Lesbian and gay police officers

The Psychologist, December 1995


Identities and disclosures: The case of Lesbian and Gay Police Officers


Marc Burke examines the conflict that can arise from being both a police officer and lesbian or gay-


                Increased research over the past three decades has meant that both the police leviathan and its fascinating sub-culture have become better understood (e.g. Skolnick, 1966; Holdaway, 1979; Reiner, 1985; Chesshyre, 1989).

                Media coverage surrounding alternative sexualities has also expanded in recent years and, in the wake of gay liberation and the emergence of lesbian and gay studies, an ever increasing flow of academic documentation pertaining to sexual orientation has flourished (e.g. McIntosh, 1968; Humphreys, 1970; Plummer, 1975; Foucault, 1980; Weeks, 1985; Gonsiorek, 1991).  We now know more about homosexual lives in general, and about the experiences of particular groups such as those in prison (Wildeblood, 1957), those who offer sex in exchange for money (Reiss, 1961) and those who lived during particular historical periods (Porter & Weeks, 1991).  However, whilst knowledge and awareness about what it means to be gay or lesbian has increased considerably, there remains a deep-seated ignorance on a number of planes.  Explanations of why sexual orientations differ are still inadequate, and in a society that can still be overtly hostile towards 'deviant' sexual relationships, there is still much to learn about the way being attracted to one's own sex, particularly in conjunction with various other co-factors such as occupation, can affect self-esteem, the development of personal identity and general psychological functioning.

                In their discussion of the psychological effects of coming to terms with a homosexual identity and the disclosure of such to others ('coming out'), Gonsiorek and Rudolph (1991) note that certain developmental routes' can result in an overlay of other symptomatology that, with time, can become a pronounced part of the personality structure.  The authors also note that most of the models to date have tended to plot the experiences of white, middle-class males, and they air a concern that the developmental events that have been theorised as characterising the coming out process are likely to be highly sensitive to cultural, socio-economic, racial, ethnic and class variations.  Some of the more recent theorising has therefore concentrated on other' populations, for example, black lesbians and gay men (Loiacano, 1989); Asian/Pacific gay men (Cock, 1985) and Latina lesbians (Espin, 1987).  Icard's (1986) work exemplifies the kind of variation in mind.  He proposes that in black gay men, there exists a conflict between sexual orientation and racial identity - that 'black culture' and 'gay culture' are not easily reconciled.  As a result, these men may suffer a 'multiple' prejudice from society: racism from the gay communities and homophobia from the black communities.  Icard believes that these issues have a direct bearing on the way identity and in particular, sexual identity, are ultimately established and organised.

                The current article concentrates on non-heterosexual identities within a population whose 'developmental routes' are, it is suggested, similarly distinctive and problematic.  The uniqueness of the current sample lies not in its culture, gender or ethnicity, but in its occupational and societal status.

                The lack of harmony between the police and the gay communities comes as no surprise.  Indeed, their conflicting values and ideologies might predict such friction.  Bayley and Mendelssohn noted the 'conventionality' of police officers in the United States as early as 1968, and Derbyshire (1990) reports an unchanging British police perception of gay people as 'potential criminals and latent threats to public and sexual order'.  This disharmony has not gone unnoticed and recent decades have seen a good measure of commentary as well as a sprinkling of (mostly US) studies regarding the relationships between these two antagonistic communities (e.g. Bayley, 1974; Swerling, 1978; Brightmore, 1984).  However, whilst the subject of homosexuality and the police has been probed, albeit sketchily, almost nothing has been articulated on the direct combination of the two: homosexuality in the police.

                If the policeman's lot 'is not a happy one', then the plight of the gay or lesbian police officer is far worse.  To begin with, although homosexuality has not been legally proscribed in the police as it has been in the armed forces, that does not seem to have made it more acceptable (Burke, 1992, 1994).  The resultant exploitable combination of 'police officer' and 'homosexual' has resulted in (a largely unacknowledged) tradition of considering such persons as unsuited for police work by virtue of their security threat (Bridge, 1982), a practice which has undoubtedly contributed to their invisibility.  Secondly, where homosexual officers do opt to declare their orientation, like Icard's black gay men, they court stigmatisation in both of their major life roles.  As police officers, they may be rejected by the community at large (and particularly by some sections of the lesbian and gay communities as 'fascist pigs'), whilst in their lives at work they may be ridiculed and discriminated against by their colleagues as 'poofs' or 'Iezzies'.  As such, it may be difficult to find stability in life and there have been several instances of officers suffering breakdowns and having to leave the Service as a result of the pressures they face (Burke, 1993a).

