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The Stewards of Gay Washington

The D.C. police Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit walks a tightrope, balancing empathy for a vulnerable population with lock-'em-up a

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page A01

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.

D.C. police Sgt. Brett Parson chuckles at the response from a driver he has stopped on a traffic violation. (Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

A Different Mission to Serve: Sgt. Brett Parson commands D.C.'s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, the only unit of its kind in the country to offer community outreach services and to perform traditional police work.
A Squad's Complicated Beat
_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Chris Crain, executive editor of the Washington Blade, answered your questions about the D.C. police Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit.

"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.

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