In the early 1990s, most LGBTQ people didn’t think of cops as our allies. We’d seen decades of police raids on gay bars – including the infamous showdown at Stonewall – sexist treatment of both conventionally feminine and gender-nonconforming women, and brutality against queers of color, by those sworn “to protect and serve.”
But when our community came under an entirely different kind of attack – Ballot Measure 9 – we had the unlikeliest of friends: the chief of the Portland Police Bureau, Tom Potter, and his lesbian daughter Katie, also a Portland police officer.
“Chief Potter was well-known and well-respected for his community policing and his view that all citizens, including women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals deserved equal protection,” noted Pat Young in her Master’s thesis on Measure 9. “Just Out and The Oregonian ran stories on the Potters describing what it was like for Katie to come out and how her family and the police force responded. But it was not the newspaper articles that upset the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) as much as the fact that Chief Potter appeared in Portland Gay Pride parades. The OCA claimed Potter was not acting as a positive role model and his public support for homosexuals was ‘inappropriate use’ of his public office.”
“A Scary Time for the City”
“It was a scary time for the city, and one-hundredfold for the gay and lesbian community,” Tom says, in an interview with No on 9 Remembered.
“I have never seen anything in my tenure as chief, other than the civil rights issues and the Vietnam war, that has created such division within our state, and pitted family members against family members. There’s a very strong sense of imminent danger,” he testified to the Oregon Senate on October 26, 1992, one week before the election.
Convening in response to the surge in hate crimes accompanying Ballot Measure 9, the hearing also included law enforcement from Salem and Hillsboro, communities that had suffered hate murders and the desecration of a Catholic Church the prior weeks.
As Chief Potter told the legislators at that time, “Almost every gay and lesbian organization has received death threats. We’ve met with the No on 9 people, looked at the security of their premises. Gay and lesbians that are working on this issue are moving in pairs now.”
Tom recounts his personal role in these security measures: “I visited the No on 9 campaign headquarters at least weekly. I wanted officers to see that, as well as the community. If we could prevent problems, we would. And if not, we wanted to respond as quickly as possible. The chief’s responsibility isn’t just to parrot something, but to live it. I was always being watched.
“We installed a 900 alarm system at the campaign office that went directly to 911, with the immediate dispatch of a police officer. We put together a task force inside the bureau. It looked at all the possible scenarios: what happens if someone is shot, if there’s a demonstration. You try to develop responses that are lawful, appropriate, and create the least damage.”
“Police presence is one of the most effective tools,” he says. “In the academy, they’re considered halos. If people see a police car, they behave differently – at least they used to. Having a patrol car a block from the campaign HQ – not right out front, that would be intimidating, but close by. A lot of the officers that I knew were gay, even if they may not have been out, would volunteer for these jobs.”
Katie was one of those officers. Lesbian Community Project Executive Director Donna Redwing and her partner Sumitra lived in Katie’s district. “I gave their address to a couple of other lesbian cops I worked with, because I knew that Donna was receiving a lot of death threats. I would park my car and sit outside of their house as much as I could, because I knew that they were having to deal with a lot.”
Pat Young’s thesis notes: “As election day approached, Portland Police prepared for violence. The bureau gave special security to 30 persons and extra protection to about 76 locations citywide that had been identified as potential targets of violence. The No on 9 Campaign headquarters had been surrounded by a 6-foot chain link fence, which the police recommended for protection against firebombing. Twenty-five people were given telephone pagers so they could be reached during a crisis.”
Of these measures, Katie says: “All of that is dependent on who is at the top. I don’t think it would have happened on that level had there been somebody in that position who was not so pro-LGBTQ and pro-civil rights. Because my Dad happened to be there during that time, those things happened.”
“I was very grateful for all that was put into place for people whose lives were endangered just because they were being outspoken about who they are and supporting civil rights for queer people.”Katie Potter
Looking back on his tenure as chief during Measure 9, Tom says, “I felt fortunate to be in a position to provide assistance to other Portlanders, to help people to understand.”
Lesbian & Gay Pride
“A Father’s Love” is how The Oregonian captioned their entry about the 1991 parade in their history of Portland Pride. The article noted, “While Portland’s Lesbian and Gay Pride parade had featured local and state politicians over the years, 1991 brought something new. Police Chief Tom Potter rode in the parade to show solidarity with his daughter Katie, a Portland police officer who had recently come out. Potter also wanted to show the gay community that they could count on fair treatment from police, after a long history of being targeted.”
Tom Potter was the first chief of police to march in the city’s Gay Pride, something few if any other major city chiefs had done.
“I marched in uniform in the Pride parade for the first time as a police captain in 1987 or ’88,” Tom says. The OCA was already pretty visible then. I remember being stopped by a reporter: ‘The OCA has said you were a child molester, that you have sex with children.’ I was so disgusted that she would repeat that!”