                This research did not concern itself with questions surrounding the suitability of gay men or lesbians for police work.  Such suggestions might reasonably be said to be based on prejudice and would seem to have been rendered obsolete by similar studies of the military (Dyer, 1990).  The work concentrated on examining the effects of belonging to two marginal communities at the same time, and in particular, on the effects of police occupational culture on individual police officers whose organising sexual orientation/identity is other than heterosexual.




                The emergence of the UK Lesbian and Gay Police Association (LAGPA) in 1990 provided both the impetus and the sample for this research.  Thirty-six gay, lesbian or bisexual serving or former police officers from nine UK forces were interviewed.  All members of the sample were white, British nationals whose modal age was around 30, and all were serving (or had served) in at least one of the following branches: Uniform, Mounted Branch, Drugs Squad, Vice Squad, Royal and Diplomatic Protection Group, Probationary Training Unit, Central Command and Control, Robbery Squad, Community Involvement, Youth and Community Section, Traffic Division, Crime Squad, Special Branch and Internal Complaints.  The vast majority were in the office of constable, and no officer had attained a higher rank than that of chief inspector.  The mean length of service was 10 years.

                All respondents were interviewed using a semi-structured interview schedule and all interviews were tape-recorded.  Table 1 shows sample breakdown by employment status and gender.


Table 1: Breakdown of sample by

gender and police employment status
















                The interview schedule consisted of several sections of core questions which were put to each respondent.  These were then supplemented by probes to allow the respondent to expand further or to increase clarity.  The first section collected basic socio-demographic data.  The second related to the respondent's police career to date, the third to matters of sexual orientation and sexual identity.  The final sections attempted to look in closer detail at issues brought about by the direct combination of the two, and it is within this realm that I now wish to concentrate.

                A number of police officers (e.g. Bennett, 1991; Folkes, 1992) have suggested that gay police officers might suffer from divided loyalties (or 'role conflict') when dealing with gay-related crime such as sexual offences.  One aim of the work, therefore, was to examine the notion of 'identity dominance', i.e. to explore the extent to which officers see themselves primarily in terms of their occupation or sexual orientation.  A further goal was to investigate the extent to which officers lead separate or 'double' lives.  Finally, a career model of police/homosexual identity formation was constructed in which it is suggested that an officer's current identity is reflective of his/her orientational and occupational 'development' at any given time.


Towards a 'gay police' typology


It seemed a reasonable hypothesis that the 'triple prejudice' which results from the multiple minority status suffered by black gay men (Icard, 1986) might be paralleled in non-heterosexual police officers.  Responses confirm that officers fear rejection by the police culture due to their orientation, rejection in the non heterosexual communities due to their occupation, and by society in general, for both of these reasons.  As one officer put it: 'Just about everyone freaks out at the combination.' The conflict caused by the multiple citizenship of the gay or lesbian police officer and the perception of sub-group inter-incompatibility was found to result in the pursuit of carefully negotiated double lives in a great many cases, and various intricate combinations of exposure and disguise were noted in the lives of the sample population.  The basic permutations and distribution of officers amongst those permutations were as follows:

*    'Out' as a police officer in the non heterosexual communities but not 'out' as gay/lesbian (bisexual) in the police service: 28 per cent (n=10).

*    'Out' as gay/lesbian (bisexual) in the police service but not 'out' as a police officer in the non-heterosexual communities:    Nil (n=0).

*    'Out' both as a police officer in the non-heterosexual communities and as gay/lesbian (bisexual) in the police service: 19 per cent (n=7).

*    Not 'out' either as gay/lesbian (bisexual) in the police service, or as a police officer in the non-heterosexual communities: 53 per cent (n=19).

These data are summarised in Table 2 below.


Table 2: Disclosure patterns of non-heterosexual officers with respect to sexual orientation and occupation

                                                                                                Gay communities




Not out






Not out








                Since no respondent was 'out' in the police whilst still disguising occupation, it seems reasonable to hypothesise that officers who disguise their occupation whilst socialising, are likely to be orientational disguisers at work.  By contrast, of the seven officers who were open about their sexual orientation at work, all routinely disclosed their occupation when socialising with other non-heterosexuals, unless special circumstances dictated otherwise.  These officers have been termed the 'fully integrated'.  One respondent displayed particularly prominent signs of 'integration':

"If a police officer doesn't like my being gay then that's his [sic] problem, not mine.  Likewise, if a gay person has a problem with me being a police officer, then tough.  Again, it's their problem, not mine."

                Given the effects of the double-life syndrome on officers' mental health, their abilities to perform effectively at work and their capacity to form stable or satisfying personal relationships (Burke, 1993a), the finding that around half the sample were living 'twin' (i.e. in both life spheres) double lives gives cause for concern.  One is bound to ask whether or not such a figure is generalisable to the wider population of gay police officers.  It is suggested that such a figure is unlikely to be accurate, due to the fact that the research sample consisted largely of members of the LAGPA.  There are some 125,000 police officers currently employed in Britain, yet at the time of writing, LAGPA's membership stands at around 100.  These members are unlikely to be representative of the larger number of non-heterosexuals serving in Britain's police forces, and most LAGPA members know of other gay officers who have not joined the Association.  Such officers may never become part of the group for several reasons.  The activities of the Association may not interest the ' m. They may never hear of it.  Several respondents proposed that those who join the Association are more confident, 'out' and more politically orientated than those who do not join.  Yet the comments of many officers suggest that the majority of 'invisibles' harbour a mixture of trepidation and perplexity so concentrated that the idea of coming out in either life sphere, let alone approaching a known organisation such as LAGPA, is inconceivable.  As one officer put it: 'I knew about LAGPA for a long time.  But for all I knew it could have been a set-up.' For this reason, the national (but unverifiable) percentage of those living double lives in both spheres is likely to be substantially higher than 53 per cent.  The inbuilt tendency to under-sample those with deep anxieties regarding their dilemma means that this investigation has offered only conservative estimates of the levels of distress faced by gay and lesbian police officers.


Identity dominance


                Having considered occupational/orientational disclosure patterns, the relative strength of their corresponding identities now requires some consideration.  The notion of identity 'dominance' pertains to the, question of whether occupational or orientational identities are systematically dominant in gay police officers.  The following question was asked of respondents: 'Thinking about your identity, do you see yourself, on the whole, as a police officer first, or a gay man/lesbian (bisexual) first?' Nearly a third (28 per cent) of interviewees reported that they saw themselves as neither first.  The following was typical of such responses: 'I see myself as [name] first, whose job is a police officer and who happens to be lesbian.' Another put it, 'Neither.  I see me as me.' The remaining responses were equally divided with half (36 per cent, n=13) favouring a dominant homosexual identity and the other half favouring a police identity, revealing no consistent bias.  Yet some process was at work which required elucidation in order to explain the contrast which clearly divided the sample.  The solution to solving this puzzle seemed to lie in the clarificatory responses of officers.  One remarked that his primary identity was: 'Police officer - because I didn't want to be gay.'

                Perhaps officers who were less content with their orientation might be more likely to be police prioritizers, whilst those who were more content were likely to be gay prioritizers.  Officers were asked the following question: 'On the whole, how happy do you feel about your sexual orientation?' A number of officers responded positively: 'Very happy.  I like being different'; 'Thrilled.  I'd never change it'; 'Over the moon darling'; and 'Happy as a pig in shit'.  Of these, when asked where their primary loyalties lay, none favoured a police loyalty and none identified primarily with their occupation.  By contrast, of those respondents who answered negatively when asked about their feelings towards their sexual orientation - 'Not [very] happy' or 'I'd rather be straight' - all favoured a police loyalty and half also identified primarily in terms of their occupation.  Police prioritizers also made fewer disclosures to others regarding their sexuality, and this is in keeping with Weinberg and Williams' (1974) finding that such individuals are likely to be at an interval where they are dissatisfied with their sexuality or are having unsatisfactory relationships.


The potential for evolution


Discontentment may be a relatively permanent feature of an individual's verdict on their sexual orientation, yet the work of Dank (1971), Cass (1979) and others suggests that in many cases, it is likely to reflect the early stages of a process that will eventually lead to acceptance and the development of a positive gay or lesbian identity.  The possibility of shifting identities within the police therefore requires consideration.

