LGBTQ cops talk about being out and proud in Central Florida and Tampa Bay

Tom Woodard had law enforcement in his blood. His parents were both officers; his mother was a detective for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and his stepfather was a major in the Winter Haven Police Department. Woodard wanted nothing more than to go into the family business, and in Oct. 1988, he got his wish. Woodard became a deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) on Halloween.

Less than a year later, Woodard’s world would be turned upside down when a fellow officer outed him as a gay man.

“They said they had received information that I may be gay and they wanted to know all the details. They made me take a polygraph test,” Woodard said in a 2014 interview with Watermark. “They tried to equate gay people with child molesters. Internal Affairs wanted to know if I had ever had sex on duty or with children.”

The LGBTQ community has had a complicated relationship with the police since the birth of the modern-day LGBTQ rights movement, which kicked off with members of the community fighting back against police brutality at The Stonewall Inn in New York City 50 years ago.

Tom Woodard in uniform as an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy. Photo Courtesy of Tom Woodard

From having officers write down the license plate numbers of cars parked at gay bars in the 80s and 90s to police departments not taking violence against the community seriously and misgendering trans murder victims, to this day some members of the LGBTQ community have found it difficult to trust their local law enforcement while living their authentic lives.

For Woodard, and most LGBTQ officers in the late 20th century, living in the closet was the only way they could fulfil their dreams of serving as a cop in their community. Many feared what happened to Woodard would happen to them as well.

Then-Sheriff of Orange County Walt Gallagher forced Woodard to resign in 1989 for being bisexual. Woodard at the time identified himself as bisexual but now admits that he is a proud, openly-gay man.

The report from Gallagher stated that Woodard’s “chosen sexual preference could compromise his position as a deputy sheriff and public servant.” The report also called Woodard “an embarrassment to the agency,” stated that he could “bring dishonor” to the sheriff and that Gallagher “holds that homosexuality is unnatural, immoral and inexcusable.”

Woodard fought back; rescinding his resignation and suing the OCSO. Three years later, Woodard won and was reinstated as a deputy sheriff. Gallagher would end up losing his next bid for Orange County Sheriff and Woodard would go on to be a cop in Orange County until his retirement in 2014. Woodard now owns and operates the Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria in St. Petersburg.

The world of law enforcement has changed for LGBTQ officers since those days that Woodard had to fight for his right to serve openly and proud as a gay cop. Police Departments and Sheriff’s Offices throughout Central Florida and Tampa Bay have begun reaching out to LGBTQ cops as well as to the community at large through LGBTQ liaisons in their departments.

These liaisons serve as the spokesperson between their respective departments, the LGBTQ officers in those departments and the LGBTQ communities they serve.

Lieutenant Markus Hughes—who has been with the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD), the same city Woodard now calls home, for nearly two decades—became the LGBTQ liaison for the SPPD in 2014 when Mayor Rick Kriseman took office.

“It was Mayor Kriseman who originally pushed for an LGBTQ liaison in the department,” says Hughes. “When he got into office he said that there should not only be an LGBTQ liaison in the mayor’s office, but there should be one in the SPPD as well because of the long history of issues with the LGBTQ community and law enforcement.”

The SPPD approached Hughes for the position because of his work for LGBTQ rights in the department and because he was an out and proud gay officer.

“In 1999, I was deciding between joining the Army and becoming a police officer. I chose officer over the military in part because of the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” Hughes recalls. “I didn’t want to do the military because of that policy, so I didn’t want to live like that here. If people asked me, or they hinted about it, I was just honest with them.”

In the years prior to officially being named the LGBTQ liaison, Hughes got the SPPD to hold its annual Christmas party at the popular gay bar Georgie’s Alibi three years in a row. He also helped to get domestic partner benefits for LGBTQ officers from then-Mayor Bill Foster, a Republican.

When Hughes was approached about being the department’s first LGBTQ liaison he immediately said yes, then asked “What now?” The first thing, Hughes needed to get the word out about the new position.

“They told me to contact all the gay-owned businesses and put yourself on the website so the community knows who to reach out to in case they have questions or concerns,” Hughes says. “Basically stuff that, because I was already out in the community, was already happening. It just now had an official title.”

As Hughes was settling in as the LGBTQ community in St. Petersburg, across the bay the Tampa Police Department (TPD) was also establishing its own LGBTQ liaison.

