I struggle with the idea that people from the gay and lesbian community have to fight for civil rights in an enlightened, free and democratic society. It makes me appreciate the courage of retired Police Constable Ron Zaharia, an openly gay member of the Winnipeg Police Service who joined the organization long before I started my career in January of 1987.
Ron was a physically fit, strikingly handsome, confident man who appeared to enjoy large acceptance from the majority of his co-workers. There were, of course, those who struggled with the idea of an openly gay police officer. I have no idea what kind of challenges Ron may have suffered during his career but I would be shocked if he didn't have a story or two to tell.
I worked with homophobic officers during my career and was always confused by their animosity and hostility towards gay men. I could never get my head wrapped around the threat gay men posed to straight men. I for one was glad Ron was gay. With blond flowing locks and chiseled abs he made average looking men like me virtually invisible to any woman in our immediate vicinity.
For the most part, Ron blended into the police crowd. Although he was openly gay he wasn't "obviously" gay and didn't make his sexuality an issue in the work place. He came to work, punched the clock, took his calls and collared his fair share of criminals just like everybody else.
To me, Ron Zaharia was an impressive individual. Policing is an undertaking that demands a certain amount of bravery, heart, determination and interpersonal savvy. Confronting the evildoers among us requires a certain mindset, a mindset often compared to the sheepdog. A burning desire to protect the flock from those in society that mean to do us harm. Ron was a sheepdog just like the rest of us and presented himself as a man with great passion and pride.
Most people understand a career in policing requires a certain amount of courage, but imagine the almost unquantifiable courage it took to be an openly gay police officer in the 1980s. Yet, some 27 years later, members of the gay and lesbian community are still fighting for equal societal rights.
I saw an exceptional experiment the other day on TV. A group of young people armed with video cameras went out on the street and conducted interviews with everyday people. The question they asked was if they believed homosexuality was a choice. Predictably, several people answered they believed it was. Once they committed to their answer the immediate follow-up question was, "When did you choose to be straight?" The reactions were immediate, a red face, a perplexed look and an immediate sense of enlightenment when they realized that sexuality was simply not a choice. These were decent, hard-working members of our society. People who would likely say they were accepting, non-judgmental and non-homophobic. I suspect they learned a lot that day.
At a time of conflict and war in dozens of countries around the world, it amazes me that people still find the time to sit in judgment of a group of people whose greatest crime is to love someone of the same-sex. It seems to me our world is a bit short on love these days. You'd think people in a "socially evolved" society would get past their own biases and open their arms and minds to members of our gay community.
I recall running into Ron the day he hung up his police boots. He was in the basement hallway at the Public Safety Building heading for the door after cleaning out his locker. As I bid him adieu, a troubling thought crossed my mind. I wondered why Ron was leaving so quietly. In my mind, his retirement was well-earned and should have been celebrated. As a ground-breaker for gay police officers, I believe he was more deserving of a departure marked with fireworks, a marching band and a fly over by Canadian Forces jets.
It might have been that Ron simply left on his own terms, and there's nothing wrong with that.
When I decided to write this story I reached out to Ron and asked him to share his thoughts regarding his experiences in law enforcement.
In response, Ron explained he had both positive and negative experiences as a result of his status as the first openly gay police officer employed by the WPS. I wasn't surprised when he opted to keep the details of his experience, both good and bad private After all, Ron is a private person. He did say he believed the police service did the best it could considering the social revolution was in its infancy during the time he worked for the WPS.
To me, Ron Zaharia was a pioneer. A role model for openly gay and lesbian police officers and even more so for those who are contemplating coming out.
The time has come for police officers to lead the community when it comes to acceptance and support for the rights of our gay and lesbian police officers and citizens.
It's time for the "thin blue line" to add a few more colours.
Follow James Jewell at thepoliceinsider.com.