Chris Crain, executive editor of the Washington Blade, was online Monday, March 28, at 3 p.m. ET to answer your questions about the D.C. police Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit.
Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull reports in Monday's article, "The Stewards of Gay Washington," that the unit walks a tightrope, balancing empathy for a vulnerable population with lock-'em-up authority, and that like the community, the squad is still shaping its identity.
Photos: A Complicated Beat
Video: A Different Mission to Serve
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
I am a District citizen, and I have some problems with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transexual (GLBT) unit. I think that the D.C. Metropolitan Police has too many specialized units that draw some of the more dedicated police officers, while the average D.C. citizen like myself gets very poor police service from the officers who are not in special units. Moreover, I wonder how much time is that unit spending helping people from the suburbs who do not pay taxes or live in D.C.?
Chris Crain: Hi there. Thanks for the question!
As the editor of the Washington Blade, the city's gay newspaper, I can't say for sure the motives behind the creation of specialized units and whether they draw away from regular policing.
But my understanding is that the specialized units are designed to target resources at citizens who would be even less adequately served due to their particular status. In the case of gay citizens, there is a long-standing distrust of the police and a reluctance to report crimes. And a lack of specific knowledge about the city's large gay community can hamper police investigations.
So the specialized GLLU unit addresses those problems.
You seem to be particularly persuasive in your columns when you write about gays standing up for themselves and not seeking special protections. So what is this? Our own policeman? Does that mean the rest of them work for them and not us? I think what he does is great and just knowing that there is an "Officer Parson" makes me feel safer on a police force where my last contact with an officer was when he fell asleep at the wheel and drove his cruiser into my apartment building, so the standard is low, but shouldn't they all be gay friendly? After all, we're victims too.
Chris Crain: Thanks for the question and for reading the Blade.
You're right that one theme I write about frequently is how gays should not set themselves up as victims asking for help, but merely seek equal treatment by their government. This not only answers the "special rights" argument made by conservatives, but also more accurately explains the goals of the gay rights movement.
I don't see the GLLU Unit as "special protection." As I mentioned in my previous answer, it is correcting a deficiency in law enforcement so that gay citizens can receive the same protection as other citizens.
I will add one more thing, at the risk of provoking you. I would be wary of setting ourselves up as people who "happen to be gay" and "want to be treated like everyone else." While I think that statement is accurate, being treated "like anyone else" means the government should take account of how our lives and livelihood create their own issues, whether in health care, retirement benefits, or law enforcement.
Brookland, Washington, D.C.:
Just wondering why there isn't at least one lesbian officer on the Liaison unit. I'd think there are lesbians in the force: but no one has come forward?
Chris Crain: Good question! I'm not aware of a lesbian officer in the unit, but I can't say for sure whether there are any, out or closeted. It may well be a recruiting issue, much like the one resulting in no African-American officers.
The D.C. Police could no doubt do a better job of recruiting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender officers, from all races. Other big city police forces aggressively recruit through advertising in the gay press and through posters in gay bars and bookstores, etc. While I'm not shilling for our advertising department at the Washington Blade, I think a more aggressive effort in that regard would yield some good results.
Chris -- So how is the gay community receiving today's Post article?
Chris Crain: All the reaction I've heard has been very positive. I thought the piece was very well done, and I'm loathe to compliment our in-town media competitors. ;)
Brett Parson is pretty universally admired for how aggressively he does his job. What I enjoyed the most about the article was how well it captured his personality as well. He's definitely one of a kind.
I will say, however, that I was concerned that some of the crimes that were highlighted in the article were news to me. The Blade generally has very good communication with Brett and the GLLU, but hopefully going forward we can get the word out more quickly when violent crimes strike our community.
Thanks for the question.
Seeing as some homosexuals spend part of their time in environments they don't wish it to be generally known they frequent, are there special policing techniques to apprehend perpetrators who might assault them there; and do these techniques violate the suspects' right to a fair trial to avoid making it publicly known that the alledged victim was at that place and time?
Chris Crain: Interesting point. I'm sure it's true of many gay and straight people alike that they "spend part of their time in environments they don't wish it to be generally known they frequent"!
That said, I do think the fact that some gay people remain closeted presents an extra challenge for law enforcement. And I think it's also true that many closeted gays spend more of their time in "higher-risk" environments of the type I think you're alluding to. Because they don't feel OK meeting other gays in more traditional settings, they place themselves at greater risk.
