Nearly thirteen years ago, in July 2001, our police department lost the first female and openly lesbian officer in the line of duty. Lois had served the Tampa Police Department for nineteen years, and her partner was a sixteen-year veteran officer. In the aftermath of the shooting, it was soon painfully apparent how differently the surviving spouse of a lesbian officer would be treated. The lesbian and gay officers gathered downtown at the police memorial the night of the shooting, understanding instinctively the impact of this tragedy. I recall the media officer at the time pulling me aside and asking how they should treat Lois’s partner. I took a deep breath and said, “Like any other widow of a fallen officer.” His question was sincere, and I will say that our department tried to handle things well. We all knew benefits weren’t in place, but to witness the reality of our common vulnerability before the funeral even took place was heartbreaking. The problem was LGBT officers had no recognition, so she was at the mercy of others’ biases. And it mattered.
An effort began with the LGBT police officers and civilian personnel to fix the injustices that we watched unfold. With the assistance of Equality FL, our statewide LGBT advocacy group, we met with city leaders, union, and pension representatives. At every turn, the answer was they’d like to help, but state law prevented more action. Lois’s partner did not receive the survivor’s pension benefits afforded to every other fallen officer’s spouse. We wondered, how could this stand?
Soon after, compromises were negotiated, but none ever gave LGBT officers the peace of mind of full coverage and protections for their families. Thirteen years have passed. Now and then the issue of our relationship status has been raised with our labor and pension reps. Always their answer was the excuse “state law”. Every year, as a sort of act of civil disobedience, I would write the word “spouse” next to Sandy’s name on my evaluation’s personal contact form. Just because it was right. Each year we watched hopefully as other states began giving LGBT couples the right to marry or enter into domestic partnerships, validating their status.
In 2009, Sandy and I decided we wanted permanent, legal recognition of our relationship. We discussed DP, but decided that we wanted a marriage, in hopes eventually it would be recognized. Upon returning to Tampa we took our marriage certificate to the pension office and told them to place it in our files. I never wanted the city to be able to say “it wasn’t what I intended”, as they had Mickey. We continued with our careers.
Then, yesterday, out of the blue, something amazing happened. A good friend called to say that our pension attorney had written a legal opinion, based upon changes in federal laws, stating LGBT officers should be covered fully if they hold valid marriage licenses, from any state. I was stunned. I called our new union president for confirmation and he obtained a copy of the brief. He told me it was true. According to the brief, we would now be covered fully by our pension, to include line of duty deaths. I went to the pension office to ensure our files were updated. The secretary pulled Sandy’s file, and mine, paging through to locate the marriage certificate from 2009. She moved the certificates to the top of our files. Then she looked up at me and said something I’ll never forget: “I’m sorry you had to wait this long to hear this, but congratulations.”
Something inside me lifted. I couldn’t put a finger on it at first, but then last night, I called my wife when I got home from my shift. She still had four hours to go in hers. I said, “Be careful. I love you.”, like always. When I hung up, it hit me. I now had the peace of mind I’d never had in over 20 years of our relationship. Should one of us fall in the line of duty, the other would be taken care of. I realized that for the first time I truly felt like a full-fledged member of the Tampa Police Department. Equal at last.
Peace and thanks for reading~