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The Stewards of Gay Washington

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.

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.

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.

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