In addition, many crimes aren't reported because the victims are closeted and others are harder to investigate. I thought the Post article nicely highlighted some of those problems.
I'm not sure how I see any unfairness for suspects, however. As a lawyer, I'm pretty clear that criminal defendants are entitled to know everything the police know about their case, although I suppose you're right that the same closet that makes investigation difficult for law enforcement could present challenges for a defendant and his/her attorney.
I don't see many stories like this in the mainstream media. Aside from today's awesome article on this police taskforce, how would you rate the job the Washington Post does covering the GLBT community?
Chris Crain: Great question! Actually, I'm almost positive that the Post published a similar "ride along" article about Brett Parson and the GLLU a few years ago.
Of course the Post does not cover the D.C. gay community as thoroughly as the Blade, but that's not the paper's mission. As big city newspapers go, I would give the Post very high marks for the breadth and fairness of its "gay coverage."
But I have told several Post editors, including the legendary Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward, that I think the Post (like much of the mainstream media) could do a much better job of weaving gay people into their general coverage. A story on retirement, for example, could include a gay couple among the individuals profiled and discuss their unique problems, as well as how their situation is the same as a straight couple would face.
Ultimately, it's the same coverage challenge that racial minorities have mostly overcome, and that women still face in business coverage.
Thanks to the Post for the excellent article and video. There is definitely a need for this unit. Hopefully they will do a good job documenting hate crimes, as well as the muggings, assaults and homicides that occur in this city against gay people. Perhaps the Blade could feature Officer Parsons in a regular feature discussing his unit's policing and outreach efforts. He's certainly a great representative for the police here in the District.
Chris Crain: I should say that great minds think alike because I've made the same suggestion to Brett Parson a few times since he's held the post. He likes the idea in theory but, as the Post article documented, the guy is crazy busy.
I would like to improve the Blade's coverage of local crime, and I'm hopeful that we'll get more stories in the future, along with prevention tips as well.
Thanks for the suggestion.
What does "transgender" mean?
Chris Crain: Sorry -- this question jumped out at me, so I'm taking it out of order. "Transgender" refers generally to people whose biological gender does not match their mental or psychological gender. They may have been born a man, but the self-identify as a woman.
It's an umbrella term that includes lots of subgroups, including heterosexual cross-dressers who do it for fun, and transsexuals who live day to day in a different gender than their chromosomes would dictate.
Trans people are gay and straight, but they are considered a part of the "gay community" because many of them live and play among us, and because like gay people they challenge gender norms. As a gay man, my gender norm is to have loving relationships with women; and I challenge that norm.
Hope that answers your question!
The only real piece missing from today's story was how the gay community feels about the police GLBT unit. Do you feel like people are appreciative of the police's efforts?
Chris Crain: Absolutely they are appreciative. I've never heard a complaint about the existence of the GLLU or how they do their job -- with the exception of the earlier question from a gay citizen who thought it amounted to special protections!
Do the police deal with "light" harrassment issues? e.g. I waharasseded by staff of a local hotel for holding another man's hand and my friend was interrogated. Is this a police matter?
Chris Crain: Interesting question. I don't know the protocol for that. My guess is that the police would only intervene if it were creating a public disturbance. But that doesn't mean you have no recourse! The District prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public accommodations, so that hotel staffer violated the law. You can file a complaint with the District's Human Rights Commission, though it is hopelessly backlogged. My suggestion would be to file the complaint and then contact the Blade. It would make a great story for us!
Do other cities know of and look to D.C.'s gay police unit? I am surprised D.C. would have one before some Calif. city.
Chris Crain: Yes I believe quite a few cities have gay police liaisons, though a full unit may be more unique. I'm afraid I don't have statistics on that, but I know that Brett Parson is active in lobbying other cities to follow D.C.'s lead.
Do you think the gay community receives preferential treatment because we tend to be in well-off neighborhoods? When there are gay-related crimes, it seems the police response is swift -- which I appreciate. But is it fair?
Chris Crain: I understand your question but I would take issue with its premise. You and I may be more aware of the gays who live in affluent neighborhoods because they have greater visibility and because so many gay bars and businesses are located in Northwest Washington. But census data suggests otherwise, and we distribute many many copies of the Blade in other, less affluent parts of the District.
