Protesters march in the Loop against police brutality and the murder of George Floyd on May 30, 2020. Credit: Brooke Hummer

In June the Chicago Police Department announced it was bolstering its LGBTQ+ liaison team from one officer to six. The team falls under the civil rights unit within the department’s office of community policing. News coverage of the additional liaisons was minimal at best, with most articles alluding simply to tensions between the police department and the queer community, while solely quoting CPD officials. Only Block Club Chicago briefly described the history of the tension as dating back to the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

Efforts to shore up the unit are part of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, enacted after the fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald by former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Among its other requirements, the court-monitored agreement tasked CPD with reviewing and amending its protocols related to arrests, pat-downs, transportation, and detention of trans and gender-nonconforming people. The decree also required CPD to amend its policies to ensure officers respect the expressed gender identity of trans people, rather than the sex designated on identification documents.

In a 2017 report by the DOJ, the agency said CPD’s then single liaison to the city’s queer community was “insufficient to ensure collaboration and ongoing partnership.” Two years later, a report from the National Center for Transgender Equality criticized the police department’s written policies, as well as its officers’ treatment of the transgender community. CPD has also been repeatedly criticized by the trans community for misgendering victims of anti-trans violence. 

Officer Bernard Escamilla, who leads the liaisons, tells the Reader that these officers will be tasked with responding to hate crime incidents and engaging with the public to better improve relations with the community. Escamilla is quick to admit that the department has in the past mistreated queer people, and says public trust is the biggest hurdle his team faces. 

“[We are] working against that past history that the department has, and trying to prove to the victims and prove to the community that there is going to be follow-up, there is going to be accountability,” Escamilla says.

The Citizens Police Data Project reports that from 1988 to 2018, there have been 1,674 allegations of verbal abuse related to sexual orientation levied against Chicago police officers, with just 54 of those allegations found to be supported by enough evidence to warrant discipline. Out of those 50 sustained allegations, 47 complaints resulted in discipline, mostly one- to nine-day suspensions or reprimands. That information is the closest the data comes to specifically tracking LGBTQ+-related abuse or harassment. 

Days before announcing the expanded unit, CPD also updated its policies related to the queer community, mostly related to interactions with the trans community, to be in compliance with the consent decree. But officers looking to repair relations with the queer community face an uphill battle. Queer Chicagoans, particularly people of color, say the move is lip service to a community whose history is punctuated by police violence.

The Cooper Do-nuts Riot of 1959 in Los Angeles, which protested police brutality at the 24-hour cafe, is thought to be the first modern queer uprising in the nation. In August 1966, trans women and drag queens rioted at Compton’s Cafeteria after repeated harassment by San Francisco police. Again on New Year’s Eve, plainclothes police officers infiltrated the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, and arrested kissing partygoers and beat protesters. A demonstration to oppose the raids was held a few months later.

All three of those incidents have been almost entirely eclipsed by the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City, which saw patrons of the mafia-owned gay bar The Stonewall Inn wage a historic response to homophobic and transphobic police brutality. The Stonewall Riots are widely thought to be the modern spark to the contemporary queer rights movement. 

But even now, decades later, struggles between the police and queer people persist.

Last summer, during protests for racial equity after the murder of George Floyd, Chicago police officer Matthew Drinnan was caught on camera calling an off-screen protester a “fucking faggot” after a plastic barricade was thrown at the officer. And in June 2021, Chicago police sergeant Amelia Kessem posted a homophobic screed on Facebook in response to a Pride-themed window display at a local Chicago Public Library branch.

“Went to the library today and this man who worked there tried to indoctrinate my 6 year old with his gay pride decor! NOT OK!!!” Kessem wrote. “I had to tell him 3 times to please stop!” Kessem later doubled down on her bigotry, writing in a comment to her post that “the fact that this is even allowed to be inside a public building let alone the children’s section is absolutely absurd! I cannot wait the [sic] leave to this [sic] Sodom and Gomorrah!” 

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability recommended that Drinnan be fired, but the Chicago police union opposed his termination. My inquiry to CPD regarding Kessem’s Facebook posts sparked a COPA investigation as well.  

Escamilla says he feels a responsibility in his role to make up for those instances of anti-queer bias in the department. “One of my goals for being in this role is also changing the culture and changing the views [within CPD],” he says, adding that “in order for you to change a system or a bureaucracy like CPD, the best way you can do it is from within.”

But many queer people, like Stephanie Skora, the associate executive director of Brave Space Alliance, say that simply hiring queer officers or assigning officers to work with the community isn’t enough to cure systemic bias in the department.

“Liaisons will do nothing to reduce homophobia and transphobia, just like Black and Brown officers haven’t done anything to decrease racism and brutality against Black and Brown communities,” Skora says. “There’s a wealth of research that definitively proves over and over that the problem in policing isn’t the identities of the officer, but the nature and the character of the institution.”

Skora particularly criticized the fact that community liaisons typically respond after abuse by police has occurred, instead of ensuring the abuse doesn’t happen in the first place. “You can’t un-call that person a faggot. You can’t un-beat that person up for being trans. You can’t un-isolate them in solitary, quote unquote for their own protection for being gender nonconforming in jail,” Skora says. “It’s yet another fake solution to address problems after they happen.”

For many queer Chicagoans, particularly people of color, police abilition is the only “reform” they endorse. 

One nonbinary Chicagoan, a performance artist and sex worker who goes by the name Cunty Meme (pronounced Mimi), tells the Reader that they are routinely harassed by the police as a Black, queer person. “Being Black is already enough, but when you add queerness on top of it, that just gives them more reason to abuse people,” they say.

Meme says they are noticeably harassed more by the police on the days they present more genderfluid, versus the days they pass as cisgender. “Sometimes I pass just because I wanna breathe,” they say.

But Meme’s negative experiences with the police go beyond harsh words. They say that at a 2015 protest over the Laquan McDonald shooting in 2014, they were severely injured when police pushed them into a construction area, causing them to fall several feet onto a metal sheet, landing on their back. 

Doctors eventually said a disc in their spine was slipping out of place. Meme says the injury derailed their academic career and impacted their ability to work. “I have to do sex work not because, like, I want to, but because like, that’s the only thing that I can readily do like, especially just with how my back works,” they say. 

But queer people’s negative interactions with the police aren’t isolated to protests, where Chicago police have recently been caught assaulting protesters and escalating violence. 

Bonsai Bermúdez, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Performance Project, says he has had repeated negative interactions with the police as part of his work on behalf of queer youth experiencing homelessness in Lakeview. “I personally have never had an interaction with a cop that I can feel a level of respect and a level of trauma-informed understanding,” he says. 

He says that in his experience, officers’ tensions can escalate when they are searching for a youth that has entered YEPP’s space, which has a formal agreement with the city not to allow police to enter. In one typical interaction, Bermúdez says responding officers got heated before eventually leaving.

“It was a good 30-minute interaction moment that could go anywhere, right?” Bermúdez says. “And they could like, smack the shit out of us and come to the building and do what they normally do.”

A common criticism lobbed at police departments around the nation is their lack of accountability, and the code of silence that protects bad actors. Writer Derrick Clifton says they saw this first hand after a terrifying altercation with an off-duty Chicago police officer in January 2017.

Clifton tells the Reader that as they approached another car at a gas station in Evergreen Park to clear up a mix-up over which pump the attendant charged money to, the driver—who happened to be an off-duty officer—pulled a gun. “At that point, both of my hands just flew up and I’m like praying to God,” Clifton says. “I’m like, ‘If this is it, Lord, take me home,’ because he was rabid.”

After the station attendant diffused the situation and Clifton fled the gunslinging man, they say they had lingering suspicions the man was an off-duty officer, a fact that was confirmed when Clifton reported the incident to police in Evergreen Park. 

Clifton says the officer who pulled the gun had apparently already spoken to Evergreen Park police to minimize his actions, and after facing their own roadblocks getting camera footage from the gas station, Clifton says they moved on. A representative for Evergreen Park declined to comment on the matter. 

“I just felt like I was up against a brick wall and just decided not to do anything,” they say. “But I have to carry that trauma. It took me a good year and a half, maybe more, to feel comfortable driving past that gas station again, let alone going to the pump and pumping gas.”

Clifton says the incident impeded their writing career, causing them to change jobs briefly. And like many queer people who have faced harassment and abuse by the police, Clifton is unconvinced that the liaisons will do much of anything.

“I don’t care to be liaised to whatsoever,” Clifton says. “I care that my people are not criminalized, that their lives are not criminalized. I care about the fact that in so many instances, [the police’s] version of events is considered Bible verse, and that people who are on the receiving end of conduct or mistreatment, or just flat out unprofessionalism, are not heard, or not believed. And that people with obscenely terrible records are still allowed to carry a badge and a gun.”

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.