, really see, what other officers cannot or will not. If what they see sometimes is the darker side of gay life, it's because they aren't spending time at Target watching gay people buy towel racks. They're on the receiving end of 911.
Yet they can regard elements of their beat with as much bemusement as anyone. Each year, Washington hosts the Mid-Atlantic Leather convention, which draws more than a thousand participants for three days of parties, domination and pageantry. When Parson assigns his rookie, Officer Zunnobia Hakir, to speak with the event's organizers, she gives them her best chamber of commerce greeting.
"Hello, everybody, I'm Officer Hakir," she says. "Last year I had the opportunity of having my boots licked . . . "
Hakir joined the unit last year after working street patrol in the 6th Police District. Now someone's always giving her the thumbs up and saying how great it is to see a gay officer working for the community. The 24-year-old D.C. native thinks it would be insulting to say she's actually straight: "Kinda like a bubble-buster, you know?"
Washington has the sixth-highest concentration of gays among the nation's largest cities, according to an analysis conducted at the Urban Institute by demographer Gary Gates. Using data from the 2000 Census, Gates estimates that the District's gay population could be as high as 10 to 12 percent.
Beyond this tribal mass, the camps start dividing. The racial divide in gay Washington is as sharp as it is in straight Washington. Gender is another divider; lesbians tend to socialize separately from gay men. Transgender people are their own subset and not always accepted by other gays. But historically, the common bond is vulnerability -- to harassment from a disapproving society and even police. In 1997, a D.C. police lieutenant pleaded guilty to extortion for demanding payoffs from men he had seen leaving a gay bar, threatening to tell their families and employers.
When Parson took over the gay unit in 2001, two years after it was created, he added a heavy dose of law enforcement to what started as a community outreach program. "We are not just going to protect gay people," he told Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. "We are going to do real police work."
His first test came early on, when five transgender people were slain in a 14-month period. Two were shot at the blighted crossroads of 50th and C streets SE, and Parson helped pull their bullet-riddled bodies from a car. The killings mobilized the District's transgender community, which faced Parson at a public meeting and demanded better police protection. He had no experience dealing with the transgendered, and his diplomacy skills needed burnishing. "The thesis of what I said was, 'What the [expletive] do I call you?' " he remembers.
Now Parson is one of their chief advocates, making sure that all transgender suspects brought to the main cellblock are held separately for their safety.
Other law enforcement agencies across the country -- Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago -- have officers who deal with the gay community, but none has a separate squad like the District's. In addition to four full-time officers, there are eight auxiliary and reserve officers, including one transgender member, Tomi Finkle, a retired U.S. Capitol Police sergeant who now carries a LadySmith .45.
Parson, 37, is the fulcrum of the unit. He grew up in Laurel and learned the streets of the District as a boy, when he would go along with his father, who sold iron and steel. Now burly and half-bald, Parson holds his arms out to his side as if carrying buckets of water. His personnel file is thick with commendations and handwritten notes from such groups as the District's chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.
Parson's file also shows he has been cautioned for being domineering and using excessive force. He freely admits to swatting a mouthy suspect on the back of the head or ratcheting the handcuffs a notch too tight. Parson is in the Early Warning Tracking System, a program that monitors officers with an excessive number of citizen complaints. "Guilty as charged," says Parson, who says aggressive policing brings complaints.
Unlike most sergeants in supervisory roles, he makes arrests, many not related to gays, such as catching a teenager on 14th Street NW one night with 36 bags of crack cocaine. Ramsey calls him "one of the best officers on the force, bar none."
When Parson joined the D.C. police in 1994 as an openly gay officer, someone taped heterosexual pornography to his locker. He responded by taping gay porn photos on all 375 lockers in the 4th District squad house.
"You can't give me [expletive] and think I'll be all, 'Woe is me,' " Parson says.
The quote should be embroidered next to the rainbow flag on his cap. Parson works 18 hours a day. He has handed out so many business cards and refrigerator magnets with his pager number that he essentially is a 24-hour hotline for gay people in distress.
