Police chief is target in Ore. anti-gay battle Lesbian daughter is member of force

October 04, 1992|By New York Times News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Hardly a week goes by that Tom Potte does not receive either a death threat on the phone or a nasty letter in the mail. As police chief of Oregon's largest city, Mr. Potter said he had come to expect that a small number of people would always hate police officers.

What has surprised him is learning how many people also profess to hate homosexuals. The reason Chief Potter knows is that his daughter, Katie, is an officer in his department and a lesbian. And he has supported her by marching with her in two gay pride parades in Portland.

In a year when Oregon is receiving national attention for a ballot measure asking voters to decide whether to classify homosexuality as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse," Chief Potter, who grew up in an evangelical Christian household, has become an unlikely target in the emotional debate.

As a 26-year veteran of the Portland Police Department, Chief Potter says he has developed a thick skin. But never has he taken as much criticism as in the past year, because of his high visibility on gay rights.

Recently, promoters of the anti-gay measure began circulating a cartoon showing one boy trying to talk another boy into having sex with him. "The police chief says it's OK for us to have sex," the boy says.

In fact, Chief Potter has never said that. What he has done is to march, in uniform, in the last two gay pride parades in Portland. He has also encouraged homosexuals to become police officers, saying he wants the department to reflect the makeup of the city.

Lon Mabon, leader of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, the group that led the campaign to place the anti-gay measure on the ballot, has been calling for Chief Potter to resign.

"I'm the police chief for all the people," Chief Potter said. "I've marched in St. Patrick's Day parades, Fourth of July parades and parades against racism, all in uniform. It's only the gay pride march that set people off."

As chief, Mr. Potter has tried to stay out of the debate over the anti-gay initiative, Ballot Measure 9, which would amend the state constitution and require that all government agencies in Oregon actively discourage homosexuality. But, as a father, he is worried about his daughter, he said.

His 27-year-old daughter, who has been a patrol officer for nearly four years, said she always wanted to be an officer.

"I used to talk to my dad about us being the first father-daughter team on the Portland Police Department," she said. Instead, she has become known as the first openly lesbian officer in the department. If Ballot Measure 9 passes, Ms. Potter said, she might be forced out of the department.

Legal scholars say the measure is so vaguely worded that the city could be seen as condoning homosexuality by allowing an openly lesbian officer to stay in the department.

Mr. Mabon said the measure was intended to remove homosexuals from any public job involving contact with children. The homosexuals could be transferred to other jobs without losing their benefits, he said.

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