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    Once in the shadows, gay police now out and proud

    MBTA Deputy Police Chief Preston Horton was the founder of the New England Gay Officers League.
    Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
    MBTA Deputy Police Chief Preston Horton was the founder of the New England Gay Officers League.

    The six officers huddled inside Officer Preston Horton’s small Northampton apartment, where he had put out some snacks, coffee, and soda.

    They had been drawn there by a news article in which Horton had asked for police officers like him to get in touch in order to create a support group.

    Now they were at the first meeting of the New England Gay Officers Action League and they were terrified.

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    Stacey Simmons, then a 24-year-old Connecticut state trooper, feared she had been followed by internal affairs officers and kept getting out of her seat to peek out the window.

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    “I was petrified,” she recalled. “I thought they were going to find out I had gone to this meeting and confront me and fire me.”

    Twenty-five years later, the New England Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL, has transformed in ways none of those officers imagined during that first fear-filled meeting. The group, which now has more than 300 members, has trained dozens of police chiefs on how to treat gay officers in their departments and has led police academy trainings to help recruits understand how to work with gay victims. When gay marriage was being debated in Massachusetts, members of GOAL said, they went to the State House to testify about the need to give partners of fallen gay officers the same benefits as those married to straight officers.

    “That’s a pretty amazing step from being in my living room wondering if we were going to make it through this,” said Horton, who is now deputy chief for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Transit Police.

    When the group formed in 1991, more than two decades had passed since the infamous Stonewall riots in New York, where gay men and women clashed violently with police in protest of years of persecution. But it was still dangerous for a police officer to come out as gay. There were accounts of cops who asked for backup on a dangerous call and received none because they were believed to be gay. Springfield police Officer Michael Carney, who was at GOAL’s first meeting, remembered one officer at his Police Academy graduation in 1982 who brought a man to a party, only to be sucker-punched by a veteran officer. Simmons said that before she could join the State Police, she had to take a polygraph test and was asked if she had ever had a same-sex partner.

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    “I really firmly believed that if anyone found out that they were going to kill me,” said Carney.

    But their support network emboldened them.

    By 1991, Horton had told his chief he was gay and was surprised to get not only his support, but the support of older officers on the force.

    “They said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us? We would have backed you up. You’re a good cop,’ ” Horton recalled.

    Carney was less fortunate. He had left the Springfield Police Department as he struggled with his identity but wanted back on the force. He reapplied in 1991 and told the hiring committee he was gay. They rejected his bid for reinstatement.

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    Carney filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In 1994, the agency ruled there was probable cause the department had discriminated against him and he was later reinstated. He retired from the department in January.

    ‘When we banded together we got stronger together and braver together . . . They’re my brothers and sisters.’

    Stacey Simmons, who attended GOAL’s first meeting in 1991 

    After Simmons came out to her superiors, she began visiting other departments to educate officers on how to interact with gay victims and colleagues. But when she asked to wear her uniform while conducting the training, a customary practice, her supervisors said no. When the Boston police commissioner requested in writing that she come to the academy in full uniform, her supervisors refused again, Simmons recalled.

    She eventually filed a lawsuit against one of her supervisors, a lieutenant colonel who was also accused of making disparaging comments about gay troopers.

    Her complaint, along with a string of others, derailed the lieutenant colonel’s efforts to become commissioner. Simmons went on to work for the Los Angeles Police Department, where she rose to the rank of detective sergeant.

    Officer Ken Watson, one of Horton’s colleagues in Northampton, went with Horton and his boyfriend to a gay pride rally in Boston. It was a nerve-racking decision. He and his wife had decided to separate but he was still nervous about coming out to fellow officers.

    A few days later, Watson discovered a pink triangle, a symbol once used by Nazis to identify gay concentration camp prisoners, affixed to his pickup truck.

    “I just left it there,” said Watson, now 57, retired, and living in Florida with his husband. “I wanted to come out of the closet. People are already on to it. Why deny it at this point?”

    “I think we had a lot of courage,” Simmons said of GOAL’s first members. “When we banded together we got stronger together and braver together . . . They’re my brothers and sisters.”

    On Saturday, the organization celebrated its 25th anniversary at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, where the keynote speaker was Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old college student who was killed in Wyoming in 1998 by two men believed to be motivated by homophobia. About 250 people attended.

    Last week, the current president of GOAL was in the news for less positive reasons. Organizers of the annual Boston Pride Parade announced they had rescinded their invitation to Anthony Imperioso, a Woburn police officer, to serve as parade marshal after he made “some offensive comments” online about a Black Lives Matter protest.

    Squad cars are typically part of the pride parade, a stark contrast to decades ago when gay officers could not march in such rallies in uniform.

    “There is nothing like it,” said retired Massachusetts Trooper Sergeant Lorraine Cambria-Busconi, who served as GOAL’s president in 2002 and has often marched in the parade. “The experience is overwhelming, to march alongside my colleagues. . . . Words can’t even describe it.”

    Maria Cramer can be reached at maria.cramer@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMCramer.