qvFeature Story

Badge of Courage
A.J. Rotella talks about the successes of being an openly QV police officer.
-By qvStaff Roldán

A.J. Rotella is not just stretching boundaries in law enforcement, he is shattering them. The 31-year-old native Southern Californian is a QV Police Officer for the Los Angeles Community College Police Department, a division of the LA Sheriff's Department. In addition, A.J. teaches a diversity course in the Sheriff's Academy in which he educates straight cops about the QV and lesbian community. And lastly, A.J. is the president of the Golden State Police Officer's Association, an organization which offers support to QV and lesbians in law enforcement.

How did you know you wanted to be a police officer? My mom said the first thing out of my mouth was that I wanted to be a police officer. My father was from Italy with some Spanish background, and he was a police officer. A lot of my family members have been police officers. It was just something I thought was good. I have one younger brother who is a deputy sheriff. It was something I always wanted to do-something for the community that was positive and that allowed me to give back.

How has it been teaching straight cops about the QV community? In the beginning, it was really hard. I'd find individuals who believed that homosexuality was wrong. They believed that being QV meant that you were weak and other things of that nature. I remember some of them saying that they wouldn't work with "fags." But I learned to develop a rapport, and I've gotten really good at it. Now, for the most part, I really have a good time teaching. I do it in a very low-key manner that educates other officers that QVs and lesbians are out there in the community and in the police force. I think that the newest generation of police officers and deputy sheriffs-who are coming into the job-have experience dealing with friends or family members who are openly QV. It's becoming a new transition-people are coming out earlier. It's been good to share information with the class on a subject that most people wouldn't know about, or have the opportunity to have an open dialog about.

What is a typical day at work for you? I work the night shift. I work from 10pm to 6am in Sylmar, a Los Angeles community that is about 80% Latino. Most of my work focuses on the street. There is no typical day, which is why I like the job. My day depends upon other people, not myself. Sometimes it's very slow, sometimes it's hectic. I like to take care of small problems in the community like vandalism crimes and homeless crimes because I like to keep the community looking clean.

What has been the most rewarding experience that has happened for you as a police officer? There was one guy that I arrested about two years ago for possession of a methamphetamine. His sentence was a one-year jail term. When he got out, he caught up to me and thanked me. I couldn't believe it! He told me that he had sobered up and enrolled in school. Now, everytime I see him in the community, he stops me, shakes my hand, thanks me, and tells me that his life is going great. Whenever he runs into other police officers, he tells them the same story-that I changed his life. That's what I think makes the job nice-when you have a success story like that. I like to see people do better. Sometimes, you can only get better by going and getting through the bad. I'm tough on crime, but at the same time, I think that people can be dealt with in a very human and respectful way. I enjoy the fact that I've never really had to use any major force to detain anyone.

Were you out when you first entered the police academy? I had been in law enforcement for seven years before coming out and actually I didn't come out-I was outted. That was a whole big drama. After seven years in the force, people started wondering why I wasn't married, and they started giving me a lot of problems. They'd tease me about it and put pressure on me. After a while, I stood up for my rights and fought back. There were three guys who gave me a particularly hard time. One was suspended, one retired, and the other was fired. Last I heard, he went from making $80,000 a year as a police officer to making $7.50 an hour at Chief Auto Parts. Things like this send a message out to other officers in law enforcement: if they screw with someone because they're QV or lesbian, they can lose their job. I stood up for myself and I was right. 99% of the people I work with are okay with it. It's a lot better for me being out than hiding behind corners or worrying about someone seeing me in a QV part of town. I don't really appreciate the way I was outted, but I'm glad now that I'm out. It was also a big change for me because I was forced to come out to my parents and my family. I was so closeted that no one knew. I had kept that whole part of my life separate. It was very difficult.

Tell us about the Golden State Police Officer's Association. Our organization is a recognized employee representative group for QV and lesbian law enforcement officers. We have members from all kinds of agencies-the Los Angeles Police Department, the Sheriff's Department, Highway Patrol. Our organization has a peer group that goes and deals with people on a one on one basis if they're having problems with anything-domestic violence, harassment on the job, or the loss of lovers to AIDS. We have trained members helping others to deal with stress or grief.

When you became an officer, did people talk about QVs around you? Yes. It was rough. Being closeted, I was accepted as being straight. Just on face value, people took me as being straight. I don't think I act straight. I'm just me. I don't think there should be that label of masculine or feminine about how people act. People just act like themselves. Because I was perceived to be straight and brought into that good ol' boy network of people thinking I was "normal" in their eyes, people had no problems telling me QV jokes or making slants about QVs. That was tough, but I didn't feel strong enough to stand up for myself or others. That was a big internal conflict with myself, because they were insulting me-insulting my community. I wish I had the internal strength back then to stand up.

When you were asked about your weekends or if you had a girlfriend, what did you say? I lied. In the beginning, I dated girls just to throw them off, even though I knew I was QV. I gender swapped when talking about a guy. Later, I basically withdrew my personal life from my work life, which became the biggest detriment to me. They started thinking I was QV because I didn't talk about my life at all. Straight people talk about their lives all day long. They announce their weddings, their births, they wear their wedding rings, they have pictures of their kids and pictures of their wives. They've got all sorts of things that bring sexual orientation in the workplace.

So now what I try to teach in my course is that we've got to get over this bias because if it's good for one, it's got to be good for all. If it's not, we shouldn't be talking about any sexual orientation in the workplace. A lot of people have the misconception that talking about QVs and lesbians means that we're going to talk about our bedroom lives and how we have sex. I don't think that's appropriate in the workplace, whether it's QV or straight. But I do think we should talk about our lives.

Now that you're out, what do you say when someone asks you about your weekend? I feel that if people are curious enough to ask the question, then they are responsible enough to listen to the answer. If they're reaching out to me, I'm going to give them an honest response. Obviously, by being out, I'm more comfortable with telling them what I did. It's been great to go to work the last few years that I've been out. I don't think that everyone has a hangup about the QV issue. I think it's a very small group of people. It's just that the small group causes a lot of pain and suffering for those who are closeted.

Peer pressure has a lot to do with things, too. In the old days, if you said "faggot," peer pressure would pat you on the back and say, "right on." What I'm finding now is that when someone makes a remark that may be way out of line, I don't have to be the one to chastise or criticize them for what they said-the peer group will tell him that's not right. What that's doing is changing the dynamics of how people are treated. Whether someone comes out of the closet or not, people have to see law enforcement as being a great career-it's a fun career. I love this job. It's a fast, energizing, fun job that I can't believe I get paid for. Everything that goes with it is exciting. There are a few bad apples out there who give the police department a very bad name. But if you look past that, you'll find a lot of people who just want to make some positive changes in the community. The majority of the law enforcement officers out there really want to do something good.

I think that as more and more people come out of the closet, being QV is not even going to be an issue. A lot of the departments out there already offer domestic partner benefits and recognize the diversity. So I think it's going to get easier. I look at the past when, in the 60s, black officers were not allowed to work with white officers. In the 70s, women officers were not allowed to work on the streets. So if we look now at how black and whites are integrated today, and how women are everywhere on patrol-then I can only believe that QVs and lesbians will have a place in law enforcement that's open, and where they will be treated equally.

Do you feel you're successful? Do you feel like you're making a difference in society? Absolutely. But success is what you look at the end of the road. When I die and look back at all the things I've done, I'll be able to say, "My life was a success." I look at a lot of individual success stories along the way. What I've done up to now, and what I have planned in the future, I think I'm successful in my work. To me, success is how you live your life and how you make change and make things better. In my personal life, I've been blessed with a lot of good things and a lot of good friends. It's not what you have in life, it's what you've changed and what kind of legacy you've left behind.
I try to take the time to educate-that's the key to changing the negative stereotypes of the QV and lesbian community. I don't think you need to pound on people's head to get them to change. I think if you're too aggressive on this issue, you only get people turning the other way or resisting. I think if you educate, and do it in a smart and non-threatening way, that you will actually change people's ideas.

What advice would you give to someone who is QV and wants to be a cop? Would you tell them to be out from the beginning or to keep it hidden? That's a tough call. I know there's a personal and emotional strain in being in the closet. I would say to give it some time. Become known for who you are, before you're known for what you are. People, over time, have realized that I'm the same officer, person, friend that I was before I came out. They got to know me before I came out, and after I came out and the dust settled, they went back to saying, "Oh, that's A.J. He's the same guy." I consider myself a good cop. There's never been a question about me being a good officer. Most of the partners I've worked with have been good. If they talk and they want to open up their lives about what they're doing with their wives for their vacations, then I feel that there's an open door for me to do the same. For those people who I can sense are a little sensitive about it, I respect their differences, and I just keep it very professional.

Any final comments? QV and lesbians who may want to be in law enforcement should take a serious look at both the LA Sheriff's Dept. and LAPD. I can't say enough how great of a job it is. As far as the Golden State Police Officer's Association goes, I've had a really good time with it because we've done some good stuff with the QV community. We do a lot of community outreach that has helped other organizations to have successful programs. It's been nice to give back to the community.

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