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Transgender Henderson police officers work to close LGBT divide

Updated January 1, 2019 - 6:03 pm

Henderson police officer Bridget Ward would lie awake, terrified her secret might get out and she would lose everything.

Officer Asher Walter waited until he was sure his support system would not disappear.

As members of two groups that have often been in conflict — police officers and members of the transgender community — their unease about coming out was not misguided. In wide-ranging interviews with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ward and Walter discussed the process of finding their gender identities and the different paths they took to express who they truly are.

Ward, 33, said both groups are equally important to her identity.

“I am a trans woman first and a police officer first,” Ward said. “There is no one before the other.”

Ward was uncomfortable in the body she was born into from the time she was a young child. In the 1990s, transgender issues were not spotlighted, and through her teens and 20s, she guarded her secret closely.

She left her home in Southern California for Nevada and pursued a career in law enforcement because she wanted to make a difference in her community. While still presenting as a man, Ward was hired by the Henderson Police Department in 2008.

After researching discrimination protections, Ward decided to emerge from the shadows in 2016 by coming out to the city of Henderson. She said she did not want to start taking hormones without disclosing it to her employer because the drugs come with physical, mental and emotional changes.

“It was terrifying, but it was very much a weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “A tremendous amount of weight. An indescribable amount of weight is what that felt like.”

City spokeswoman Kathleen Richards applauded Ward’s decision to share the story of her transition. Richards said the city supports diversity and inclusion, and that it is committed to ensuring a safe and fair workplace for all people.

Walter had no desire to be a pioneer in coming out to the city, but said he saw a positive response in the way the city handled Ward’s transition.

State law protects people from discrimination in housing, employment and in public accommodations, regardless of gender identity or expression. According to the Transgender Law Center, Nevada’s transgender protections are among the most robust in the country.

Still, Ward feared how her transition would be perceived in macho police culture. She worried others in the department would perceive her as being ineffective in carrying out the job and that she might be forced out.

Serve and protect

Those concerns were not entirely out of place, Ward said, adding that she had some unpleasant encounters at work that she declined to discuss in detail. But she also found support among fellow officers.

“I’m going the opposite direction of what the stereotype of the profession is,” she said.

Ward said she is frustrated that conservative groups that are pro-police tend to be against transgender people, and others in transgender circles can be anti-police.

ACLU of Nevada spokesman Wesley Juhl said that the relationship between law enforcement and LGBT people has a long, tense history. The dynamic links back to the gay rights movement that erupted in the Stonewall riots in 1969, when a police raid of a gay club in New York City led to several days of demonstrations.

Ward knows the history, but said that a lot of the issues between the trans community and police boil down to misunderstandings.

“Don’t forget (Stonewall), but don’t cling to it as if it happened yesterday,” she said. “Use it at a rallying cry, but use it as a rallying cry for reconcilable change.”

Rick McCann, executive director of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers, said he has not heard officers in the department speak negatively of Ward or Walter.

“They are part of the family of law enforcement that has one major goal: serve and protect,” he said. “That’s never changed.”

‘They hurl insults’

Ward said her life outside of work has at times been darkened by discrimination. She sees the people staring when she goes out. She hears when they use words like “it” and “that” to describe her. They don’t want to shake her hand. They don’t want to breathe her air.

She finds obstacles in things that others do without much thought, such as using a ride-share service.

“You sit down, they look at you, and then they ask where you’re going, and unfortunately, I have a very deep voice and I’ve opened my mouth and I start to talk and explain where I’m going, and then suddenly it’s, ‘Oh no, that’s too far. I can’t take you. You need to get out. Get out now,’” she said.

They don’t say anything about her gender, but she knows what it’s about.

She said she also sees some viciousness when she puts on the uniform, forcing herself to keep a stone face when members of the public ridicule her transition.

“They weaponize it,” Ward said. “They hurl insults. Police officers in general have to deal with insults quite frequently. Unfortunately, I have my own special brand that cuts very deep.”

Despite being welcomed by the city and the department when she came out, Ward has accused her agency’s administration of discrimination. According to a complaint filed in November with the Employee-Management Relations Board, Ward was denied a job with an investigative unit for “representing distinctly contrary social values and a lifestyle that conflicts with the religious values being touted by (Chief LaTesha Watson) throughout the (department).”

Ward did not discuss the claim in depth, but said she stands by the accusations.

A law firm hired by the city to investigate the complaint found that Ward’s gender identity did not play a role in her not getting the job, according to an investigative report obtained by the Review-Journal.

‘Just an evolution’

Walter, 44, tells a very different story about his transition.

He said he was an openly gay woman for about 20 years and was satisfied with his life before coming out as transgender. Walter decided to come out after finding absolute acceptance from the woman who would become his wife.

“There’s a significant difference between OK and where I am now,” Walter said. “Now it’s just outstanding.”

Walter knew from a young age that he was masculine. He wanted to play with the boys, wear boy clothes and take on masculine roles as a child. He held on to those feelings until his early 40s.

Walter said he doesn’t use the word “transition” to describe the changes he experienced.

“I had to do some extra things, if you will, to match in the mirror what I see in my own head and in my own heart,” he said. “And that’s just an evolution.”

He said he does not see the tension between the trans community and law enforcement the way others may, but he understands where the mistrust lies.

“The feeling is justified in the trans community,” he said.

It doesn’t affect his day-to-day patrol, he said, but he acknowledged there is room for improvement. The responsibility is with police officers to understand the history of that relationship and respond appropriately.

Walter has worked with the Police Department to bridge the divide between LGBTQ people and law enforcement, working the agency’s booth at Genderfest for the past two years to connect with the public he protects.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to be a part of the process in a positive way,” he said.

Contact Blake Apgar at bapgar@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5298. Follow @blakeapgar on Twitter.

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