A few months ago, during a debate over whether government workers should get benefits for same-sex partners, Passaic County, N.J., Sheriff's Department Det. Cpl. Douglas Laverty revealed that he is gay--something he had kept secret from even close friends.
In the ultramacho culture of law enforcement, he feared the worst: harassment, discrimination, or worse. Instead, what he found was acceptance and support. And he wants people to know he's grateful. "People knew me as Doug; now they know me as 'Gay Doug,"' said Laverty, an 18-year veteran. "The guys were all great. I know how lucky I am; I am blessed that I work with good people."
In July, when New Jersey's domestic-partnership law went into effect, Laverty began wondering whether the policy granting benefits to same-sex couples would extend to the county level. He has been in a committed gay relationship for three years, and refers to his partner of three years, James Roche, as his spouse and husband.
Laverty asked for a meeting with Passaic County sheriff Jerry Speziale, telling the sheriff's aide only that he wanted to discuss a personal matter. The sheriff didn't flinch when Laverty said he was gay, and Speziale immediately put him in contact with county freeholders to discuss the possibility of granting same-sex partners benefits. (That hasn't happened yet.) Soon a local newspaper got wind of his inquiries and profiled him in a front-page article. The night before it was to be published, Laverty couldn't sleep, fearing what he might have gotten himself into.
"It's a macho, very masculine-type job," he said. "For all these years, I had been totally afraid to reveal it to anybody. I know other gay cops that are out that have been received in a very negative manner, having bras and panties hung in their lockers, people refusing to work with them."
When he got to work the next day, his desk was filled with cards and notes, all offering support. "Basically everyone said that 'nothing had changed, you're still our friend, we still care about you,'" he said. "I had a few guys pull me aside and say, 'Doug, why didn't you ever say anything?' Honest to God, there was not one negative thing said or done."
It's a story that is slowly becoming more common in the United States as gays are more visible and accepted, said Michael Adams, a spokesman for Lambda Legal, a gay civil rights group. "It reflects the progress being made in law enforcement and in New Jersey," he said. "New Jersey is becoming an increasingly supportive state for gay people. And we're definitely seeing progress being made with gays in law enforcement, which is encouraging." There are several gay police groups, including the Gay Officers Action League, which has chapters across the country, including New York, Boston, and San Francisco.
His coming-out this year was the end of a journey the 37-year-old Laverty began as a child; he began to suspect as far back as junior high school that he was gay, but he says he didn't want to deal with it. "I started realizing I was attracted to boys; it was very confusing," he said. "I was brought up in a very straight household."
Laverty did things he thought would help steer him in the opposite direction. He joined the military, got married, and had two daughters. When the feelings persisted, he went to a psychiatrist, hoping for "a cure." It was not to be; although he loved his wife and kids, his true sexual orientation was becoming clearer, and he would have flings with men behind his wife's back. "I wasn't being the best husband or father, living all these lies," he said. "I was leading an ugly life."
Finally, after six years of marriage, he decided to tell his wife and daughters the truth, despite his fear he would lose them forever. His wife was upset at first but has now accepted the situation to the point that Roche, a hairstylist, does her hair. She and her boyfriend are friendly with Laverty and Roche.
"It's so much easier that I can be who I am now instead of pretending to be just one of his buddies," said Roche, who recently bought a house with Laverty in Little Falls. "Now when the guys at his work have a Christmas party or have their wives over to dinner, I go with him."
Detective Kevin Niethe, Laverty's on-the-job partner, trusts him with his life. "I feel confident in any situation that he would back me up," Niethe said. "He's a great guy and a good cop. If my life was on the line, I'm not thinking of who he's kissing behind closed doors." Laverty says he and Niethe get along great, engaging in the usual squad car banter and teasing that partners do. "He talks to me about his wife; I talk to him about my husband," he said with a smile.