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Liz Ryan Headshot

SFPD's 'It Gets Better' Video and Bringing Ourselves to Work

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I saw the link for the San Francisco Police Department's "It Gets Better" video, and the first thought that flitted across my mind was "That's mislabeled. Police departments don't make videos like that."

I watched the video, and I was stunned. The San Francisco chief of police is talking about being bullied as a kid himself. This isn't what I expect police chiefs to say. It's disorienting. Here are gay officers, commanders, dispatchers, and others talking about what they experienced as kids, and what it was like to come out, and what it was like to come out at work. The humanity is touching. It's profound -- this young man is a cop, and I want to hug him -- look what he's been through, thinking he was the only gay male officer in the world!

I'm not a big video-weeper, but this one brought a few tears. Imagine the journey -- from a kid with a secret and a burden to a member of a big-city police department, marching (as I understand some of the officers do, in uniform) in a Pride Parade. Like a lot of people, I wish the shift toward acceptance of LGBT people and celebration of differences in general were happening faster -- but the trajectories of these officers still make my head spin.

The video hits me powerfully for another reason. These folks are uniformed officers (or their supporting colleagues) in one of the most framed-up, formal, hierarchical, rule-bound work and no-nonsense environments known to mankind. These folks went to the academy; they took an oath. We all know about the codes and traditions and rituals of cops. My grandpa was a cop, and so were a bunch of my uncles and cousins. Cops don't mess around. Whatever we think of police officers, we don't think of them as emotionally expressive, or even emotionally awake.

I'm not sure we think of them as individuals, in fact. You see the uniform and you think "cop." Is there any more macho job in the world than a cop? We don't expect to hear about their childhoods, and we don't expect, in particular, to hear about their pain.

Hats off to the video director and crew -- they did an incredible job. I had to watch the video three times to make sure I took in everything. I kept asking myself, "Why is this so gripping?" I came around to the answer: it's gripping because they're at work, and because of the jobs they do. These folks are bringing themselves to work, totally. It's not what we expect from cops -- raw emotion and even a little on-camera Macho Mist from some of the men -- in any setting, particularly on the job.

You sit and talk to the camera for a video like this one, and you still have to get in the car and go on patrol the next day. You still have to be a cop and deal with dangerous people and situations. "Yep, that's me in that video, I'm gay, now put your hands on the car." It's startling -- the juxtaposition of the traditional cop role (hard, cold, serious, scary) and the warmth and, well, non-traditionally-cop-ish behaviors of the people in the video. We're softened, watching it. They're softened, telling their stories.

Watching the SFPD video, I was reminded of a trip I made to Chile a few years ago. I went to speak to a U.N. gathering of leaders from Central and South American countries. The conference focused on women and political engagement. At one point in the proceedings, a chief of police from a small Central American country took the floor.

When the police chief stepped to the mic, I felt a tiny spike of unease. The guy looked like every scary, Latin American military leader from central casting you've ever seen, down to the scrambled-egg shoulder thingies, the thick, black belt over a starched green uniform, and the shiny, knee-high, black boots. He had the scary dictator moustache and the whole thing. In the most peaceful and tranquil setting imaginable, the thought crossed my mind: "This is the kind of guy you see just before you get put in a South American jail forever and your family never learns what happened to you."

Then the police chief started speaking. I listened through the massive earphones as the simultaneous translator converted the speech from Spanish to English, a few seconds behind. "One of my biggest priorities as police chief is to make sure our officers are supporting women in rural villages, many of whom are victims of domestic violence and prohibited by their male family members from any involvement in the political process," the police chief began. My jaw nearly left my skull. "Another priority is protection of LGBT and transgender people, who are often reluctant to seek the help of our officers. We've just put our entire force through a six-week training on engaging with transgender citizens and intervening in situations in which they could be at risk."

Here is central casting's scary, movie dictator talking about domestic violence prevention, protecting transgender people from abuse, and empowering rural women. I was abashed. I had to ask myself, "Do they have this training in New York, and in Chicago?" I tried to imagine the big-city U.S. cops I've encountered sitting in a six-week course on protecting transgender people. I couldn't get there.

So the San Francisco cops really got to me, and so did the Central American officer. Both the San Francisco video and the Central American police chief broke up old stereotypes I had about cops. They stepped out of the frame that tells us, "Cops are even more boxed-up and compartmentalized than the rest of us. They have to be -- they're cops."

Bringing yourself to work isn't in the American go-to-work frame, not for most of us, and perhaps for police officers least of all. For a million years the message has been that when we start a workday, we check a part of ourselves at the door. We don't even question it. We don't even complain.

The standard frame says, "Work is where you're not yourself, or not all of yourself, anyway." We don't expect to let our hair down at work they way these honest, brave cops are doing. We expect to have to keep parts of ourselves under wraps.

What a gift to have a job where you don't have to do that. I can't imagine anything a leader could give his or her colleagues that would be more valuable, or more healthy.

Every single day I hear from working people who say, "Well, of course I couldn't say that at work," or, "My boss has no interest in my opinion," or, "It's a job that I do for money. My personality is not in that job." That's a very sad state for everyone. It's stupid for employers, because the good stuff -- the passion and commitment that is obvious on the "It Gets Better" video, even though the subjects aren't talking much about their work -- only comes when people feel like themselves at work.

You earn that commitment and passion as a leader when you invite people to come to work all the way, as gay and straight and complicated, normal people and not as robotic versions of themselves that leave out the less-than-socially-acceptable and that's-not-part-of-my-work-persona parts. Those cops are themselves at work, and that's astounding, and wonderful.

If the issue of harassment and stigmatization of gays and lesbians, and remedies to it like the SFPD "It Gets Better" video, are catalysts for more conversation not only about sexuality and humanity and acceptance but also about being human in the workplace, then that will be a very good thing.