Cambridge Police Department names first liaison to gay community

May 1 - May 7, 1997 Bay Windows, Vol. 15 No. 19
"New England's Largest Gay and Lesbian Newspaper"
by Fred Kuhr
Bay Windows staff

Cambridge Police Sergeant Stephen P. Ahern said his decision to come out of the closet publicly last month mirrored that of comedian Ellen DeGeneres.

"Like Ellen, everybody already knew. It was no big deal," said Ahern, referring to the subsequent reaction from his colleagues. The one difference between Ahern and DeGeneres, however, is that, "I'm not losing any sponsors."

In fact, the reaction to Ahern's coming out was so positive that Cambridge Police Commissioner Ronnie Watson asked Ahern to become the department's first liaison to the gay and lesbian community.

"The Commissioner was thrilled," said Ahern during a recent interview at Cambridge Police Headquarters. "When I told him, he slapped the table and said, 'Thank God you came forward.'"As a result, the Cambridge Police Department joined a handful of departments around the state -- including Boston, Springfield and Northampton -- with at least one openly gay officer on the force.

"Things are changing. They really are," said Ahern. "I think a lot of police departments are realizing, 'Hey, [gay men and lesbians] are part of the community too."'

Ahern, a 39-year-old Cambridge native and an 11- year veteran of the force, and Commissioner Watson made the announcement in early April at a meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Pride in Business Committee, a faction of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.

"In order to serve the entire community well, we must serve all members of the community," said Watson in a written release. "Gay and lesbian members of our community have special needs for which it is important for the police department to respond positively and proactively.

"Establishing a formal liaison with the department," Watson continued, "is one of the most effective ways to ensure that communication remains open, and to make sure that the police department receives the information and advice it needs from the community to serve it well."

Ahern noted that Commissioner Watson has been so supportive that, when he told Watson about his fears concerning retribution from his colleagues, the commissioner sought and received permission from City Manager Robert Healy to treat any such incidents as hate crimes.

"[Watson] flat out said, 'If anybody messes with you, it's going to be treated as a hate crime,'" said Ahern. 'They're going to be terminated and they're going to have to fight to get their job back."

Although Ahern is enjoying support from the top, the call for a gay liaison actually came from members of the local community particularly members of Cambridge's gay and lesbian advocacy group, the Lavender Alliance -- who voiced their concerns to Watson in a meeting earlier this year.

T'hat meeting also resulted in an effort over the past few months to encourage gays and lesbians to take the qualifying exam for the force.

"We are extremely excited that Cambridge not only has an openly gay police officer but also a liaison to the community," commented Robb Johnson, a member of the Lavender Alliance. 'That's important in a city as large and diverse as Cambridge."

For Cambridge activist Chuck Colbert, the latest announcement "shows the importance of asking for things... This brings gays and lesbians more fully into the fabric of the city."

Colbert, a former member of the U.S. Navy, also noted that this move is a "big step" since police departments and other "military-type" organizations are still viewed as bastions of conservatism

That is something with which Ahern is also familiar; he served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and retired this past January.

Although he was only on active duty for the first four of those years, the military's ban on openly gay service members and the subsequent "don't ask, don't tell" policy forced him to put off his public coming out until after retirement from the military.

"Once I ... had my little certificate of retirement, I was like, 'It's time,'" said Ahern.

Even though he had not made any formal announcement until this year, Ahern said that most of his colleagues had already concluded that he is gay.

"When you live with the same person for 13 years, they put two and two together," said Ahern, referring to his partner, a worker at a Boston investment firm, whom he met while they were both serving in the military.

Although the details of his new post have yet to be worked out, Ahern hopes to bridge the gap between the police department and the gay and lesbian community -- particularly on issues of hate crimes and same-sex domestic violence.

According to one poll cited in the Cambridge Chronicle, gays and lesbians do not always feel comfortable reporting crimes to an officer who does not understand gay issues. The results showed that less than one percent of gay men surveyed considered police to be a resource and 70 percent said they were not aware of any resources for gay men affected by domestic violence.

To help correct this notion, Cambridge's police academy will begin trainings on same sex domestic abuse later this year. That will happen in addition to its ongoing diversity training, which includes topics about sexual orientation.

"There is no reason anyone should be afraid to come to this station and report a crime," said Ahern.

As far as figuring out the nuts and bolts of his new position, Ahern said he has been in contact with his counterpart in the Boston Police Department, Sgt. Norman Hill.

"I know he'll do well in this position," said Hill of Ahern. "Steve is a self-starter, committed and dedicated individual. He also will have support from the Boston Police Department if needed." Hill noted that Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans sent Ahern a letter offering congratulations and support.

While he tries to figure out exactly what his new job will entail, Ahern sees his appointment to the liaison post as part of an "evolutionary process" of a society becoming more open-minded about issues of diversity.

"In Cambridge, the old leadership was white, heterosexual and that's it," said Ahern. "Now, we have a black commissioner, female deputies, black deputies, gay officers... We're probably ahead of the rest of the police departments in the state, but they're all going to play catch-up sooner or later."

Ahern hopes that if he can help change the atmosphere from within the department, those served by the department will benefit.

"Eventually, there are going to be more gay people on the job and no longer will it be a whispering thing," said Ahern. "It's not going to be, 'Hey, Steve Ahern's a fag.' It'll be, 'He's our gay liaison.'"

picture of Cambridge Police Sergeant Stephen P. Ahern on his motorcycle

"Cambridge Police Sergeant Stephen P. Ahern, whose decision to come out has led to his appointment as the department's gay liaison."

picture of Cambridge Police Sergeant Stephen P. Ahern on his motorcycle, laughing

"Eventually, there are going to be more gay people on the job and no longer will it be a whispering thing," said Ahern, above. "It's not going to be, 'Hey, Steve Ahern's a fag.' It'll be, 'He's our gay liaison.'"

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