At a packed 1981 City Hall committee meeting over a decade-old gay- rights bill, a top officer with the NYPD’s largest union told the crowd he was not aware of any “homosexual police officers” in the department.
A sergeant from the Manhattan South Task Force suddenly rose to the podium behind him and uttered words that silenced the massive Council Chambers.
“I am very proud of being a New York City policeman,” Sgt. Charles Cochrane Jr., then 38, said into the microphone.
“And I am equally proud of being gay.”
Cochrane’s rebuke of Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association First Vice President J. Pat Burns was a landmark moment in NYPD history. There had never been an openly gay cop on the force since it was founded in 1845.
It earned him a standing ovation.
The bill would languish in committee for another 4¹/₂ years before it passed in 1986. Cochrane would go on to create the Gay Officers Action League to support LGBTQ members of law enforcement.
What began as a secret 11-person meeting in the basement of St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village in 1982 is now a 2,000-member organization, celebrating its 36th year with chapters across the country.
A documentary on GOAL’s history premiered last month at DOC NYC, the largest documentary film festival in the country, and was a remarkable collaboration between the organization at the NYPD.
“GOAL pulled me out of a very dark and lonely closet … and allowed me to recognize that I was going to be safe,” said retired Sgt. Edgar Rodriguez, who was featured in the documentary and is a former president of GOAL. “They saved my life and allowed me to live.”
Before GOAL was created, homophobia was “accepted” and “tolerated” in the NYPD, former officers said, and they could be fired just for being gay.
In at least one case, an officer was reportedly fired just for having a gay man as a roommate.
In a February 1978 op-ed in The New York Times, then-PBA President Samuel DeMilia wrote that a ban on discrimination against “homosexuals by city agencies . . . will be unworkable in the Police Department, and can do more harm than good.” He wrote employing queer officers could be “catastrophic.”
When Rodriguez joined the department in 1982, homophobia in The Bronx’s 44th Precinct was “totally expected,” and when he first heard about GOAL in the academy, he thought it was an elaborate ruse to figure out which cops were gay so they could be fired.
“If you weren’t homophobic, you were either a f-g or, ‘What’s up with that?’ ” Rodriguez explained.
He recalled responding as a rookie to a domestic-violence call for a gay couple.
“One of the other cops that came was interviewing the victim and was looking at him like, ‘Oh, really, he hit you?’ . . . and making really effeminate gestures,” Rodriguez recounted.
“You could see the terror on the victim’s face because not only did he have a partner that was beating on him, but now the cops weren’t going to do s- -t for him, and not only that, they were abusing him and revictimizing him.”
Rodriguez knew if he said anything, he “would’ve been finished.”
“If you didn’t speak their language, if you were an outsider, you were out,” he said. “You needed to fit the mold.”
Like many other gay officers, Rodriguez stayed in the closet for a long time.
When he first heard about GOAL in the academy, he thought it was an elaborate ruse to figure out which cops were gay so they could be fired.
He eventually joined GOAL and came out with help from Cochrane and the group’s co-founder, Sam Ciccone. Word of their mission was spreading.
Still, the battle was far from won.
“Anybody that thinks that Charlie Cochrane testified in front of the City Council and the next day confetti cannons exploded and the rainbow streamers fell from the ceiling at Police Headquarters is gravely mistaken,” said NYPD Detective Brian Downey, GOAL’s current president.
During a 1987 Pride March, a group of officers on patrol turned their backs on GOAL officers as they paraded past them. Five mounted policemen wheeled their horses around to show the animal’s rear ends.
The Committee of Police Societies, an umbrella group for the NYPD’s fraternal organizations, repeatedly denied GOAL’s requests to join and gave up their funding and meeting space at Police Headquarters so they could keep GOAL out. They didn’t allow them in until 2002.
In 1990, officers afflicted with HIV and AIDs were paying for antiretroviral therapy out of pocket to avoid having an insurance claim associated with the virus.
GOAL sued the NYPD in 1996 for discrimination, alleging that it refused to allow a pride exhibit at Police Headquarters. That same year was the first time those officers were allowed to join the Pride March in full dress uniform. In 1997, the NYPD settled the suit, never admitting wrongdoing.
In 2001, when former GOAL President and current NYPD Detective Carl Locke joined the department, he did so only with GOAL’s support.
“If it hadn’t of been for GOAL, someone like me never would have never been able to consider joining the NYPD,” said Locke, who never hid that he was gay.
In the academy, some fellow recruits avoided him in the showers, and he heard one referring to gay men as “f- - - -ts” after an assignment in the Meatpacking District.
Even today, Downey said, it’s more likely to see “a snowstorm in the middle of July” than hear someone using the N-word in a police locker room, but “people won’t hesitate to use the F-word.”
“Why is that?” he added.
There’s also a lack of diversity among top brass, which led Theresa Portalatin, a captain in a city transit district, to join GOAL after a decade on the force. She hopes to show other female LGBTQ minorities it’s possible to be out and proud and have an executive rank.
“Law enforcement is a male-dominated profession, a very kind of macho profession . . . I would love to see more inclusion in the ranks,” Portalatin said.
But Locke, Portalatin and Downey all admit that where credit is due, credit should be given.
“I’ve seen a lot more growth, not that we don’t need more . . . but this police department has heard the call. It might’ve taken a little while, but they’re definitely moving forward,” said Locke, who is also the department’s LGBTQ liaison.
“Having GOAL around has really forced the department to move forward . . . GOAL has held the department accountable and dragged it forward even if it didn’t want to go forward.”
GOAL trains every police recruit in the city on LGBTQ sensitivity and has expanded its training across the country and internationally to Mexico City.
They ask recruits to consider scenarios, asking them, for example, what they would do if they found a woman performing oral sex on a man in a car and would they react the same if they found a man performing oral sex on another man.
“It’s like the air gets sucked out of the room,” Downey explained.
“In one scenario, the guy is getting lucky, and in the other scenario, you’re seeing something criminal, and that’s what we think the old way of policing was. If a guy is getting lucky, he’s getting lucky in both situations. Technically, that’s a misdemeanor, so if you’re going to give discretion in one, you’re going to have to give discretion in the other.”
Downey emphasized that GOAL’s documentary marked the first time the NYPD had owned up to its homophobic history.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill has been given an honorary lifetime membership with GOAL for his openness to improving LGBTQ relations.
“If I had to describe the police commissioner in one word, it would be compassionate,” Downey repeatedly said.
“That is not a word that is customarily used to describe any law-enforcement executive, much less the police commissioner of the city of New York, so we’re in uncharted waters . . . I like to think that’s a good thing,” he said.
Over the years, GOAL has increased its focus on transgender officers.
Of the nearly 40,000 uniformed cops in the NYPD, only two have publicly identified themselves as transgender.
One is Aiden Budd, a GOAL member and rookie in Manhattan’s 20th Precinct.
“Before getting into the academy, I was going back and forth with myself about what was the right thing to do as far as transitioning because I knew I wanted to transition,” Budd said.
“What would this do to my career?” he said he wondered.
“GOAL made me feel very comfortable and reassured me that I’d be OK . . . I was surprised to see an organization like them . . . When you grow up in a world where it’s taboo, I didn’t know there was a whole organization that is standing up against the taboo.”
Budd now trains recruits on what it means to be transgender and answers all their questions, even the personal ones.
He uses education to reduce transphobia in the NYPD and hopes his role will encourage other trans officers to be open.
In 2012, the NYPD updated the patrol guide to include guidance on interacting with transgender and gender-non-conforming people in the community and last summer published a booklet on gender identity that is used in training.
At the 2016 Pride March, Budd and his fellow trans officer, Brooke Bukowski, became the first out transgender cops to walk in the parade in full uniform with the pink-blue-and white transgender flag.
Edgar Rodriguez, also marching with GOAL that day, said the experience was history in the making, all over again.
“The support these two trans officers got brought us completely back in time,” Rodriguez said. “It was just as powerful and just as profound and just as meaningful as when GOAL marched with their banner for the first time.”
Additional reporting by Cedar Attanasio and Alex Taylor