Article Title:Gay cop: Turning scandal into success
Category:True Stories
Author or Credit:GayNZ.com
Published on:1st August 2002 - 12:00 pm
Published by:GayNZ.com
Story ID:38
Text:From being outed in a "Gay Cop Internet Scandal" to being congratulated by the Prime Minister as an out gay police officer, Auckland Senior Sergeant Mark Richards is at the forefront of changing police attitudes to gays and gays in the force. GayNZ.com: You were born in 1964 and grew up on Auckland's North Shore. So when you were in your teens there were gay groups emerging and a few early gay venues in Auckland. Did you access any of those? Mark: I knew that there were things out there. My father used to manage a bookshop and I used to grab a copy of Out! magazine and take it into the toilet and read it... and then slip it back on the shelf. But I came out at 16 to my family. And that made it so much easier because I got full support. I was very fortunate. But it was only from about 18 up that I was really aware that there were venues that I could go to, people that I could meet. GayNZ.com: When did you know that you were gay? Mark: This is really tacky... I can remember as young as three being at the Waiwera hot pools and seeing whether guys was circumcised or not... I remember at that age there was a fascination. And I've never stopped looking at men since! I've always known... right through primary school... never had an interest in girls at all. GayNZ.com: In your teens, as a gay kid destined to become a policeman, what was your perception of the police, as a gay-unfriendly society's enforcer? Mark: At that stage in the community in general there was a lot of intolerance and that was reflected in some police attitudes... particularly leading up to 1986 and law reform. GayNZ.com: You decided in 1980 to join the police? Mark: Well, I joined through the Ministry of Transport, because at first I looked at the police and thought "that's not for me." But, in hindsight, I should have gone straight in to the police and not the Ministry. GayNZ.com: When the MOT traffic cops were merged into the police force, what went through your mind? Mark: Well, that was six years after law reform and things had certainly improved a lot from what they were... I could see police attitudes changing. I've never hidden my sexuality. From day one, if someone's asked me directly, I've never denied it. I remember once when I was applying for promotion, one of the Superintendents said to me, right at the end of the interview, "Have you got a girlfriend?" I said "No, not at the moment." He said "Are you interested in girls?" And I replied that it depends on the person... leaving him nothing more to ask me. If he'd asked me directly: "Are you gay?" I would have said "Yes" because I've never lied about it. Why lie. What you see is what you get. GayNZ.com: You were a relatively new and young police officer during the Human Rights debate when then police Commissioner John Jamieson and Minister of Police John Banks were making their most venomous anti-gay comments about the possibility of gays in the force. How did that feel? Mark: It felt like a personal attack. Like it was me they were talking about. When the Commissioner and the Minister were worried that they were going to have police officers dressing up in drag, that you couldn't have an out gay male police officer searching another man because they'd be touching them up... they were forgetting that we're all professionals. The last thing on my mind when I'm arresting someone is bonking them! When the police were trying to get an exemption from the Human Rights Act because of the gay thing, that hit hard. GayNZ.com: What sorts of comments were your friends on the force making at that time when the idea of a gay police officer was publicly fairly contentious? Mark: There were lots of jokes going around, but I just laughed them off. I imagine it was the same for a lot of other gay people who were not out in the workplace... you just laughed at the joke like everybody else did. GayNZ.com: Did you question your loyalty to the police force, your ability to relate to the force when it was actually trying to deny you? Mark: Well, the force wasn't, a couple of people were. And that's what I focused on. These were people who wouldn't be there forever... and history shows that they weren't. There are a lot of fundamentalist people still in the organisation, a lot of the old school, but there's been a huge change around so I focus on the future. Certainly, If they'd got the exemption to the human rights act I would have left. And probably left quite publicly. Made a point. GayNZ.com: When the Human Rights Act was passed... did you jump up and down and proclaim "I'm gay and it's ok now to be gay in the police force?" Mark: No... it's my view that what I do in my personal life and what I do in my work life are two different and separate things. The only thing about me being gay is who I choose to have sexual and/or emotional relationships with. It doesn't affect my ability to be a police officer. GayNZ.com: These days, you're not only a gay police officer, you're publicly encouraging other gays to join... that's a big turn around in the police culture isn't it? Mark: The police are much more realistic about things like gender and ethnicity now. Before, if you weren't white, male, middle class and heterosexual you didn't get much of a chance in the force. But now we're looking at different cultures, becoming much more immersed in the diversity of the community that we represent! Hence my push to try to get more gay and lesbian police officers in the organisation. We have to be representative of the community. GayNZ.com: In the end, you didn't come out, you were outed, in 1996. What was that like? Mark: Very stressful. GayNZ.com: What happened there? Mark: I had a homepage on the internet. It had photos of me and my partner of the time... nothing explicit... my life story, photos of my parents, me as a kid... it mentioned that I was a police officer and that I was gay. Someone saw it, printed it out and discussed it at a Police Association [the police officers' union] conference. Someone there, I know who it was, took it to the then- Assistant Commissioner Human Resources who wanted to have me charged for bringing the force into disrepute. I was put on notice that I was under investigation. I went home and phoned my partner and a couple of people, friends in Wellington. And within an hour I had two lawyers offering to take my case for free as long as they got ten percent of the settlement. They reckoned I was going to get six figures. GayNZ.com: Your union had made conflicting noises during the Human Rights debate... did they support you? Mark: Well, they've since admitted they didn't support me in quite the way they should have done. They didn't know how to handle the issue then. But a lot of people on the force wrote to the commissioner saying I should be removed... that I had a lot of influence over impressionable recruits... but none of them had the balls to sign their letters. Then, when that didn't work, they went to the media. It was all over the papers. I remember a Sunday Star Times billboard outside all the shops: "Gay Cop Internet Scandal! It even hit the Sydney and New York papers. I wasn't just outed, I was internationally outed! GayNZ.com: Did you get any support? Mark: There were people at work I thought were friends who suddenly would just do what they had to do with me professionally and nothing more. Some would get up and walk out of the meal room when I walked in. So I really found out who my friends were. But the majority of people were really supportive, because they looked at my ability to do the job... they knew I was good at what I did. I got support from quarters I never expected. Way up in the organisation a couple of inspectors who, to look at them were very much the old school bigots, were supportive. I got a card from one of them saying "Good on you mate." GayNZ.com: There aren't many other professions where being outed, in those days, could have been so traumatic. Did it change your life? Mark: It was the best thing that could have happened. Because suddenly I could get on with my life. I wasn't looking over my shoulder constantly, I could talk about partners at work. Look at it this way... there's no alternative to the police. If you shop at Foodtown and you don't want the staff at Foodtown to see you with your gay partner, you can go and shop at Woolworths. But if you're a gay police officer and your house gets burgled, who else do you go to? You've got your colleagues coming into your personal space... so there've been a number of gay officers that I know of who've been burgled and didn't want to call the police so couldn't claim insurance. They didn't want their colleagues knowing they're in a same-sex relationship so they've had to bear the cost of replacing their own gear. That's a real sad state of affairs. There's a more sinister aspect to being a closeted gay cop as well... you can leave yourself open to blackmail. So I'm determined to encourage other gay and lesbian staff to come out. GayNZ.com: But the stressful time passed eventually? Mark: I basically decided I wasn't going to let them beat me. GayNZ.com: What's been the reaction of people in our gay community to the fact that you're a cop? Especially the older ones who, all their lives, have feared contact with the police because of their sexuality. Mark: People are seeing that the police are becoming more liberal... that they're employing people with brains now (as opposed to brawn only). Hell, there's a queue of officers wanting to do duty on Hero Parade night! But I have met gay people who, when they know I'm with the police, get very worried, because they've had bad dealings with the police. GayNZ.com: So it's a big step, for both gays and the police, to suddenly have you and a few other officers out there recruiting. How did that happen? Mark: When I was outed I was given an honorary membership for a Victoria, Australia, organisation called the Gay and Lesbian Police Employees Network. Through that I was able to see what gay police could do to support one another, but at that stage I was the only one that I knew of. When I was outed no other gay or lesbian officers contacted me... but gradually I found more and more and we developed a social network. At about the same time [gay sexuality educator] Eugene Moore offered to do an education programme for the police and the police hierarchy took that on board completely. Against that background we have a major police recruitment problem in Auckland at the moment. So we're out there looking for recruits. We're at the V8 Supercar events, the Warriors games... so I suggested we have a presence at the Big Gay Out, selling the police as a viable occupation for gay and lesbian people. From the Deputy Commissioner down they were 100% supportive. To staff our booth I looked for gay and lesbian staff, or gay- and lesbian-friendly staff. GayNZ.com: And being at Big Gay Out must have been good PR for the police too? Mark: Yes. Having police officers walking around comfortably, without batons and pepper spray, had a value that shouldn't be underestimated. When we saw someone we knew we gave them a hug! GayNZ.com: The Prime Minister visited your booth didn't she? Mark: Yes, she came over and congratulated us for taking the initiative... that was a huge boost for all the staff there. And we could point out to headquarters that not only were we there but the Prime Minister made a special point of coming over to us to congratulate us on the work that we were doing. We took a great sense of pride in that. GayNZ.com: You're proud to be a gay man in the police force? Mark: I'm proud to be an out gay policeman in the police community, and also proud to be a policeman in the gay community. The job actually has no bearing on my sexuality and my sexuality has no bearing on the job. You can work the two together. It feels good that I can say, with a real sense of pride, "It's ok to be gay and a policeman."     GayNZ.com - 1st August 2002
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