                The likelihood of identity reorganisation was hinted at by several respondents.  One respondent who stated that he saw himself first and foremost as a police officer, gave the following clue regarding the potentiality of a shift in his priorities: 'I'm a police officer first because I've only recently become gay.  They haven't clashed yet.' Asked the same question, another stated: 'I see myself now more as a gay man, but I used to see myself primarily in terms of police officer.' Another noted:

"When I first joined the job, I was very committed to it.  At that stage being gay was very much a guilty sideline if you like, but then I wasn't happy with being gay initially.  But as time has gone on, I've developed more as a personality and as a gay man, and now I find that that's often at odds with, and has very much harmed, my work.  The two just don't exist very well together.  As one develops the other suffers, and so my commitment to the job has deteriorated a great deal, since my primary loyalties are to me."

                A thematic analysis of the interview material seemed to support this line of thought.  Whatever a respondent's sexual identity before joining the police, assuming the status of police officer would appear to result in a re-evaluation and reconstruction of self, in response to a new police identity which demands total dominance.  As one officer noted: 'You can't even get married without their permission for Cod's sake.'

                It seems likely then, that dominance in individual officers at any given time is the outcome of a dynamic, ongoing process of identity organisation.  Identity dominance is an attribute of the continuous interplay between the occupational and the orientational in a constant battle for identity control.  As such, identity has the potential to shift with time and/or environmental fluctuation, and gradual shifts in prioritization have been detected at casual meetings with certain officers over the past couple of years.  The comments of the above officers suggest that, with time, the shift is ultimately towards the sexual.  Perhaps the process is nothing more than homosexual identity formation within a distinctive and unusually antagonistic environment.  Yet this is suggestive of a gay police 'career' which emphasizes the process of occupational/orientational interaction.  A general model has been theorised from officers' responses, and the chief elements of this are summarised below (see Burke, 1993a for a more detailed discussion).


Career model of identity formation


                Before joining the police service an individual may or may not be aware of his/her sexual orientation.  It seems unlikely, however, that this is a crucial factor in determining identity dominance which, it is suggested, is not stable but a social construct likely to vary through time.  Nevertheless, pre-service adjustment with respect to orientation may affect the rate at which individuals progress through each stage.


Stage 1: Police prioritization

The model proposes that on joining the police service the question of sexual orientation, where it is already an issue, is totally (though perhaps only temporarily) eclipsed by the authority of the police training establishment, the thrill of joining the police profession and the overwhelming motivation of the recruit to succeed during a lengthy period of 'probation' - a period characterised by two years of heavy demands on the probationer in terms of training, examinations and dedication to the police organisation.  The result is police identity prioritization.  During this period, those who knew that they were gay or lesbian before joining are likely to stifle all evidence of their sexual orientation and concentrate energy on compliance with police expectations.  Unless already strongly affiliated to the gay subculture, the social life of officers throughout this stage is likely to become almost entirely police dominated, as in the case of one formerly ,out' lesbian who, on joining the Service, immediately returned to the closet, only to begin the process of coming out again.  Another officer who left Hendon training school less than a fortnight before being interviewed, said: 'I'm not gay all the time - only when I go out to pubs but I'm a police officer 24 hours a day.'

                Lack of expression in the orientational domain is unlikely to prove problematic during this initial phase.  On the contrary, the average police neophyte will often suffer from severe paranoia with regard to his/her sexuality:

"If I was put down to police the Gay Pride march or something, I would have to either take the day off or go sick.  There's no way I would do it.  It's just too risky.  I would even avoid transferring to a division where there was a high concentration of gay pubs or clubs so as not to be recognised by anyone I know."


Stage 2: Transition

During this stage, officers gradually begin to feel both psychologically and physically restricted by the police organisation.  They may find themselves beginning to venture onto the gay scene for the first time, whilst those who were active on the scene before their recruitment, may find themselves spending more time in gay pubs and clubs again and renewing old friendships after a long period of prohibition.  For such officers, many of whom had fled 'the scene' into the closet, confirmation in the rank of constable (at two years) and greater confidence with augmenting service thereafter, is likely to result in greater occupational disclosure in pubs and clubs, and with this change in outlook, the potential for stable or otherwise satisfying relationships may re-emerge.  One respondent remarked: 'It's great knowing I can hold a relationship down again.' In addition, greatly reduced levels of paranoia frequently result in a gradual desire to be more open at work and there may be an escalating irritation towards colleagues who display bigoted or intolerant attitudes: 'I just can't be bothered to pretend anymore, and when I hear colleagues slagging off gays in the canteen, I just want to come out and say, "Well I'm gay, so do your comments include me?"' The existence of other homosexual officers may also be seriously considered at this time, and steps may be taken to seek out other gay officers - perhaps via LAGPA.  Disadvantageously, the combination of increased indignation, increased adventurousness and reduced vigilance in conducting their social lives, makes this stage somewhat precarious and is the period most likely to witness an officer's shock coming out at work, possibly through an impulsive decision or circumstances which reveal bad judgement.  However, unconscious design also plays its part: 'I think I want to be compromised; I don't want to have to come out myself.'


Stage 3: Sexual prioritization (homosexual integration)

During this stage, the instability of stage two gradually dissolves as the transition to primary identification with the lesbian and gay communities is completed.  This stage is perhaps comparable with Cass's (1979) fifth stage of homosexual identity formation - 'identity pride'.  It is characterised by an increasingly 'orientation governed' social life and is likely to involve the adoption of a more political stance towards sexual orientation, perhaps via an affiliation with a gay or lesbian community group.  A number of LAGPA officers have become involved in such activities: 'I spend most of my free time with gay friends these days.  Coppers are so boring.  I'm also on the Pride committee for this year's march through London.'


Stage 4: Integration

Officers who are fully integrated are unlikely systematically to favour either their occupation or their orientation when it comes to their sense of personal identity/loyalty.  Similarly, officers at this stage will rarely disguise their orientation or profession, and as such, the integrated officer is least likely to suffer from blackmail, immoderate levels of stress, or fall victim to the psychological breakdown which threatens to ambush many officers (Burke, 1993b).  Individuals at this stage have learnt to accept both communities for what they are.  Neither are craved on the grounds that they are kept from finding voice in everyday life, and the result is a commitment only to self:

"The only loyalties I have in this world are to myself.  When it comes to the crunch, I wouldn't trust the gay community or the police to look after my interests and so I look after them myself.  That way I don't owe either of them anything and that's the way I like it best.  Nor do I feel that I have to take sides with any of them against the other.  They're both incidental to me.  Both of them are OK for the most part, although both of them have their hang-ups."

                                The basic four-stage model is suggestive of a gradual, unidirectional shift in primary identity from that of 'police officer', through an identity dominated by sexual orientation, towards one dominated by neither.  There are, of course, several problems with such a model.  The concept of a 'stage' is undoubtedly problematic.  It helps to conceptualise and organise certain processes, but its limitations are clear: the development of identity does not take place in stages but is a progressive process.  The archetypal concept of stage also implies a standard development and the completion of each stage before the next one is entered.  Accordingly, the above model is offered as a heuristic tool only.  The model makes no predictions regarding the distribution of officers throughout levels, nor does it attempt to calculate the percentage who will progress, or the time required to progress as far as integration (although the number of officers in this research known to be out in both spheres is suggestive of a substantial backlog at stages one to three).  It is not insisted that individuals pass through each stage in order to progress to the next, nor is the possibility of regression denied.  The aim of such a model is not to make hard predictions, but to display the spectrum of intervals likely to be under occupation.




This preliminary investigation has attempted to investigate the major effects on gay police officers of belonging simultaneously to two marginal and antagonistic communities.  Disclosure patterns were examined in order to contrast the ways in which police homophobia affects officers and their ability to 'come out' and function within the police structure, with the general 'police phobia' of the non-heterosexual communities.  The study also suggests that, as a result of their predicament, officers often have 'double' as opposed to 'integrated' lives.  Where double lives are entertained, identity seems to be dominated in equal numbers by the occupational and the sexual.  However, it is proposed that identity dominance is a manifestation of an officer's orientational and occupational development at a given period of time.  This is seen as reflecting a dynamic, interactive process in which a rounded and integrated sense of self is seen to emerge only after the 'police' and 'gay' identities have been successfully reconciled.  It is proposed that in most cases, movement is towards an identity in which the orientational aspect either dominates, or is harmonised with, the occupational.  There is of course a further technical problem associated with this model and that is its relative non-nullifiabillty.  Only a detailed longitudinal study is likely to substantiate or discredit it.  In the absence of corroborative work, the scientific worth of the model, whilst valuable, remains unverified.  What is clear is that the 'developmental routes' of the gay police officer are highly negotiated.  They are both dependent on, and outcomes of, the interplay between two powerful competitors, each of which would appear to demand control.  This is crucial for an understanding of the 'gay police identity' and supports McDonald's (1982) observation that understanding the social contexts in which individuals arrive at homosexual self definition is 'crucial to our comprehension of homosexual identity formation'.




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Dr Burke is with the Department of Human Sciences Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex  UB8 3PH.