Pittsburgh’s new Police Chief Larry Scirotto can pinpoint the moment he knew he had to come out of the closet at work.
Around 2008, while working as a sergeant in the Pittsburgh bureau, a young man interested in a policing career approached him at an event in Shadyside and asked, “Are you allowed to be gay and be a cop?”
“As if there was a law against being gay and being a cop,” Scirotto recalls. “It touched such a place in my heart. I felt so bad in the moment, because I wasn't out then, and I couldn't represent our profession [or] this department … to tell that kid ‘Yes, you can be gay and you can be a police officer.’ Then I knew that I would always carry that torch forward,” he says. ”I would always be a leader in this space, because it mattered.”
According to Scirotto, the bureau has been very accepting of his sexuality, and he’s never faced discrimination or homophobia while working for them. Still, in a more general sense, being Pittsburgh’s first openly gay police chief is to him “a big deal,” given that the profession “hasn’t, in the past, been so receptive of differences in sexuality.”
Although, “to be the first openly gay police chief for this city is monumental in a lot of ways,” Scirotto says, “I didn't want to be characterized as the gay chief, right? Or the biracial chief. I wanted the selection to be based on my merits from the interview, and it's beneficial that I am gay. It's beneficial that I am biracial.” (Scirotto’s mother is white and his father is Black.)
Hear more about this reporting — and from Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto himself — on the City Cast Pittsburgh podcast.
Scirotto’s appointment has prompted mixed feelings among members of Pittsburgh’s queer community regarding what, if anything, having an openly gay police chief means to them or to the city. These differing perspectives reflect divergent ideas about the role and objectives of the police as an institution.
Sue Kerr, a local LGBTQ advocate and founder of the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondent blog, says she feels having an openly gay police chief is a sign that Pittsburgh has become more accepting of queer people.
“When I started blogging in 2005, there was no ‘out’ anyone,” she says. “There'd been an out councilmember in Wilkinsburg in the [1990s]. It’s amazing to me how far we’ve come in 18 years.”
Ideally, Kerr sees the police as a potential point of connection between queer Pittsburghers and supportive local resources.
“We need people in the ranks to understand what our needs are as a community, and also, how we can plug in and have an impact on the police,” she says.
For example, she’d like to see Pittsburgh Police become more knowledgeable about the services that exist to serve LGBTQ Pittsburghers and more adept at identifying people who could benefit from them.
Kerr points to a recent incident in the North Side neighborhood of Observatory Hill, in which a neighbor was was found guilty in court of harassing a gay couple living next door with a transgender daughter. The Collar-O’Donnell family had several interactions with police before they eventually filed suit for harassment, and Kerr feels that, although the officers were respectful and professional, ideally, they would have helped the family connect to resources like the North Side-based Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation, which eventually provided the family legal aid.
Kerr also says the family had to appeal to the district attorney to issue a summons against the neighbor, a process the police could have initiated themselves if they had correctly identified this person's behavior as anti-LGBTQ harassment.
In addition to Scirotto’s appointment, Kerr is encouraged by the Department of Public Safety’s recent decision to appoint LGBTQ liaisons to all its branches to improve community relations. A spokesperson for the department confirms the initiative is underway and a public announcement is forthcoming.
Other queer Pittsburghers view Scirotto’s identities as irrelevant and express a sense that the police don’t have solutions for the problems facing many LGBTQ Pittsburghers.
“I would like to see what change is gonna come with [Scirotto’s appointment]. It's nice to have representation. But if representation isn’t doing anything, what does it matter?” says August Copeland, a community services worker at Proud Haven, an organization that provides safe shelter for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
“Between being Black and being queer, neither trusts the police,” says Copeland. “I feel like you could be [gay and Black] and still be problematic or complacent.”
Jamie Martina, chair of the Proud Haven board, says Scirotto’s appointment is less relevant because the police don’t provide resources that alleviate the major issues facing queer people, which she identifies as a lack of affordable housing, liveable wages, and accessible treatment for substance use disorder. Martina would like “this new police chief to acknowledge that the cops are not holding the answers.”
For his part, Scirotto says his identity influences how he leads in that he brings a greater “empathy and understanding” to his role, “because I know how difficult it was to exist and [have] part of my identity be unknown.” He says his lived experience “will impact decision making,” including “the way which we promote, the way in which we recruit, the way in which you run the organization, the way you engage with the community.”
Dade Lemanski, a researcher of queer and trans lives in Pittsburgh who has previously written for Pittsburgh City Paper, says the young man who unintentionally prompted Scirotto to come out isn’t alone in feeling there might be an inherent conflict between being gay and being a police officer. Lemanski says part of the contradiction has to do with the criminalization of queer life and the role of the police in enforcing social control.
Lemanski says that between laws against sodomy and gay marriage, a strong public association between public queerness and sex work, and the historical role of police in enforcing normative gender expression, “Homosexuality was very explicitly criminalized up until the late ‘90s and early 2000s in most places in the U.S. One might argue it is still criminalized.”
“Pittsburgh is sort of an interesting case, because there are not so many recordings of direct, anti-queer violence by the police, and a lot of that has to do with the relationship between the police, the Pittsburgh mafia, and queer nightlife workers,” Lemanski adds. Key figures of Pittsburgh’s historic gay nightlife scene, namely Robert “Lucky” Johns, knew enough to bribe the police, Lemanski says.
Lemanski sees queer life as fundamentally at odds with the social order the police seek to enforce. “What police are really seeking is control, and what they're threatened by is money and property that is outside of their control and from which they can't benefit,” they say.
While Scirotto speaks fondly about participating in Pittsburgh’s Pride Month activities while in uniform, Lemanski notes that the Stonewall Riots — the 1969 events that Pride Month serves to commemorate — were an uprising against police violence towards queer people.
“It is so resolutely tiresome to me when queer people think that somehow, in the last 50-odd years since the Stonewall riots, that the state has somehow rearranged itself to accommodate us,” Lemanski says. “If you are queer, and you think that you are being accommodated by the state, it is because you are betraying people more vulnerable than you and you don't even know it.”
Scirotto acknowledges these historical abuses but sees them as opportunities to do better rather than evidence of fundamental antagonism between the police and queer communities.
It’s important to “move forward with the intention and commitment to change the narrative,” Scirotto says. “I think if we're intentional in that direction, then we have the ability to change perception, and, more importantly, we have the ability to change reality … No one will be able to walk away from this to say I didn't try or we didn't try.”
This was reported in partnership with Megan Harris and the City Cast Pittsburgh podcast.
Editor's note: This story was updated with a name removed that was used inadvertently.