“There was one LGBTQ liaison prior to me for about a year I believe,” says Detective Robin Polk, TPD’s LGBTQ liaison since 2015. “The position was established because the city was trying to be more inclusive to the community.”

Polk started her career in law enforcement after a short-lived career in finance.

“I decided I wanted to do more with my life. I wanted to help people and I wanted to make a difference,” Polk says. “I know that sounds really cliché, but that was my defining moment. After being in finance for about three or four years, I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ I wanted to impact people more.”

Polk traded in her high heels for combat boots, as she puts it, and spent a few years at the Lakeland Police Department before she transferred to TPD where she is became a detective with the department’s sex crime unit.

“I personally haven’t experienced any kind of discrimination with regards to my sexual orientation, or my sex for that matter,” Polk says. “I have been very lucky, to be honest with you, to work for the city of Tampa. It’s a very inclusive city and we have a tradition of treating everyone with dignity and respect. Tampa is really a phenomenal city.”

As the TPD liaison, Polk monitors the city’s LGBTQ hate crimes as well as develops and maintains relationships with Tampa’s LGBTQ community and business owners.

“I think the LGBTQ community just wants to be heard and understood,” Polk says. “So the role of the liaison is about opening dialogue with them and being a point of contact that they know will be accepting, treat them fairly and who they can call if they have a concern.”

In Central Florida, the role of the LGBTQ liaison was first established with the Orlando Police Department (OPD) in 2014 with Capt. Jim Young.

Members of the OPD and OCSO during the Pulse Remembrance Ceremony on June 12. Photo courtesy Goalcfl

“I think we were the only one in Central Florida that had an LGBTQ liaison at the time,” says OPD’s current LGBTQ liaison Sgt. Grace Peek-Harris, “and how that came about is just because Jim pushed. Even though we didn’t have any problems within the department, he felt like there still needed to be some sort of representation. He went out and made himself known in the community and did a great job.”

While Peek-Harris had always been out of the closet as an officer with OPD, she wanted to become more active in the community and approached Young in 2015 to be a part of the liaison team.

“I became his assistant for about two years,” she says. “After Pulse, we had a lot of things to do with the community and I started to take on more responsibilities.”

With a promotion coming up, Young realized he wouldn’t be able to continue on as OPD’s LGBTQ liaison and, in Oct. 2017, Peek-Harris was named to the position. Peek-Harris has now been the liaison for nearly two years and just passed 20 years as an officer with OPD in May.

“After retiring from the military as a Navy Commander I was already here in Orlando and I knew a couple of officers who were in the reserves and said I would make a good officer. So I applied to both OPD and OCSO, and honestly OPD called first,” Peek-Harris says, laughing.

Peek-Harris says that just as with her military career, she has always been out as an officer.

“I know that my experience in both the military and on the force have been very different than a lot of people’s but I have never hidden who I am since I came out in the 10th grade and had my first girlfriend,” she says. “I’ve lived my life the way I want to live my life. I live my life open and honest. If somebody asked me I would be like ‘Yes, I’m a lesbian.’ I don’t hide that and I’ve always been that way at OPD and it’s never been a problem. I think I’m fortunate because not every agency is like that.”

Peek-Harris now oversees four other LGBTQ liaisons at OPD. “I think it’s really important that we have a presence everywhere we can in the community,” she says. “Whether it is just going to events, speaking at them or sitting on a panel; I think it’s important just to be there and having multiple liaisons, it lets us cover more ground.”

Something Peek-Harris introduced to Central Florida this year that has become an extension of the LGBTQ liaisons program in many ways is a chapter of the Gay Officer Action League, or GOALcfl. GOAL was formed in 1982 in New York City to address the needs, issues and concerns of LGBTQ law enforcement personnel. GOALcfl, which is now a nonprofit organization, has nearly 100 members already in Central Florida. Peek-Harris serves as the president.

“It’s kind of like a symbiotic relationship, because we are LGBTQ liaisons but we’re also part of GOAL, and a lot of our initiatives in GOAL are the same as we would have as LGBTQ liaisons,” Peek-Harris says.

Sgt. Brandon Ragan is the vice president of GOALcfl and is the LGBTQ liaison for the OCSO. Ragan has been with the Sheriff’s Office for over 16 years and worked at the same time Woodard was on the force.

“I met Tom Woodard when I started working here and he was still here after my incident happened,” Ragan says.

The incident Ragan is speaking about is how he was publicly outed as a gay officer because he was the victim of a domestic violence incident in the mid-2000s.

“So I’ve known since I was little that I am gay but I was still in the closet when I started and I was forced out into the open through the media,” Ragan says. “So I’m trying to beat feet to tell my family, who probably assumed but it was never talked about, before it comes out on the news. I knew that the media had it and this is all going to come out.”

Ragan came out to his family and feared that after being outed in the media that his career would be in jeopardy.

“The complete opposite happened,” he says. “Hundreds and hundreds of supportive emails and phone calls came my way. ‘You don’t have anything to worry about. We don’t care that you’re gay.’ So I’ve been through three different sheriffs now and you know it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. The agency was extremely supportive.”

Ragan says that after it came out he is gay, Woodard pulled him to the side. “He says to me ‘We need other people to stand up who are LGBTQ to help out and keep advocating for individuals like us.’ So that’s what I have tried to do.”

The position of LGBTQ liaison at the OCSO was initiated after Pulse, Ragan says.

“At that time Sheriff [Jerry] Demings was here and he started asking who the LGBTQ liaison was and we didn’t have one,” Ragan recalls. “So they approached me and I told them it would be such an honor to do it.”

LGBTQ liaison Sgt. Brandon Ragan introduces the OCSO’s Safe Place program at Mango’s in Orlando. (Photos courtesy GOALcfl)

Ragan met with Young, and then with Peek-Harris, and set the position up. It has continued to grow over the last few years and now the OCSO has four LGBTQ liaisons.

“We do a lot of community engagement,” says Ragan. “It’s allowed us to bridge the gaps within the community. We’re out there at these events and people are talking with us and we have these one-on-one conversations with them. They get that feeling of this is a human being as well. Yeah, you are a cop and you wear all this gear and you do a different kind of job than most people do. But through our liaisons, all working together, we are able to bridge that understanding. We’re all human, we’re here to help and just build those relationships.”

Since the OPD and OCSO LGBTQ liaisons are all members of GOALcfl, it allows both departments to work closely with each other on many initiatives.

“One of the best things that has happened here at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office is we have kicked off our own Safe Place initiative,” Ragan says. “We are so proud of that program and Grace was instrumental in helping us get that set up.”

“I run that program for the City of Orlando and OPD,” Peek-Harris says. “Brandon and I work closely together with that program because when people ask for [a Safe Place decal], they don’t realize whether they’re city or county, so it’s great that we do work closely together on that because now if someone outside of the city limits wants one I can get them over to Brandon.”

Another initiative both OPD and OCSO liaisons are working on closely together is LGBTQ training through Equality Florida for School Resource Officers (SROs).

“Spearheaded by Brandon, [OCSO] has done training with its SROs and we are getting ready to do that with OPD,” Peek-Harris says. “I’ve met with Equality Florida and Orange County Public Schools, and we’re developing a program that we’re going to be giving to our SROs in August, and then eventually, I think that same program will be rolled out to some of the other departments in Central Florida that haven’t already had it.”

Having LGBTQ liaisons within the SPPD, TPD, OPD and OCSO have made police departments in Central Florida and Tampa Bay models for other departments across the country, showcasing how to be more inclusive of their LGBTQ communities. The Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index includes a city’s LGBTQ liaison in the city’s total score. Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg all scored 100 this year.

In the years since each of the departments have adopted an LGBTQ liaison, they have seen the bond between the LGBTQ community and the city’s police force and the county’s sheriff’s office strengthen. This year, Tampa elected a lesbian and former TPD police chief as the city’s new mayor; St. Petersburg’s mayor has raised the rainbow flag at City Hall each LGBTQ Pride month; and, in the face of the Pulse tragedy, the OPD and the OCSO have mourned with the LGBTQ community while also serving and protecting them.

“I think LGBTQ liaisons are needed now, even in areas that are progressive like Tampa, to repair the damage from past generations,” Polk says. “I also think that opening that dialogue for people that have come from other areas that may have not had that welcoming environment; I think it really bridges the gap. If we continue with open communication between police and the community, I foresee that, years down the road, there won’t be a need for this position anymore because everyone will already be accepting.”

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