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A hero's death _ and a new era?

Carroll Hunter's first reaction to the news that Tampa police Officer Lois Marrero had been killed in the line of duty was as sorrowful as that of any member of the general public.

But Hunter, a former New York City corrections officer, had a second reaction as he watched Marrero's funeral on television. When police officials presented a folded flag to Marrero's longtime female companion Hunter said he felt "extremely comforted."

That gesture of respect, standard procedure for any law enforcement funeral, carried particular resonance for gay and lesbian officers around the country and the world. That officials and family members had not attempted to shunt aside Marrero's grieving partner, Tampa police Detective Mickie Mashburn, signalled to many gay officers that a milestone was being marked in the midst of a tragedy.

For decades, gay officers have served in silence, fearful of being ostracized, ridiculed or worse by their comrades. They worried they would not receive back-up in dangerous situations. They knew that they had no support from their union officials.

In a 1978 opinion piece in the New York Times, Samuel DeMilia, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association in New York, decried then Mayor Edward Koch's executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"The overt homosexual is distinguished by his speech, mannerisms, conduct and dress," DeMilia wrote. "These have generally been perceived negatively by the public. There is no reason to believe that public attitudes toward these features that distinguish homosexuals will change once he puts on a uniform."

If the size of Marrero's funeral was any indication, the public's attitude toward the slain officer was anything but negative. The tail of her 5-mile-long funeral procession had not yet left the church when the hearse arrived at the cemetery.

Her death at the hands of a fleeing bank robber July 6 has offered an opportunity, albeit one they did not hope for, for gay and lesbian officers to demonstrate that their sexuality has no bearing on their ability or desire to protect the public.

Though she had been fired in a dispute over paid leave and later reinstated by court order, Marrero's 19 years with the department were distinguished by consistently outstanding evaluations.

This drive to excel is not uncommon for gay and lesbian officers, says Key West Police Department Sgt. Alan Newby. "To overcome discrimination we have to prove we are the best."

In 1999, Newby helped establish Florida LEGAL, the state's first organization representing gays and lesbians in uniform. With 60 members, Florida LEGAL (it stands for Law Enforcement Gays and Lesbians) is one of 17 national and five international gay law enforcement groups.

Membership figures for these groups are hard to ascertain, but most agree they represent only a fraction of the gays and lesbians in the field. Moreover, only a small percentage, 10 to 15 percent, of those who join such organizations are openly gay, says Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff A.J. Rotella, spokesman for the Golden State Peace Officers Association, which numbers about 400.

Rotella revealed his sexual orientation in the aftermath of a harassment suit he filed in 1995 against his former department, the location of which he won't reveal. For seven months, slurs were routinely scrawled on his locker, and posters of women with male genitalia were taped on the wall.

"I was told I had to make a full disclosure about my orientation. In truth I didn't have to. They had a duty to protect me from discrimination regardless," Rotella says. Now he counsels other officers to come out and "take the issue head-on. They have to challenge oppression."

Carroll Hunter, who joined Florida LEGAL when he moved to Sarasota last year, says many officers do not want to join gay and lesbian organizations for fear their affiliation will be used against them.

"But we (the organizations) are the first people they call in the middle of the night," Hunter says. " "They found out I'm gay. They're writing "fag' on my squad car. What should I do?'

"It is fear they use to keep you in your place," Hunter says. "It takes courage to stand up in the light of day and say, this is who I am."

Gay officers say they do not expect to see a flood of police coming out of the closet at work, even with Marrero's reputation as a good officer and Mashburn's unabashed discussion of their longtime relationship as examples.

As with the civil rights struggles of blacks and women, gay officers know that public stands often come at dire personal costs.

"In the '60s, black officers weren't allowed to patrol with white officers. In the '70s, women weren't allowed to go on patrol," Rotella says. "This is just the issue we're dealing with in the new millennium."

One of the battle lines of that struggle will be drawn over survivor benefits.

Florida, like most other states, does not recognize same-sex unions. For that reason, says the chairman of the Tampa city pension board, Mashburn will not receive spousal benefits from Marrero's pension.

Marrero didn't die fighting for equal protection for gay officers, but her sister Brenda Ayoub has no doubt what Marrero's position would have been on the issue.

"If there's anything that Lois would love, other than the good treatment of children, it would be for long-term positive effects to be had" about recognizing same-sex unions, she says.

"Florida needs to recognize same-sex marriages and needs to make benefits available to same-sex partners," Ayoub says. "Let's not talk about it, let's do something about it, would be Lois' perspective."

There is evidence of change. Many large agencies include gay and lesbian components to their standard sensitivity training programs. Some departments, including Boston, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, actively recruit in the gay community, according to Stephen Leinen in his 1993 book Gay Cops.

But attitudes of fellow officers and the media do not change as quickly as administrative policy. Sometimes what is left unsaid is as revealing as any spoken slur.

The Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org) includes Marrero's death on the list of seven officers killed since July 6. Most mention the officer is survived by a wife and children, parents or siblings. Marrero's doesn't mention any family at all.

Times staff writer Amy Herdy and Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story.

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