He has an anti-authoritarian streak, using a piece of tape to conceal the last number on the tag of his police cruiser to avoid photo radar cameras. When hundreds of men in chaps and biker caps paraded into the Washington Plaza hotel in January for the leather convention, a car full of gawking Japanese tourists waved Parson over and asked what was going on. "The inauguration," he answered.
After the slaying recently of Wanda R. Alston, Mayor Anthony A. Williams's liaison to the gay community, Parson worked nearly round-the-clock for a week. Homicide detectives quickly decided that the death wasn't a hate crime, so Parson devoted himself to transporting Alston's family around town, from D.C. Superior Court to the funeral at All Souls Unitarian Church. He was protector and enforcer, at one point ripping a camera from the neck of a photographer outside the church who disobeyed his order not to get in the face of family members near the coffin.
His therapist has suggested that his inexhaustible capacity for work is to compensate for being gay in a macho cop world, a theory Parson dismisses. Whatever the motivations, he is the sheriff of gay Washington, recognized wherever he goes. "Hey, Brett, thanks for being out here," a man says one night, seeing Parson in Logan Circle.
The role of gay sheriff is a source of inner tension. Parson wants to be remembered as a cop, not a gay cop or a cop to gay people. And yet he has almost single-handedly brought a marginalized unit covering a marginalized community in from the fringes. The number of gay-related hate crimes reported annually in the District has increased from two to 28 in the past few years, a statistic Parson says shows that gays now trust police enough to report assaults.
Parson rides with the window down, oblivious to the bank clock that flashes 24 degrees. The unit might need to assist on a homicide case. A day earlier, a page had gone out from the D.C. police violent crimes branch that a white man in his fifties was found strangled in his apartment downtown. Nothing about the message signaled gay, but Parson was eight blocks away and decided to respond.
When he arrived, a homicide detective was standing over a slightly decomposing body. Walking across the orderly apartment, Parson could just feel it. The victim had to be gay. There weren't the tell-tale signs, the photos, books or commemorative coffee cups from gay resort towns, but the lack of personal details made Parson think the victim led a secret life, and secret lives often lead to high-risk behavior.
Parson interviewed neighbors and employees who worked in the building, getting nowhere until he found a woman who said she didn't want to gossip, but she had seen the victim bringing other men back to his apartment.
"Did the guys have gloves and bats? Were they part of a sports team?" Parson asked, playing dumb.
Not like that, the woman answered. Like this: She made a swishing motion with her wrist.
The victim was well-liked in his job as a public affairs specialist in the federal government. He used to play the University of Oklahoma Sooners fight song for co-workers. But the part of his life that Parson's unit will start investigating is the one he kept most private.
Besides assisting on the homicide, the unit is working several other cases. Someone threatens to burn down a gay synagogue. An employee at the Environmental Protection Agency claims that he's the victim of a hate crime, but an initial investigation reveals that he's using the government computer to send himself threatening hate mail. A transgender sex worker is stabbed while working the corner of Seventh and K streets NW.
Small stuff trickles in all day. A personal trainer screams at his client and calls him a faggot. The trainer says he was just trying to motivate the client. "Lovely," Parson says sarcastically, but not a hate crime.
Next a man from Virginia calls to report that his ex-partner is threatening him. "Well, the good news is we can build a case for stalking and harassment," Parson says. "The bad news is we can't do it in Virginia because they don't recognize your relationship."
Recognizing gay relationships is what officers in the gay unit do; they know the difference between sex and sexuality. Ninety percent of their cases involve men, but the majority don't involve sex.
The calls are more like the businessman who pages Parson and asks to meet at the squad office later that night. The man, an Air Force veteran in creased pants, arrives at 9 p.m., looking thin and stressed as he carries a legal folder full of bank statements. He suspects that his domestic partner of seven years has embezzled more than $80,000 from his business.
"I haven't seen him in a month," the man says.
"Think it has anything to do with 80 grand being missing?" Parson asks, sitting at his desk, scribbling notes. "Okay, what color are his eyes?"
The man pauses. "I don't know."
"Come on," Parson says, putting down his pen. "You stared into his [expletive] eyes for seven years!"