“Early on, I was the only one in uniform marching. I’d asked permission from the chief. Our gay and lesbian officers weren’t interested in marching; they had been feeling the heat. After I became chief, I told the organization: ‘I’m marching, and would like to have others join me.’ Maybe half a dozen or ten stepped up; my daughter was one. Over my time as chief, our contingent became sizable and other [law enforcement] departments became part of it too.”Tom Potter
The response within the bureau was not all positive. Tom remembers, “As I was marching, uniformed patrol officers on duty blocking traffic would turn their back on me. After a few intersections I understood it was their way of slighting me, of saying we don’t like what you’re doing. They knew that discrimination against other officers or anyone in a protected class was not something I would tolerate; you’d have to answer to me personally. But they figured out the loopholes, what they could get away with.”
Katie’s car was vandalized on one of those Gay Pride days, parked in the police parking lot. Another year, Katie tells us, “after walking in the Pride parade, I was later at a Precinct on-duty. An officer walked into an adjacent room, not seeing me, and told two other officers that working the Pride parade was the worst duty of his career.”
Some of the hostility came not just from other cops, but from parade onlookers. “I think it was just really hard for some people to accept that a police officer would be happily and proudly walking amongst all of my community,” Katie says. “It was hard because most police officers at that time wouldn’t have done it.”
Participation at Lesbian and Gay Pride was a chance to change that dynamic. “After the parades,” Tom says, “we spent time where the booths were set up, just talking to people. Not just the gay and lesbian community, but folks wandering in to the festival area, wondering What’s all this about? Katie and I and others also set up a booth at Pride for recruiting. We tried to use those events as opportunities not just to show up for communities, but also to get something from it – recruits more fully representative of the community. We did the same with every other community parade or celebration.”
Ten years later, in 2002, Katie was asked to serve as the Pride parade’s grand marshal. (By then the event name had expanded to the Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans Pride Parade.) She and her partner and two young daughters rode in the Wells Fargo stagecoach, leading the way for the more than 100 groups marching that year.
Tom remembers seeing his daughter and granddaughters in that stagecoach: “I thought – wow, we’ve come a long way! The crowd was cheering them! When you have a police force carrying guns, you want people to be on your side.”
For Katie, those years of marching – especially later as a pregnant lesbian cop and then with her children – heightened her awareness of the risks of her visibility. “I felt all those eyes upon me when I would go by, and could see some people on the sidelines that were really clearly anti-gay. I would have to wonder, ‘What if one of them loses it and comes after us? How do I protect my children?’”
Even with the continued targeting of queer people and threatened roll-back of our rights, Tom says – compared to 1992 – “I’m so impressed by how far our gay and lesbian community has come.” For that reason, he “was so disappointed” by the 2017 decision by Pride organizers to ask officers not to march in uniform.
Oregonian coverage from the time shows the request – spurred by excessive force used against anti-Trump protesters – was not well-received: “Some Portland police officers, notably those who are members of the LGBTQ community, expressed outrage this week when they received a request from Pride Northwest to consider wearing something other than their police uniforms to march in the Pride Parade on Sunday.”
“It was so hard to get gay and lesbian officers accepted and treated as equals,” Tom says. “If the people making that decision had been around in 1992, they may have seen things differently.”
Katie, who retired in 2016 after 27 years as a Portland cop, says, “I do not share the same opinion as the rest of the police bureau. When they made that request I would have shown up not in uniform. What we should have been focused on is building bridges with the people who were scared or intimidated or felt threatened by our presence in uniform.”
Read more about police culture then and now in our addendums: A Former Chief on Police Culture and A Lesbian Cop on Police Culture.
Tom & Katie Under Fire
The OCA saw Chief Potter’s participation in Gay Pride as evidence of governmental promotion of homosexuality. The way he saw it, he told The Oregonian, was as an expression of his responsibility as police chief to “work to ensure that every citizen has the right to live their life free from the fear of crime and free from any governmental interference in their right to think, express themselves and live as they choose.”
In response to the OCA’s demand that Potter be fired, “Portland citizens, community leaders, and The Oregonian rallied to Potter’s side,” Pat Young recounts. “The issue of whether Potter should resign was aired in editorials, letters to the editor, news conferences, and eventually in a face-to-face meeting between OCA leaders and Potter. The meeting ended with both sides ‘agreeing to disagree.’”
