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Susan Sasso and Karen Calahan: Partners in life, activism and work
by Micki Leventhal
2010-06-02

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When LGBT police officers gather in Chicago this June for the 14th annual LGBT Conference for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Professionals, Chicago police officers Susan Sasso and Karen Calahan ( who is retired ) will be on hand to help document the proceedings. If it were not for their work 20 years ago—along with fellow officers Mary Boyle and Dorothy Knudsen—this historic event would likely not be taking place.

Sasso, Calahan ( then Conway ) , Boyle and Knudsen were the team that founded the original Lesbian and Gay Police Association ( LGPA ) in 1991. It was one of the first associations of its kind in the country and the first in Illinois. After the LGPA was chartered as an Illinois not-for-profit in 1992, they were recognized as an organization by the Chicago Police Department ( CPD ) . Progress came incrementally: marching in uniform in the pride parade, earning the right to post LGBT-related notices in the police bulletin; leading the fight against inter-departmental discrimination against LGBT officers; speaking out for domestic partner benefits and bereavement leave.

It was very slow going in the early days. "It was very difficult to get people to come to meetings. Now they have meetings in the district offices. We couldn't do that because people would not be seen attending," explained Calahan. People were afraid to be connected, that if they came out on the force "they wouldn't get back up out on the street, that people would make fun of them and that things would be done to them."

"They feared bad assignments," added Sasso. "The fear was real."

"It was a huge hurdle to overcome, It took years," said Calahan. "We'd have meeting in homes. We'd have parties and people would come. But in a public place, in an activist meeting, there wasn't the trust." Most people were willing to use it as a social organization, but were too closeted to stand and fight for equal rights on the force.

Times are better now and the team of Sasso and Calahan, Chicago South Siders born and bred, look back on their history together with pride and satisfaction. Their story reflects many of the societal changes that have taken place over the past 30 years.

Like so many women of her generation, Calahan, now 66, did not acknowledge her sexual orientation until into her adulthood. In her mid-30s, the mother of five young children, she tried to separate from her husband but returned to the marriage because she was not willing to loose custody of her children in an acrimonious divorce.

Ten years later, engaged in a career as a marketing executive with a large McDonald's franchisee and her children grown, Calahan changed her life. Separated from her husband and in a long-term lesbian relationship, she entered the police academy in 1986. It was a time of new, expanding opportunities for women, Calahan explained. Law enforcement, she felt, was a real career with job security, decent pay and a good pension. She had long been an activist for labor and women's issues, working with Women Employed and other organizations that promoted career training and transition for women.

Susan Sasso, 19 years Calahan's junior, began working at McDonald's during high school, a time of "kind of dating boys" and major crushes on other girls. After graduation, she stayed on with McDonald's, getting promoted to assistant manager, then general manager and "trying to figure out who I was." She was in a relationship with a woman, but wouldn't deny her feelings for the glamorous marketing coordinator who came around from the corporate office. By the end of 1986 Calahan and Sasso were a couple.

Sasso joined the police force in 1990. "I grew up near 22nd and Damen—the 10th District," she said. "Having grown up there, I never saw any female police officers. It was always intriguing to me—I always felt that I could do anything a man could do, but I never really thought about joining the force until Karen got on in '86 and then I decided to take the test.

"Also, restaurant work is really hard and I didn't want to be doing that the rest of my life," admitted Sasso, who has never regretted her career move. In fall 1991 Sasso and Calahan succeeded in getting assigned to the same police district—the 11th at Harrison and Kedzie. After another few months they became patrol partners. "We had a lot of fun," said Karen

Calahan had already "been making noise about an LGBT organization for several years" and Dorothy Knudsen, the first openly gay officer to go through the academy, came on the force at the same time as Sasso. By the time the first planning meeting for LGPA took place at Ann Sather's in May 1991, all the women were off their probationary years and safe to agitate for change. Knudsen "knew of" Boyle, an out officer in her district, and brought her on to the founding team.

In addition to working for equal benefits, non-discrimination language in the CPD contract and visibility for LGBT officers, Calahan and Sasso did the sensitivity training at the police academy "during the early 2000s." They took over the training program from Joanne Trapani, arguing that they could be more effective in communicating with police recruits.

They also served on the board of the Chicago Policewomen's Association from 2000-2005; Calahan was voted member of the year in 2002 and Sasso in 2004. In 2005, LGPA leadership stepped down as the organization merged with Gay Officers Action League to form LGPA-GOAL Chicago and continue the work.

"We were lucky enough to have a boss who was extremely supportive—Dana Starks, who is now the commissioner of city's commission on human relations," said Calahan. "He was our commander. Karen got sick at work and he made me go with her," said Sasso. "He recognized our relationship as life partners. Many bosses would not have."

Calahan retired from the force in 2007 under CPD's mandatory age requirement, spending the first year taking care of her mother Adele in the two-flat the couple owns on the southwest side. Adele, who lived with Calahan and Sasso for 20 years and attended the second pride parade in which LGPA members marched, passed away in 2008. "It took mom a little while to figure all this out, but she never had a problem with it. She loved Susie," said Calahan.

The couple is very involved with both sides of their extended family clan and Calahan helps care for the two youngest of six grandchildren. The oldest grandchild is in college. "It was the first poopie diaper I changed," laughed Sasso. "I never wanted kids." "But she's got them now," countered Calahan. The "children," who now range in age from 47-41, are or have been stockbrokers, teachers, firefighters and police officers.

Calahan loves to garden and engages the grandchildren in art projects. "We make stepping stones with fossils we've found around the country. I really want to work on mosaics and stained glass."

Sasso now works for internal affairs. It is a desk job, "but they still send us out. I was at the Cinco de Mayo parade and I'll be doing the gun turn in. And we go out on the street once every three months for a week. So I still get out there. I miss it sometimes, the excitement, but I also enjoy what I'm doing."

Towards the end of their tenure with LGPA, Sasso served as secretary and Calahan as treasurer under then-President Kathy Dore. "When we turned the organization over, it was a hard thing to do, even though we were feeling burned out," explained Sasso.

"The LGPA was our baby. We kept it a viable organization for many years—even when no one else wanted to help out. We kept it going so the CPD knew we were there and it helped keep the LGBT struggle for equality alive. We were tickled when the CPD asked if they could put a recruiting poster for the department on the LGPA pride parade float. It means we had been accepted and that the struggle has all been worthwhile. During the first few pride parades the LGPA representatives were met with stony silence from fellow officers and scattered "boos" from the community. "Now we get cheers," said Sasso.

The 14th Annual LGBT Conference for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Professionals will take place June 22-27 in Chicago. ( Among the highlights will be Sharon Gless receiving an award at the June 26 gala. ) For more information, see www.goalchicago.info .


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