The man smiles and starts to relax. He opens his folder and goes over financial details. His partner worked in his business, but they had no legal arrangement. "We were just together," the man says. He tells Parson he has a contract to provide lunches for schoolchildren, and now with the money missing, he's juggling bank accounts to buy the food. His voice breaks.
"I gave my word I would feed these kids," he says.
Parson softens. "I know you know a lot of people in the community. The question is whether your pride will allow you to reach out. I know you have strong religious beliefs. Maybe it's time to check in. You can't go through this alone, buddy."
The man wipes his face. He looks away. "It's hard because I still care for him."
Parson says he'll consult a detective in the financial crimes unit. He stands. "You okay?"
The man gathers his things. "Yeah."
"Liar," Parson says. "Love sucks."
Parson handpicked the officers who serve on the unit, each for their distinctive talents. Morquecho, 39, is a solid and experienced investigator. Juanita Foreman, 37, patrols nightlife, sometimes hitting 15 bars on a Saturday night, from the strip clubs to the country and western bar where men in cowboy hats glide one another across the waxed dance floor. Hakir is the exuberant rookie with an anthropologist's curiosity. What's missing from the unit is a gay, black male officer. For two years, Parson has tried to recruit candidates from the ranks, but none has been willing to join, he says, a symptom of the tougher cultural penalties faced by black gay men.
Hakir tries to fill the void. One night she crosses the Sousa Bridge into Southeast to drop by a weekly support group for gay and bisexual black men who are HIV-positive. The group, Us Helping Us, meets in a small house in the industrial Barracks Row area near the Navy Yard. Hakir knocks and is asked to wait in the foyer. Several minutes pass, and she can hear a discussion in the next room.
"D.C. has a lot of down-low brothers," she says. "It's shameful for them to see me. I almost feel bad for going."
Finally, a door opens and Hakir is invited into a room where more than a dozen men sit in a circle. She introduces herself as an officer of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit and explains the squad's mission.
"Do they have anything like this in Maryland?" a man asks.
"I could have used this 10 years ago," another says.
Hakir mentions that the unit handles domestic violence between same-sex couples. A man in the corner shakes his head. He says he called the police once when he and his partner were fighting, and one of the cops said to the other, "Lock both [their] gay asses up."
Back in her police cruiser, Hakir has theories about why most of the unit's cases involve men. "Women are different," she says. "Women find someone to fall in love with, and they just want to stay up in the house and cook." There are exceptions. Earlier that day, she witnessed female psychological warfare when a 22-year-old lesbian came into the office to file a stalking complaint.
The woman said her ex had illegally obtained her transcripts showing her failing grades and sent them to her parents. "For a while it was chill, and then I step back into the clubs, and she's reminded that I exist, and it starts all over again," the blue-eyed woman told Hakir. "I know the extent of her craziness."
Hakir receives a text message from Parson, who is across town. The unit is still helping homicide detectives work the case involving the government employee strangled in his downtown apartment. A snitch has told Parson that the man liked to visit the male prostitutes who work the corner of Fifth and E streets NW, outside the U.S. Court of Appeals, so the unit has been making nightly sweeps.
"See what you can find, Z," Parson tells Hakir.
Hakir drives to the corner. She wonders how anyone could work on this frozen night, but there is a man standing on the corner with his hands jammed in his pockets. Hakir shows him a photo. "I know exactly who you talkin' about," the man says, looking at the picture of the victim. "He dates. He takes people with him in the cab. I told him you can't trust people down here. They smoke crack.
"I haven't seen him in a while."
When Hakir asks for his address, the man says he lives in a nearby homeless shelter. He turns tricks to survive. "I ain't racist," he says. "I date white guys, too."
Hakir shivers. "Money's green."
Every Friday afternoon, Parson teaches at the police academy. One year, he taught the basics of gay life. This year, it's same-sex domestic violence. Every Friday, over and over, until all 3,800 sworn D.C. police officers hear it.
He stands at the chalkboard and looks across the classroom of blue uniforms. Some cops are at ease with the topic and others laugh nervously. Parson is realistic. His goal is not to change their attitudes but to change their behavior on the streets.
"Gay," Parson shouts. "Say it. Your wrist isn't going to go limp or anything."
He begins by explaining that gay is more than sexual behavior. "It can mean a relationship," he says. "How many of you are still married? Then you know what I mean."
Domestic violence is no more frequent among gay couples, but the injuries often are more severe, Parson tells them. One man attacks, the other is more likely to defend himself with equal strength, and the violence escalates from there. Parson presents a familiar scenario to the officers: answering a call and finding two men in the same residence.
Parson raises his voice. "Because it's two men, you do not leave that call," he says. Go inside. Look around. What are the clues that might suggest the men are in a relationship?
"Both of their names on the mail," a female officer says.
"Shoes. Yeah, are there different size shoes in the house?"
"How many bedrooms are occupied."
"Good," Parson says. "What about pictures? Are there photos of two guys going back to vacations 30 years ago when they both were skinny and had hair? What else do you see that tells you they are gay?"
"I know," one officer says. "Lesbians wear rings on their thumbs."
"Hmm," Parson says.
"A lot of sculpture."
"Classy, nice furniture. Classy, spick-and-span clean."
Parson tosses some catalogues on a desk. Pottery Barn. Restoration Hardware. "What about magazines?" he asks, throwing down a copy of the Advocate. "Now, I know last year the U.S. attorney's office came in to talk about hate crimes and said, 'Never ask if someone is gay.' "
He pauses. "Well, that's [expletive]. There's a way to ask -- you just don't have to hit them over the head with it. Look around. Stereotypes are bad if they are used to hurt people. Stereotypes can be based in truth."
Later, Parson walks into his condo in Adams Morgan, nothing like what he described in class. A hockey stick leans against the door. Twelve pairs of hockey skates are crammed in a closet. The bed is unmade. On the patio, a deflated volleyball and an old bookshelf are like headstones in the weeds. But a trained eye would see, next to American Hockey magazine, the latest issue of Out.
Parson's own personal life occurs in slivers. About midnight Friday, he breaks from patrol and stops in at the Henley Park Hotel bar. The jazz quartet is on a break. He looks for the pianist and sees him at the bar talking with a couple of fans.
"Hey," Parson says.
"Hi," says the pianist, Chris Grasso.
The two fans at the bar are complimenting the jazz. Parson, wearing his uniform, tells a story about the pianist. One of the fans gives a quizzical look. "Are you two related?"
Parson pauses. "Yeah," he says. "We're in a relationship."
"Oh," the man says, faltering only slightly. "Well, I have a cousin who's gay."
"Really," Parson says. He turns to Grasso. "Gotta go, babe."
Parson flies by the monuments at night, the white marble pillars and rotundas appearing in his rearview mirror, but he always returns to Dupont Circle. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the unit's office this month, Chief Ramsey tells the crowd of guests and dignitaries, "This is a great day."
Parson has a bruised eye from getting hit with a puck at a police league hockey game. Hakir greets VIPs like an Embassy Row hostess. Officer Foreman, who played college ball and usually wears her police cap flipped backwards, causes a minor scandal with her gold hoop earrings. "Girl, you are spruced out," Hakir says. Officer Morquecho is relived there's no rainbow flag flying out front, though a Japanese paper spiral lamp is later deemed overly gay.
Then it's back to business. Leads grow cold on the homicide case involving the government employee. The good news is that a victim's advocate has started working with them one afternoon a week, dealing with the bashers and the bashed, the stalked, the closeted and the blackmailed, of which there are no shortage.
One of the bashed is Lemuel Odell. Two years ago, he was walking home from a gay bar in Dupont Circle when someone came up from behind and smashed him in the head with a heavy object. He fell face first onto the pavement, unconscious, and the next thing he remembers is running along S Street with blood everywhere. Parson investigated the assault as a hate crime but could never prove it.
The violence left Odell with memory loss and anxiety, but seeing Parson once a month for dinner makes him feel better. It's a reassuring sight: the stout sergeant bulked out in his bulletproof vest, shoveling food and wearing his smelly Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit ball cap. One night they meet at a Cosi a few blocks from where Odell was attacked.
"The scar is almost gone," Parson says near the end of dinner.
Odell touches the face that received 42 stitches. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Then the radio crackles, and Parson is out the door.
No point, just an interesting piece.