A stone’s throw from the Stonewall Inn where cops battled LGBT rebels in 1969, the corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place was named for the first police officer with the guts to come out publicly, the late Sergeant Charlie Cochrane, co-founder of the Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL.
It was a surreal scene in the bright sunshine on the morning of June 17 as police brass, police union bigs, GOAL members, veteran gay activists, and Cochrane’s family gathered for the ceremonial unveiling of “Sgt. Charles Cochrane Way” outside St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, in whose basement GOAL was founded in 1982. That launch came only a year and a half after the parish’s pastor conducted the funeral for church organist Vernon Koenig — killed in the anti-gay West Street Massacre outside the Ramrod bar on November 18, 1980 — without acknowledging Koenig’s male partner or the anti-gay attack that killed him.
Times change — even if the Catholic Church and the NYPD still have a lot of progress to make before all LGBT people, particularly transgender women, feel safe with them.
The NYPD’s Chief of Department Jimmy O’Neill praised Cochrane, who died of cancer in 2008 at age 64, as a cop with a reputation for being able to “see in the dark. He had the integrity, foresight, and courage to look ahead. He came out as a gay cop when they feared losing their jobs and being harmed.”
Detective Brian Downey, the new president of GOAL, said, “Today is the celebration of a great man who exhibited great courage.” Cochrane’s sister, Mary Ann Sundresh, said he “could not stand by” and allow human rights abuses “of himself or of the people in the community” whom he served.
Dr. Patrick Suraci, an NYPD psychologist and GOAL co-founder, recalled that in 1978, after Mayor Ed Koch banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in city jobs by executive order, “PBA [Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association] head Sam DeMilia said that homosexuals cannot do the job of a police officer.”
In a New York Times op-ed, DeMilia wrote, “The overt homosexual is distinguished by his speech, mannerisms, conduct, and dress. These have generally been received negatively by the public. There is no reason to believe that public attitudes toward these features that distinguish homosexuals will change once he puts on a police officer’s uniform.”
Current PBA head Pat Lynch was on hand for the ceremony as was the head of the sergeants’ union, Ed Mullins.
Suraci also said that Cochrane received a phone threat warning that GOAL’s first meeting would be bombed. Cochrane dutifully informed all those intending to come “and all 11 of us still showed up.”
City Councilmember Corey Johnson, who is gay, was born the year after Cochrane’s famous coming out. Reviewing Cochrane’s achievements more than 30 years ago, Johnson said, “It didn’t come easy.”
Just five days after the Orlando atrocity, the dedication was not publicized, apparently for fear of having to secure a large crowd in its wake — though police are providing unprecedented beefed up security outside LGBT venues citywide and are preparing to do so at the June 26 Pride March.
In fact, David Rothenberg, the veteran gay activist and founder of the Fortune Society, which works to provide support to ex-prisoners, guided Cochrane into his public role, but was not informed of the street corner dedication. He later shared memories of Cochrane, saying, “He was a sweet and wonderful man.”
Rothenberg and Cochrane befriended each other in a Village gay bar when someone burst into the establishment in an agitated state and Cochrane instinctively drew his gun. “You’re a cop!” Rothenberg said. Eventually, Cochrane confided, “I can’t stand the lies anymore.”
Rothenberg, who choreographed his own coming out on TV’s “David Susskind Show” in the early 1970s, urged Cochrane to make his coming out “a celebratory thing.” He gathered a bunch activists, including this reporter, to help prepare Cochrane for his 1981 testimony before the City Council for the long-blocked gay rights bill, at which time he announced publicly he was gay.
Right before Cochrane spoke, a PBA official testified against the bill, saying that there were no gay cops. The chair then called “Sergeant Charles Cochrane” to objections from some gay people in the chamber, who assumed this constituted testimony from two opponents in a row.
Cochrane, then 38, began, “I am very proud of being a New York policeman” to applause from opponents and rumblings from gay people unaware of what was to follow. After a pregnant pause, Cochrane declared, “And I am equally proud to be gay.” The pro-gay side erupted in wild cheers that shook the Council chamber to its 1811 foundations.
Except for the bill’s final passage in 1986, there was never a more dramatic moment in the long history of that fight.
“We gays are loathed by some, pitied by others, and misunderstood by most,” Cochrane said. “We are not cruel, wicked, cursed, sick, or possessed by demons. Why must others be so concerned with my sexual activity and choice of consenting partner?”
He told the Daily News that while he had “some anxiety” about testifying, “it was something I had to do.” Cochrane explained that he was out to several hundred people in the department and that Koch’s police commissioner, Robert McGuire, had given him permission to testify.
Rothenberg said TV news crews went to Cochrane’s precinct after the hearing to get reactions from police there.
“They said, ‘He’s Charlie. He’s a good guy. That’s his business,’” Rothenberg recalled.
Two years later, police raided Blue’s — a West 43rd Street bar mostly frequented by transgender women of color and the object of constant complaints from people who worked at the New York Times across the street. Police smashed up the bar and beat patrons, and the LGBT community responded with a massive protest.
“I was a marshal for it,” Rothenberg said, “and we saw 50 cops with batons led by Charlie. I said to him, ‘We’re not going to have a problem, are we?’ He said, ‘You keep your troops in line and I’ll keep my troops in line.’”
Edgar Rodriguez, a retired officer and a past president of GOAL, said Cochrane addressed his class of rookies at the academy in 1982.
“He entered in full uniform with the police academy integrity control officer who is in charge of discipline, and in military fashion we all shot up to our feet at attention,” Rodriguez recalled. “After he ordered for us to be at ease, he said he was starting a fraternal organization very much like the Emerald Society and the Guardians but for lesbian and gay police officers and asked if anyone was interested in joining. All I could then hear and feel was my heart pounding. I thought, ‘This can’t be real. It has to be a way to find out who is gay and fire them.’”
Rodriguez remained silent and did not join then, but did eventually connect with Cochrane and another GOAL co-founder, the late Sam Ciccone, and started his coming out process in 1986.
Pete Gavigan, 76, who worked as a plainclothes transit officer, said Cochrane “was my best friend. I was at the first meeting of GOAL in ’82 and I was with him the day he died. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. You couldn’t tell Charlie what to do. He didn’t take no for an answer.”