Shining a Light on the Lives of Ontario's LGBT Police Officers
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Shining a Light on the Lives of Ontario’s LGBT Police Officers

New study examines the challenges facing LGBT cops—and the changes being made in the province's police services.

New research is revealing details about the lives and professional experiences of Ontario’s LGBT police officers. Joe L. Couto’s “Covered in Blue: Police Culture and LGBT Police Officers in the Province of Ontario,” a Master’s thesis produced for Royal Roads University, is the first Canadian research paper to examine what it’s like for an LGBT individual on the force. Couto, who serves as director of government relations and communications for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, conducted interviews with 21 LGBT police officers from provincial, large urban municipal, large regional municipal, medium size municipal, and small municipal police services, and asked them to “reflect on the basic beliefs, values, and assumptions of their organizations and their experiences within police culture.”

Couto notes that police culture has in the Western world been dominated by white, working-class, heterosexual males—and a number of his interview subjects indicated that they find the environment to be “conservative” “unaccepting,” and “an old boys’network.” A lesbian senior officer observed, “Not just LGBT people, but people of racialized groups, gender groups, they still navigate the workplace differently because the workplace is still and certainly policing is still male dominated, conservative.”

Interview subjects reported that harassment and abuse were uncommon in their work culture, but a number did make reference to incidents involving “microaggressions” such as offensive or inappropriate comments—and expressed a belief that the police environment has tolerated this kind of behaviour. Many also held the view that “police culture accepts gay females more readily than gay male officers,” possibly because its hypermasculine ethos results in different expectations being placed on men. Couto also observed that “acceptance of transgender officers remains a largely unaddressed issue.”

There was a sense, though, that Ontario’s police culture has been undergoing change in recent years: as one lesbian senior officer said, “I think that our service is extremely progressive now and if we’re talking between the time I joined the job and now, I can’t even tell you how it’s night and day compared to the mid-’80s.” Most believed that their sexual orientation had not negatively affected their career opportunities. “Younger officers,” Couto writes, “having grown up in an era of greater commitment by government bodies to human rights and anti-discrimination legislation, reflect a greater acceptance of diversity in their organizations than their predecessors.”

Reflecting an acceptance of diversity in such work culture–constituting documents as policies and mission statements can build a sense of inclusion—although Couto found that of the 16 police organizational statements he studied, only four mentioned “diversity” as a service goal. Interview subjects from services with Internal Support Networks, Liaison Officers, or external advisory committees also reported feeling that the culture was more supportive and welcoming. A lesbian supervisory officer commented, “The relationship [between police and the LGBT community] has greatly improved and now that we have the ISN, it’s like a group of police officers the community sees that are LGBT officers so that we’re getting a lot more men on board in terms of hiring because they see that you can be gay on this service. There’s no longer that wall or roadblock. You can be who you are.”

Those interviewed generally held, Coutos reports, that police culture is evolving and becoming more inclusive—but he cautions that “police services need to be more intentional in recognizing their LGBT police officers in their artefacts [mission statements, policies, etc.] and what they communicate as more openly LGBT come into their organizations.”