What’s it like being LGBTQ+ in the RCMP?

Brendan Harkness

A regular member working in Vancouver, British Columbia. Brendan is a cis-gender male who identifies as gay. He recently returned from a secondment in Ukraine where, among other duties, he was developing diversity and inclusion training for the executive level of the Ukrainian police service.

Tell us about the work you've been doing in Ukraine.

In 2019, on behalf of Canada's federal government, I was seconded to the European Union's Advisory Mission in Ukraine. The Mission was invited to set up in 2014 after the Revolution of Dignity, which ended when the Ukrainian people ousted their president and overthrew their government. The Advisory Mission has a staff of approximately 200 people operating in four different regions of the country.

In Ukraine, the national police service is responsible for all policing. The Ukrainian government is trying to align itself with Western values so the country can join the European Union. I provided expert advice on general duty policing, such as use of force, dispatching and other operational topics. I was also beginning to develop diversity and inclusion training for the executive level of the Ukrainian police service. In collaboration with the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, I presented training on diversity and inclusion specific to members of the LGBTQ2 community. In Ukraine, they only say LGBT, the rest of the acronym isn't part of their vocabulary.

Was the training well received?

It resulted in a productive conversation, but gender diversity is a contentious topic in Ukraine, one that's difficult to broach. Their religious and family values are similar to what we had in Canada 30 years ago, so while it's not illegal to be gay, it's still met with strong opposition. The country's ongoing political upheaval has made the people tough, which includes the members of the national LGBTQ2 community; they have a lot of grit. Relative to us, members of Ukraine's LGBTQ2 community face greater challenges. When your country is under frequent threat of military invasion, you have more to worry about than acceptance at work.

Progress is relative. Overall, I was satisfied with the conversations I had in Ukraine. I expected there wouldn't be any dialogue, but there was. Imagine being in a room full of cops in a different country where values are more traditional. If you even mention gender diversity, people might think you're gay, so you say nothing. The fact that Ukrainian police officers were willing to talk about diversity and inclusion training was satisfying. The work I did specifically with United Nations about LGBTQ2 diversity and inclusion training felt like progress. It began the conversation.

As an RCMP employee, what's been your experience as a member of the gender diverse community?

It's been kind of a chicken and egg situation. To get to the point where I could work on gender diversity policies, I first had to establish myself as a credible police officer. That's the reason I joined in 2008, so that's what I focussed on at the beginning of my career. Being part of the LGBTQ2 community in the RCMP hasn't been all great, but I've never directly experienced someone who's been truly hateful toward me. In general, I'd say my experience has been positive because of my outlook and my willingness to get the job done. If you're willing to work hard and prove yourself, you'll have a good experience.

What's the importance of allyship?

Allies are extremely important, they create meaningful change and help promote diversity. They're the advocates who return to their homes and workplaces to influence people who aren't part of the LGBTQ2 community.

I'll give you an example. A few years ago, I was schedule to speak at a diversity conference in Toronto and one of my RM colleagues asked if he could attend. He's straight and basically the kind of person you'd think would never want to go to an event like that. He wanted to go because he was an ally. During one of the Q&A sessions, he said something quite meaningful. He stood up and said that he'd spent two days trying to get to know people, asking questions so he could understand things like pronouns. He wanted to be able to go back to his colleagues and help shed light on challenging topics. He said that many of his questions were met with resistance and anger. Some people wanted him to feel he was doing something wrong just by asking. Even though he'd attended the conference as an ally, he found that many people didn't want to talk to him. The point he was making was that when someone asks a question from a place of genuinely wanting to understand, they shouldn't be attacked for it. Allies mean to help. We should try to meet that offer with openness and cooperation.

Allyship brings to the forefront the realities of getting to know each other at work. There are many intimate questions to consider, for example: how should I address the new employee who's transgender and undressing beside me in the locker room? Allies convince others to be more open-minded and I think they're underestimated. In the future, if I were to send a group of people to a diversity conference, I'd send more allies than members of the LGBTQ2 community.

Do you think it's important for the RCMP to provide education and awareness about the LGBTQ2 community?

Yes, for obvious operational reasons, LGBTQ2 awareness training is important because RCMP officers deal with members of all communities, each of which has its own nuances. What's just as important is drawing out our already diverse and inclusive work environments. It's part of the RCMP's evolution.

In our detachments, especially the smaller ones, whoever runs the detachment has the power to create an amazing work environment. On the books, all of the RCMP's policies are inclusive. You're allowed to work in any detachment and be transgender, or wear a hijab, or have a beard, whatever. Your colleagues and commanding officers can't judge you. Our policies may be protective and inclusive, but the way those messages are delivered at the detachment level can be different from the policy and that's what has the greatest impact. As a national police service, the RCMP is at the height of inclusiveness, it's just a matter of putting it all into practice. Encouraging people to be themselves should be our focus, not just creating diversity policies.

What does the acronym LGBTQ2 mean to you?

If you'd asked me that before I went to Ukraine, I would have said the acronym represents certain people in our society. I still say that, but now I think the acronym represents a broader topic: the concept of creating truly diverse and inclusive workplaces.

I created a project to put a Pride sticker on the front door of every RCMP detachment in British Columbia. The stickers don't just mean that LGBTQ2 people work in our detachments, they mean that members of the LGBTQ2 community, and everybody else, is welcome there. You know you can walk in the door and someone will support you, whether you're part of the LGBTQ2 community or opposed to it. In principal, all of the RCMP's policies are inclusive, but I think we still have work to do to create legitimately inclusive work environments where everyone feels they can contribute.

Robyn Keon

A regular member in New Market, Ontario, she identifies as a lesbian.

As an RCMP employee, what's been your experience as a member of the gender diverse community?

I've had really good experiences so far. I joined the RCMP five years ago and this is the first workspace where I've been able to be completely comfortable being out from the get go. From the day I applied until now, there have been no negative repercussions. On the teams I've been part of, we've just focussed on our work. My being gay isn't a factor because it has nothing to do with how I do my job. It just feels normal, which is great.

As a police officer, I think it's important that I'm out and comfortable with who I am because of the different groups of people I deal with. I'm a member of many different communities – yes, I'm a lesbian, but it's just one part of who I am. Especially in our current climate, I think we need to show people that police officers aren't just the way the media portrays us.

What's the importance of allyship?

The RCMP has provided the first workplace where I've felt comfortable being completely out. Knowing that I don't have to check my words when I talk about my family takes a huge weight off my shoulders. Allies are an essential part of this openness because they accept you as you are. They allow everyone the space to be themselves.

Do you think it's important for the RCMP to provide education and awareness about the LGBTQ2 community?

Yes, of course it's important for the RCMP to offer this kind of education. It's scary when you don't understand things outside of your own experience. Learning gets rid of that fear. It's important that we learn new language and learn how to respectfully ask sensitive questions. It teaches us that we're all cut from the same cloth, so we see there's nothing to be afraid of when we meet someone who's part of the LGBTQ2 community. It's just a matter of respect. You don't want to be put down because you're straight and I don't want to be put down because I'm gay. The better we understand that dignity is key, the better it is for everybody.

What does the acronym LGBTQ2 mean to you?

I define it as a community of individuals who don't fit into the old-fashioned, hetero-normative space. It's everybody else.

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