You mentioned you were considering creating a gay unit, as you did in D.C. Where does that stand?
We had taken a look at that. I did that in D.C. and the situation in the District is different than it is in Philadelphia. We had a lot of issues in D.C., actual hostility towards members of the LGBT community on the part of some of the officers, and it was important that we establish that unit. I haven’t seen that same thing here. I do have a liaison, Lt. Daley and Deputy Comm. Johnson. Right now that seems to be working well. We just don’t have the luxury of creating units in the department because we’re short and we need people out on patrol. But if there was a real need, I wouldn’t be opposed to it, though I couldn’t guarantee it.
You also mentioned creating an environment where gay and lesbian officers feel comfortable coming out. Do you think they feel more comfortable to do so now than before?
I personally don’t care what a person’s sexual orientation is. I care how they perform on the job. A good policeman is a good policeman. It doesn’t matter if they’re straight, gay, Hispanic, Asian. I don’t care about any of that. What I care about is the quality of the service they provide members of the community. I think we need to work hard at trying to recruit people into our ranks who reflect the diversity of the community we serve, that includes recruiting within the LGBT community, so that we get police officers who aren’t necessarily just assigned to just that particular area of the city, but who really reflect the diversity of this city. We’re making some progress, making some inroads.
With the unsolved murder of a transgender woman, Stacey Blahnik, last year, some people in the transgender community are on edge. How do you feel the department is doing with regard to protecting the transgender community?
I look at it as protecting all communities. We had 306 murders last year. I think every single victim should have justice by having the person responsible for that death in custody and prosecuted. We have to treat all murders the same and be just as motivated to solve each one. So I don’t break it out in terms of categories—were they black, white, transgender, Hispanic. All life has value and nobody should be murdered. And if they are, we have an equal responsibility to find the person or persons responsible and bring them to justice.
Arthur C. Evans, Commissioner, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services
Tell me more about Morris House, DBHIDS’ special program for the transgender community.
We’re creating a residential program—we’ve approved the funding, approved the concept, identified a provider. Now it’s just a matter of getting through the zoning process and getting the program up and running. We’re hoping that before the end of the year the program will be fully operational and we’ll be serving people within the community. This will be a residential program for individuals who have substance abuse problems and mental health challenges. It’s totally for trans people, staffed and led by members of the trans community. Often people from the trans community have problems accessing residential care. I feel strongly that one of our primary tasks is making sure people have access to care.
As a heterosexual man, why are LGBT issues important to you?
I guess from several standpoints. For one, if one accepts a position in government, I think you’re a public servant and you serve everyone in the community, and everyone in the community ought to have access to care and effective, high quality care. But I also am an African-American male who grew up in the South, I know what it feels like to be discriminated against, I know what it feels like to not have access to things one should have access to. So I think I have a very strong feeling about making sure, particularly in any position I have leadership, that there is both access, that there is a level playing field, that people have the ability to get the services they need and deserve. So both from a personal and professional standpoint, it’s a no-brainer, it just makes sense to take that kind of position
Do you think the Black LGBT community has specific mental-health issues different from general population?
I think first of all, if one is from the LGBT community, there’s a certain set of issues there, if you’re from the African-American community, there’s a certain set of issues there. I think if you’re from both communities, there’s an interaction between those two issues. And I do think there are issues unique to the LGBT community of color that the majority LGBT color don’t have to deal with, namely issues of race and how that plays out and interacts with issues of sexual orientation.
How do we help LGBT people of color?
Speaking from the standpoint of a mental-health commissioner, from that standpoint it is about access and when I say access it’s not just physical access, it’s also psychological access. And to me, psychological access has to deal with when I show up to the door and I need help, is this a place that’s going to accept me for who I am? I think we have a responsibility to make sure that everyone who shows up at the door and asks for help, that the threshold for getting that help is very low and people get the help that they need. Furthermore, I think we bear the responsibility for doing outreach, because for every person who shows up and asks for help there are probably nine other people who need the help, but feel they don’t know how to get or don’t know where to get it. I think beyond that, once people are inside the treatment world, providers bear responsibility for delivering services that are affirming, that honors the person for who they are.
It sounds like even as a straight man, you feel responsibility for advocating for LGBT people at a personal and professional level.
Absolutely. I have many friends from the gay community. I don’t know how I could look at them as a friend and not embrace them in my professional work. I couldn’t do it. I think it would be disingenuous. I personally couldn’t do that. So for me it’s not, “We can be friends but when it comes to our professional work, I’m not gonna be out there as an ally.” I think if I’m an ally as a friend, I’m going to be an ally professionally.
How can we make the African-American community more affirming for its LGBT members?
I think back to people who I respect who fought really hard for our rights. One of the things I’ve always been impressed with, whether it’s Stokely Carmichael or listening to King or listening to Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela, what’s struck me with all of those men is that when we are in positions of authority and power, we need to make sure everyone is treated fairly and is treated equally. We need to have the same perspective that we wanted people to have when we were being discriminated against, which is treat us based on who we are as a people. If anything, I think that ought to be one thing we should always aspire to as a people. We as a group, especially in this country, ought to be taking that position. I think we ought to be unambiguous about it and I think we should be consistent about it.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom