In the second week of May every year, tens of thousands of law enforcement officers and their families and friends from around the world come to Washington, D.C. to honor fallen officers. President Kennedy designated May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day.
Events center on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial near Judiciary Square and other venues in D.C. and include candlelight vigils, wreath laying ceremonies, memorial Masses, and a conference for survivors.
For LGBTQ officers and survivors, this week can be a poignant time. Often grieving in secret or left out of official ceremonies even when their relationships are public, this week can bring more pain than closure. R. Scott Gunn aims to help change that with the LGBT Fallen Heroes Fund. He says, “I started this process 12 years ago after the suicide of my best friend, a lesbian officer I worked with and grew very close to. That sent me down the path supporting police survivors.” The Fund has hosted a conference for survivors and offers social and support gatherings for LGBT officers and family during Police Week.
In 2010, he went further when he met the husband of a fallen officer who was treated like his marriage did not exist. He began combing the news and reaching out to find other officers’ partners left without acknowledgement and now holds an annual memorial to honor the fallen and their families. He quickly realized that fire departments and military spouses often receive the same treatment and extended the memorial to them as well.
Officer Laura Gerritsen rode in the Unity Tour for nine years to honor officers killed in the line of duty and to raise funds for the Nation Law Enforcement Officer memorial, until her own partner Officer Spree DeSha was killed. She says seeing Spree’s name on the Memorial wall became too personal and far to painful to return again.
Laura said that her father was part of the search and rescue and her grandfather was a deputy sheriff and hearing their stores encouraged her to pursue a career in law enforcement. She says, “I always was a gun-loving tom boy.” She loves being a police officer, but kept her personal and professional lives separate. She was not out at work and said “It never played a part in how she performed her duties, so why would it matter?”
That was true until the day of a terrible accident on the Metrolink railway, in Los Angeles when 25 people were killed, including her partner. She was on scene at the accident and came out to her immediate supervisor, when she said, “I think my partner might be on this train”. In the months and years after her death, she drew strength from a grief group for other family members of people killed in the Metrolink train accident. She says she was so fortunate in that group because, “I never was treated any differently. It never mattered to them.”
In Her Own Words
Officer Laura Gerritsen Remembers Officer Spree DeSha
I know everyone speaks highly of their loved ones once they pass, because no one will contest. But I will boast about Spree because everyone that knew her will attest to the fact that she was confident, caring, intelligent, balanced, grounded, gentle, inspirational, and so much more. I think one of my biggest blessings is that Spree and I never left anything unspoken, because of that I never wondered what she was thinking or feeling. That alone gave me so much peace after her passing. I never had to wonder were stood or if she knew how I felt about her, because we both knew, every day. The last words I ever got from her were in the form of a text: “I can’t wait to see you, I miss you.”
Spree was all about enjoying life and living in the moment. When I left her for work or on a trip she would often say, “Remember to live in the moment.” When we were having the time of our lives or when I was frustrated to tears, she would want me to experience that moment and all that it had to offer. Whether it was joy or a learning experience, there was always something to take from it. There is a sign above our bedroom door that says, “Live in the moment, no matter what that moment shall offer” and every time I walk out that door to face another day, I try to remember that and make that my daily mantra.
I couldn’t imagine that anything positive could come out of this, but when I’ve stopped to think about it, I see that my understanding, my patience and mostly my awareness to the things that really matter, has grown. Her way of thinking has inspired me to be a better person and constantly focus on my words and actions and how they impact others. So until she and I meet up again, I will strive to be more like her.
LGBT Heroes Police Week
Gerritsen will return this year for the first time since Spree’s passing, for the LGBT Heroes Memorial Service to honor DeSha. The service will take place on Wednesday, May 13 at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery from 2-4pm. Nine heroes and their partners and families will be honored – two police Officers, two fire fighters, and two military. The public are very welcome to attend. During the ceremony surviving spouses will receive a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol. It is one of a week of events honoring LGBT heroes during Police Week.
Gunn is also making plans for the future of the LGBT Heroes Fund. He will continue the memorial each year and events surrounding National Police Week to honor LGBT officers and he also plans to erect a physical memorial. There is land available at the Congressional Cemetery and he is seeking donations and funding to make it happen. The Fund is an affiliate of the DC Center, so the donations are tax deductible, but he says the most important thing is getting the word out, which Gunn says, “is by far what we need the most so we can identify our heroes. It’s so hard to find survivors because they may receive no official acknowledgement.”
This week, he will remedy that for a nine partners, including Laura Gerritsen. Police officers risk their lives daily to keep us safe, a risk everyone who loves them shares and for LGBT officers, this is a second chance to acknowledge that sacrifice and ensure heroes like Spree DeSha are remembered.
LGBT Heroes Memorial Service takes place from 2-4pm, Wednesday, May 15, 2015 at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia