Who’s 2008’s Homo Hero of the Year?

For years, the Los Angeles Police Department, currently led by Chief William Bratton, had one of the worst records in the country when it came to how it treats gays and lesbians. In fact, the city of West Hollywood was incorporated to prevent the LAPD from having jurisdiction of an area that had become a safe haven for the LGBT community. Under the protection of the LA County Sheriff’s office, WeHo was free from raids, random jailings and police abuse.

The LAPD’s terrible relationship with the gay community isn’t just ancient history, either. As recently as 1998, gay and lesbian activists were complaining that the force unfairly targeted gay and lesbians, as well as businesses frequented and run by the LGBT community. That year, the LA Times reported this:

“A group of civil rights advocates on Tuesday pressed the Los Angeles Police Commission to establish an independent commission to investigate their claims that police selectively enforce laws to harass gay men and women.

According to several speakers, LAPD officers target gays, their businesses and their communities with undercover operations aimed at citing people for lewd conduct and other offenses.

There is a widely and strongly held view … that the LAPD chooses to enforce laws against people who are or are perceived as being lesbian or gay in a stricter and harder fashion than against people who are not,” said Myron Dean Quon, an attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.”

Things were so bad that the city “paid $1.2 million to settle a pair of lawsuits claiming that the LAPD harassed gay officers within the force” and had to “pay $87,000 to a man who said an LAPD officer struck him in the face during a gay rights protest.”

So, it was with some degree of trepidation that Prop 8. Protesters left the safe confines of West Hollywood on November 5th and marched into Los Angeles proper. The first night was tense, with a handful of protesters who dared to cross the police line finding themselves on the receiving end of a nightstick. Squads of police in riot gear and ever-present helicopters watched the Westwood protests against the Mormon Church carefully.

As one of the protesters, I personally saw the changes in the way the LAPD treated the crowds. Following a march in Silver Lake through mostly empty corporate buildings, a group of 300 or so protesters, including your editor, felt that protesting was more about taking your message to everyday people than preaching to the choir and so left the area and marched on Hollywood. The police responded quickly and blocked the advancing path of protesters. For a few minutes, the police stood shoulder-to-shoulder, inches away from a crowd shouting to let them pass.

And then a call came. Everyone could tell something had changed as the police started to relax. An officer on a bullhorn shouted, “We’re going to let you march. We just need to set up the route. We thank you for your cooperation.” There was no doubt who ordered the go-ahead: It was LAPD Chief William Bratton.

In that moment, in the eyes of those marching, the LAPD became an ally of the gay community. When a mobile signboard appeared in front of protesters saying “Please move the right. We’ll be moving shortly,” they laughed at how quickly a tense stand-off had turn to mutual cooperation. When another group marched from downtown LA to Hollywood on the National Day of Impact, the exhausted group of protesters blocking the intersection of Hollywood & Highland thanked the LAPD for escorting them and broke into a sustained applause for LA’s finest.

It’s easy to forget, in the face of so much vocal opposition to fairness and equality for gays and lesbians, that the ranks of allies supporting us are growing every day. Chief Bratton publicly announced his financial support of the No on 8 campaign as well as his support for gay marriage in July at the urging of a gay couple he’s friends with, saying at the time: “The Constitution guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I see no reason why gays can’t pursue happiness through marriage.”

But it is the way he and the Los Angeles Police Department treated the protesters that makes him Queerty’s Homo Hero of the Year. There are many worthy LGBT folks who deserve mention (and are mentioned below), but Bratton’s proved that even the most homophobic institutions are capable of change when led by people with courage. The reality is that Prop. 8 protesters were breaking the law, but the LAPD, under Bratton, recognized the importance of the crowds, the essential peacefulness of the protests and chose to honor America’s tradition of civil disobedience. At a moment when gays and lesbians felt more like second-class citizens than ever, at a moment when the gay community’s rights were stripped away, the LAPD treated us with dignity and respect. It won’t be forgotten.

Why are we choosing Bratton in a year filled with honest to goodness homosexuals sticking their neck out for equality? Isn’t naming random straight people the purview of Out and The Advocate? The decision to put Bratton at the top was not an easy one and we expect that for some people, the fact we chose a heterosexual will be tantamount to heresy.

But we can’t sit here day in and day out talking about how we must reach out to a wider community than ourselves and not practice what we preach. Bratton’s inclusion is partly because he had nothing to lose had he kept the status quo. Instead, he chose to challenge the ingrained homophobia and prejudice in the LAPD.

Unlike the politicians and celebrities who pay lip service to the gay community but do nothing, Bratton used his power and influence to make a tangible difference. There were plenty of cops who would have liked to beat up Prop 8 protesters, but by setting a clear example that the LAPD was breaking with its homophobic past, Bratton not only prevented another White Nights, he proved that even the most homophobic of institutions is capable of change.

Runners-Up:

Phyllis Lyon & Del Martin met in 1950 and on Valentine’s Day 1953 moved in together in a small apartment in the Castro. Their love affair would span half a century before being legally recognized by the state of California. In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered City Hall to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians, they were the first to get one. When the licenses were voided by the state they spoke up, becoming the face of gay marriage. When the California Supreme Court ruled that marriage was an ‘inalienable right’ Phyllis and Del were, once again, the first to get married. Sadly, Del passes away in August, though it’s a small consolation that she didn’t have to see her fellow Californians vote to revoke her marriage. It’s a shame though that she didn’t live to see what she and Phyllis’ love affair has wrought: a gay community energized and committed to securing their rights. Helen of Troy’s love was said to launch an army across the sea, but the love affair of Phyllis Lyon & Del Martin inspired a new generation of equal rights advocates to stand up and be counted.

There really is no wrong way to come out, but comedian Wanda Sykes’ decision to use the podium of Las Vegas’ National Day of Impact protest to out herself was one of this year’s stand up and cheer moments. Instead of making her public coming out about herself (say, by plastering it on the cover of People), Sykes used the moment to talk about the discrimination and inequality heaped on all gay people. It was a selfless act and since then, Sykes, who never hid her sexuality from friends and colleagues, has used her public profile to raise awareness about marriage equality and homophobia, appearing on the Tonight Show and joining the board of Equality California.

20-year-old Australian diver Matthew Mitcham didn’t want to just be known as “the gay diver” and he managed to do it by nabbing gold and breaking Olympic records in Beijing. He came home to a hero’s welcome and was acclaimed by the Aussie press as the sports hero of the year. By all accounts a normal guy, Mitcham’s casually wears his sexuality, neither hiding it nor letting it define him. Unfortunately, endorsements haven’t been rolling in for the young phenom, a sad sign that advertisers still fear associating themselves with someone who’s openly gay. Still, Mitcham’s success story opens a new chapter in the history of gay sports and we know that Mitcham’s presence on the diving board will be inspiring young atheletes, of every sexuality, for years to come.

Originally published Dec. 31, 2008