‘Dyke on the shift:’ Intolerance, isolation for gay police detective when she joined force

Ruth Davenport, Metro Halifax
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It was difficult enough joining Halifax Regional Police that Det. Const. Debbie Carleton says she wouldn’t do it again – but she’s hoping her experience will help improve the situation for other LGBTQ members and the broader community.

Det. Const. Debbie Carleton poses for a photo outside the Halifax Regional Police building on Monday. 

The 19-year-veteran of the municipal force, who is gay, doesn’t betray much emotion as she describes the homophobic behaviour she encountered – even before starting.

“My very first day, there was already a rumour that there was a dyke coming on the shift,” she says, without resentment or anger. “They hadn’t even seen me, or talked to me or met me, just these fears.”

Carleton wasn’t out when she joined HRP, but was prepared to tell anyone who asked directly she was gay – though no one ever asked. And as the lewd jokes, whispers and sly digs persisted – from peers and superiors – she went to greater lengths to hide her personal life, never taking part in work events and refusing to name her partner as a beneficiary on insurance paperwork.

“There’s the banter, the jokes, daily you get the sense from listening to how they talk that there’s still a real underlying homophobic type of atmosphere in the policing subculture,” she says.

When Carleton did come out, in 2005, it was for the same reason she decided to speak with Metro in 2014: to show other LGBTQ police officers and the broader community that they have an advocate in the police force.

“People I had known in the community…had come to me for advice or support or that kind of thing,” she said. “I decided I needed to do something to change attitudes. Because they shouldn’t be coming to me, they should feel free to go to any police officer.”

Carleton says LGBTQ people across Canada tend to fear police and are reluctant to report assaults, verbal abuse and property damage – but she adds Halifax is years behind other major police departments in building bridges through measures such as a diversity officer dedicated to the LGBTQ community.

HRP has a diversity officer, and at one point it what was mandated to deal specifically with race relations and racial diversity.

But now it focuses on all diverse communities in Halifax.

“You’re dealing with gay people in every culture, gay people plus their friends, their family, their loved ones, their children,” said Carleton, adding Chief Jean-Michel Blais is open to looking at the issue. “So when you take into consideration those numbers, that is the largest diverse community in HRM by far.”

Attitudes within the department have changed since she was just a ‘dyke coming on shift’ 19 years ago, but Carleton says HRP – which includes several openly gay members who are female, but none that are male – still has a lot of learning to do about acceptance.

“Having an inclusive environment starts from the top down,” she said. “If we have senior managers who are still allowing…certain words and phrases, the jokes, they need to understand that’s going to affect other members.”

Carleton says she became a police officer to help people, and helping LGBTQ residents feel safe about approaching someone in uniform – or putting that uniform on – is what will make her own difficult journey worthwhile.

“It’s important to have people be able to visualize that there are gay people in our department, that the community has, sees and knows a gay person that they can come to,” she said. “And (officers) leading the Pride parade, one day we’ll be walking down with our partners instead of having family members walk behind us.”

Organizations: Metro inc.

Geographic location: Halifax, Canada, HRM

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