I would agree that gay crime victims are no more deserving of a swift reaction than others, but I'm not so sure that's the case. If so, it may well be simply because we are fortunate to have such an aggressive GLLU.
The article -- and you -- talk about closeted gays. Are there really many of those left in the D.C. area?
Chris Crain: Absolutely! I have lived in a number of large cities, and spent a great deal of time in the other cities where our company publishes gay newspapers: New York, Atlanta, Houston and Fort Lauderdale. My intuition is that there is a higher percentage of closeted gays in D.C. than any of the others I've listed, except Houston.
I do think many D.C. gays are out to other gay people, or even to family, but not in the workplace. Others are out in the workplace but still want their sexual orientation hidden to protect politically conservative employers from catching heat from their constituencies. It's a very political town, obviously.
I thought the case of the lieutenant colonel was interesting, and -- I don't know why -- surprising. I guess because you assume military people wouldn't be involved in domestic abuse. How common is abuse between male partners?
Chris Crain: Good question. I believe the lieutenant colonel was retired, though I may have that wrong.
Statistics on domestic violence among gay couples are notoriously unreliable. I have seen groups claim that the frequency is the same as in straight relationships, but their data are often very piecemeal.
I think Brett Parson was correct when he said in the Post piece that domestic violence between male partners can be more violent because the victim of the first strike is likely to defend himself with return blows.
But I would also add, and I'll admit upfront to lacking the data to back myself on this, that gay couples don't have the gender power imbalance that creates an opportunity for domestic abuse in straight relationships. An aggressive partner is less likely to strike if the other partner can defend him/herself.
I thought today's article did very well at highlighting the unintended consequences of the legal marginalization of gays et al in our society. Politicians and voters supporting "defense of marriage" and "don't ask don't tell" laws need to realize that the true MORAL consequence of such laws is personified by the DOD employee beaten by his partner yet fearful of being "outed" and losing his job if he seeks legal action against his abuser. At least one state court has ruled that laws prohibiting the legal recognition of unmarried couples (gay or straight) means domestic violence laws cannot be applied to such couples.
What is the status of GLBT couples in the district with regard to domestic violence laws? Does the liaison unit find such couples more or less willing than heterosexuals to call for help or press charges?
Chris Crain: You've certainly said a mouthful!
You are correct that a judge in Ohio ruled in the past week that the recently adopted amendment to that state's constitution, withdrawing all legal recognition for gay couples, means that domestic violence laws don't apply to an assault by a male against his romantic partner. I expect that ruling to be appealed, and I doubt it will withstand scrutiny. I think the judge has interpreted the amendment beyond its intention, which was blocking marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships.
But I do think you're correct that these sorts of results that even conservatives would agree are crazy show how problematic it is for the government to pick and choose what relationships deserve which types of legal protections. Gay rights advocates would argue that a basic premise of the U.S. Constitution is that all Americans are treated equally, absent some compelling government justification for discriminating against them.
If Sgt. Parson weren't serving the gay community, I would find it highly doubtful that he would be receiving such positive press.
How many other officers "guilty as charged" of excessive force get such glowing reviews?
Chris Crain: Interesting point. Of course Hollywood has long glorified the aggressive cop with a heart of gold, which is essentially how the Post portrayed Sgt. Parson. It did appear, however, that the Police Dept had disciplined Parson for its excessive zeal, even as Chief Ramsey praised him for his overall performance. The question, I suppose, is whether Sgt. Parson could tone down his excessive behavior without compromising his performance. Without knowing the details of the charges against him, it's hard to say.
Washington, D.C. (Stanton Park):
To the posters that suggest that setting up this unit is somehow 'special' cops for gay people, I can tell them that I've lived in towns where cops are very hostile to gay people. I still remember the days when cops would write down license plate numbers of people at gay bars, in an attempt to intimidate them. And I've heard a lot of ignorance about gay issues from more than one D.C. cop. Yes, there are issues specific to the gay world, just like there are issues specific to Hispanics in D.C. And creating a unit like this helps deal with those issues. It helps a lot. And, frankly, without them, we often face a police force that is downright hostile and sometimes doesn't take our complaints or problems seriously. So this unit is really correcting a long-standing policing deficiency, not setting up some sort of 'special' policing.
Chris Crain: I think that's right. The Washington Blade has published a number of stories about charges of anti-gay bias within the District's police force and fire department. It's hard to see how taking steps to correct those problems is "special" in the sense of being unfair or unwarranted.