Supporters at a well-attended news conference defending Chief Potter included longtime African American community activist Richard Brown; Darryl Tukufu, executive director of the Portland Urban League; a representative of Governor Barbara Roberts; and Patrick F. Donaldson, director of the Citizens Crime Commission, an affiliate of the Portland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
“We are in complete agreement with the chief in accepting and allowing diversity. As a public servant, he is acting in the best interest of all citizens.”Patrick F. Donaldson, Citizens Crime Commission, Groups Declare Support for Embattled Chief, July 10, 1991
Tom’s job may have been secure with this level of community support, but Katie knew hers wasn’t. “The discussion around Ballot Measure 9 made it clear to me that it was very likely that I would have to be removed from my job if it passed – the language was super specific around that,” she remembers.
One OCA activist went a step further and filed a lawsuit against Katie, Tom, and the City of Portland, alleging that Katie was a part of Bigot Busters. “This woman who lived in the neighborhood that I grew up in signed an affidavit that said that I was at a mall Bigot Busting, which I had never participated in. Not that I was opposed to it,” Katie says, “because I wasn’t – but I wasn’t a participant because of my status [as an officer] at the time.
“But she said that I was there, that I got within a few inches of her face and spit in her face, and was intimidating everybody. And that part of the intimidation was because I was a police officer, and everybody knew it. That I was using my police officer authority to intimidate people.”
The lawsuit was eventually thrown out, but “It was so painful, every day, to figure out what was going to happen around all that,” Katie says. “And I thought: What does this mean that someone can make something like this up out of thin air?”
Tom says, “I worried for my daughter on a personal level. I knew she could take care of herself but it was a scary time.”
“It was just nuts. There were enough people that were so angry and, I think, unwell around this issue that they might try to kill us.”Katie Potter
“My Dad told me afterwards about getting a bunch of mail, some of which were death threats. I’m not a person that carried my gun everywhere. When I was off duty I didn’t want to feel like I was still on duty, so I just didn’t have it with me. My Dad asked me one day, ‘Are you carrying off duty?’ I said no, and he said, ‘You should really think about that.’ And I was like oh, crazy thing to have to tell your kid!”
Read more about the internal harassment Katie faced within the police bureau as a woman, an out lesbian, and as the chief’s daughter, in A Lesbian Cop on Police Culture.
Lessons from that Time
“Ballot Measure 9 was a bellwether event,” Tom says. “We need to keep it in focus. If we’re not careful, we’ll go back there – which is happening.
“I’m so concerned about the divide in our country. Today we have counties in Oregon that want to go to Idaho. Those groups that were looked at before as different from the norm are being looked at again. We have friends in the Chinese American community who are concerned about the problems they’re facing based on their heritage. We have to learn the lessons all over again.
“We’ve lost the stability of truth. There’s nothing we can say that folks will take as gospel. Our belief systems have been shattered. There’s no common belief now, from what is democracy even to the role of the Supreme Court. Trump didn’t create this, but he brought it out, all those people ready and willing to believe whatever he’s saying.
“How do we develop systems that people can believe as honest and true information? We need to develop shared beliefs about our democracy, how we treat each other, and how we solve problems,” Tom says.
For Katie, the harassment she faced from coworkers on the force underscores one of the threats to democracy and the rule of law. “Guess what? Social justice is a part of justice – it’s not just about criminal justice. It stuns me that’s not better understood.”
Tom and Katie both see our No on 9 experience as instructive around what’s needed now.
“Measure 9 locked people into having to pay attention,” Tom says. “They could see people being insulted, injured, threatened. Portlanders were shocked by it. It forced the larger community to pay more attention to how gay and lesbian folks were treated.
“We tend to look at situations and say it’s never going to change, but given the opportunity and good information, and the chance to do something better, I think people can change. From my positive side, I want to think we can use all these hard things that happen as lessons for the future; not just to learn from them, but to grow.”
Tom recently gave Katie the boxes of all the mail they had received during his years as “Police Chief with a Lesbian Cop Daughter.” She says, “We received a lot of mail and a ton of it was supportive. It’s pretty incredible to go through all of it – it’s amazing and heart-filling and simultaneously heartbreaking in some instances. But the positive support that was shown us through most of those letters far outweighed the negative stuff.”
For Katie, the experience taught her, “The most useful thing that all of us can participate in is being a part of a collective of community members. Along with all the terrible stuff from that time was the joy of meeting and making community with people – so many amazing people.”
“I was reminded about the Rainbow Coalition recently, and the work that Kathleen Saadat did in the African American community, and with Jesse Jackson. That was transformative,” Katie says. “I remember when Basic Rights Oregon moved into, not just advocating for queer rights, but also looking at racial justice [see Timeline, 2007]. That was transformative.
“Those kinds of coalitions are what we’re going to need now – as much as we did back then – for the things we’re going to come up against with the current makeup of the Supreme Court.”
Read more in our addendums: A Former Chief on Police Culture and A Lesbian Cop on Police Culture.
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.