Was Nashville home to America’s first lesbian cops?

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According to Stephen Leinen’s "Gay Cops," a groundbreaking study of gay and lesbian police officers, America’s first self-identified gay policeman was the San Francisco Sheriff’s Deputy Rudi Cox back in 1976.

Five years later, NYPD Sergeant Charlie Cochrane stunned everyone at a city council hearing when he spoke in favor of a gay rights bill. A patrolman’s benevolent association vice president had openly denounced the bill, declaring he didn’t know of any "homosexual police officers," when Cochrane said, "I am very proud of being a New York City Police Officer, and I am equally proud of being gay."

But recently discovered documents suggest America’s first openly-gay police officer moved to Nashville, with her partner, in order to launch a program intended to stamp out "illicit" and "overt" public displays of affection among young people.

An article from The Tennessean called "Watch your step, mashers and flirts," (link via www.nashvillepost.com) published on August 1, 1921, announces Nashville’s first policewomen, Gertrude Whitney and Elizabeth Goodwin, and details their duties.

"Miss Whitney and Miss Elizabeth Goodwin have come down from Buffalo to be Nashville’s first policewomen, provided for by the Women’s Protective Bureau, which recently became a part of the city government," the article reads. "They mean to protect the girls and women of the city and to keep them in the straight and narrow way."

Of course, the article doesn’t flat-out declare the two as openly lesbian.

"Miss Whitney and Miss Goodwin have always worked together," the article continues. "They had the same sort of social service training at the Chicago Training School and did similar field work in the Chicago Refuge for Girls."

An even more convincing find: a census from 1930 found one of the women listed as "head of household" and the other listed as "partner."

"I have been digging around in local history for a long time, and I can’t recall ever seeing a situation like this," said Nashville Post writer Tom Wood, who discovered the article and census record. Since April of this year, he has researched and written a weekly column for the Post called "Nashville Now & Then."

"Gay relationships I have heard about from decades past, and the tacit acceptance sometimes accorded by the community, always involved a certain plausible deniability that seems to be lacking here," he added.

Eddie Ashmore, the author of a book filled with Nashville police history, "Tennessee Lawman," passed away earlier this year, so he was unable to comment. A passage from his book verifies the role Whitney and Goodwin played in Nashville history:

"[Chief J. William Smith] created the Women’s Protective Bureau to ensure that the female population of Nashville was protected from criminal exploitation. Policewoman Elizabeth Goodwin served as chief of the bureau and was assisted by Policewoman Gertrude Whitney. The two women patrolled the streets daily, checking motion picture theaters, dance halls, hotel lobbies, department stores, railway stations, community houses and public institutions."

That the two were hired based on their training and ability above their social identity is of note. Metro Nashville Police Department Public Information Officer Kristin Mumford provided a list of recent recruitment efforts. It is filled with various career fairs, visits to post secondary institutions, none particular to any one identified segment of the community.

"We are actively reaching out to the community as a whole," she said, "and encourage all qualified applicants to visit our Web site. On the front page are links to the application process." An invaluable source otherwise, Mumford could offer little specifically regarding this point in MNPD history. "I was unable to locate anyone with knowledge or a comment about the 1921 officers."

Robin Buhrke is a psychologist and the senior coordinator of research at Duke University. In 1996 she authored a book about gay police officers, called "A Matter of Justice: Lesbians and Gay Men in Law Enforcement."

"I haven’t done much work on the GLBT law enforcement issue since I did the research on my book," she said, via e-mail. Buhrke suggested a string of Web sites relating to various affiliates of the Gay Officers Action League, the organization NYPD Sergeant Cochrane helped found back in 1981. The organization had not responded at press time.

Likewise, the celebrated NYC Gay Cop Tony Crespo, a member of GOALNY, could provide little assistance. He was the officer who, in 1995, won praise in that city for saving his partner’s life while on duty. He subsequently worked for public acknowledgment that his partner be not defined as only his roommate but his lover.

"Sorry but I’m not familiar with any stories like that here in NYC," he said, by e-mail. "Wish I could help but my knowledge of history with gay cops here in NYC is pretty limited."

A consistent discovery: there is very little documentation of any GLBT police officers from before Stonewall and the modern era of gay liberation. So can we conclude Nashville was home to America’s first lesbian police officers?

Yes, I suppose — until further notice.