The article notes that those hiding their sexual orientation may frequent more 'high risk environments' (anonymous sex, hustling) potentially putting themselves in danger. This may be a tough question to answer, but do you think that because Washington is a city of politics and government, that there is a far greater percentage of gay men hiding in the closet than in other cities? I think this is a fair question given that we have a White House that is not sympathetic to the LBGT community and the uproar over 'outing' of closeted Hill staffers last year.
Chris Crain: I do think you can make that argument, and I think I did in response to a previous question! I don't know that it's any worse today with Republicans in charge at the White House and Congress. I think too much can be made of the partisan difference. Certainly there are more conservatives in Congress today, and gay rights is more of a hot-button issue. But my take is that most conservative politicians are perfectly OK with employing gays, so long as it doesn't become a political liability. Because the risk of that is greater, more gays remain in the closet. I do not feel a great deal of sympathy for gays who work for these "say one thing and do another" conservatives, but I do think gay people should feel comfortable working openly in any type of job, for any type of employer.
Can mainstream newspapers cover the issues of gay civil rights without taking a side? Can they really be neutral? Looking back on the civil rights movement for blacks, would newspapers be ashamed of covering discrimination from a down-the-middle point of view? Would they have prevented a black reporter from covering the movement? Should newspapers prevent gay reporters from covering the gay civil rights movement? You get the thrust of my ethics question.
Chris Crain: I do, but it's more than one question!
They can strive to be neutral, something we try to do even though our readership is almost entirely gay and sympathetic to gay rights. A good journalist reports all sides to a story because it's the right thing to do and it makes for better copy.
I believe a gay reporter can cover the gay rights movement fairly; we have reporters who do that every day. But I do think they have a harder time checking their biases, just as any reporter does covering a story that impacts his/her own life.
Should a reporter who has had an abortion reveal that to her editor and be removed from any stories on abortion rights? A good reporter, working with a good editor, can make sure all sides to a story are reported fairly.
Today's article mentioned the distance between races within D.C.'s gay community. How accurate is this statement, in your opinion? Is anything being done by the GLLU or other groups to bridge these distances?
Chris Crain: I think it's quite accurate to say there is a large racial gap in gay Washington, socially. Some of that is reflective of the large racial gap in Washington generally. I'm not sure I would agree that it is any worse among gays. And while I would certainly agree that it's a problem that needs addressing, I think it outside the bounds of the GLLU's mission.
A bit off topic, but in the news very recently. What is the latest on the Mehlmen incident and your involvement? How about your reactions on gay leftists that out gay people who don't think "correctly"?
Chris Crain: Ah-ha! I was expecting that one!
Not to drive traffic off of washingtonpost.com, but if you visit washingtonblade.com, I have written two posts on our blog to respond to these issues.
The short answer is that I would never spike a story or hide information from reporters to protect a friend. But the Blade does adhere to regular journalistic standards on how to verify facts and how deeply to investigate a public figure's personal life. I can appreciate that this doesn't satisfy activists (from whatever stripe), but I believe we are striking the correct balance.
Re: Arlington, Va.: If Sgt. Parson weren't serving the gay community:
This isn't Hollywood doing the glamourizing. It's the Washington Post.
It's OK to be a brutalizing cop, so long as you are gay?
Chris Crain: I'm not sure the Post glamorized Parson. The report certainly indicated that Parson was unapologetic for being overzealous at times. You had a negative reaction to that fact, as would many readers. I would view that as reporting something that puts Parson in a negative light.
I think it is worse with the Conservatives leading the parade. I have friends that a few years ago made no effort to hide the fact that they were gay. Now they have started using the "Do not tell and do not ask" agenda because some people in their companies feel empowered by the Conservatives.
Chris Crain: Well that's very unfortunate, if it's true. Many gay activists have pointed out in the past that the majority rarely grants equality without being asked, and without being pressured. Because gays have the ability to "pass" in a way that is unique to most other minorities, we are too often participants in our own inequality by failing simply to live our lives openly. Blame the conservatives for creating a hostile environment, yes; but blame the closeted gays for lacking the courage to be who they are.
Chris Crain: OK folks, looks like our time is up, and I've attempted answers to all your questions. Thanks for the lively conversation! We may just have to add Q&A like this to the Washington Blade site, so we can give the Post a run for its money!