By Joel P. Engardio
An openly gay leader of the San Francisco Police Officers Association should seem unremarkable in a city synonymous with celebrating LGBTQ people. But it’s a big deal for anyone who remembers the police union of the 1970s.
For starters, the POA’s monthly journal featured this May 1976 headline: “Why Gays Should Not Work As City Police Officers.”
“The homosexual has a problem with his identity,” the article opined. “Such a disturbed personality should not even be allowed to be a policeman. We believe police must provide a moral model for the people.”
There were no out police officers in 1976. San Francisco was still a largely conservative city facing rapid change. Liberal George Moscone was narrowly elected mayor and he appointed an equally liberal police chief to shake up the department’s old guard.
Chief Charles Gain called himself a “sociological cop.” To make officers look less intimidating, he repainted the black police cars powder blue. He wanted to recruit women and people of color. He said gay people could serve, too.
The POA vehemently opposed the new mayor and police chief. In 1978, Moscone was assassinated. The shooter was former police officer and city supervisor Dan White. He also killed Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor.
When a jury convicted White of manslaughter instead of murder, the gay community rioted. They burned police cars and threw rocks and bottles at the officers guarding City Hall. In response, police raided a gay bar in the Castro.
“It’s safe to say most police officers were not keen on the idea of gay officers in our department. ‘It was a macho job and should be done by real men,’ sums it up,” said Gary Delagnes, a former POA president who joined the force two weeks before the assassinations and suffered a head injury during the riot. “That was the lowest point. But things improved as the old guard retired. Now, gay officers are integral to the department. And many sacrificed a lot to pave the way for others.”
The road was long for Tony Montoya, who became the police union’s first openly gay president this May — exactly 42 years after it declared gay people unfit to serve.
Growing up in the rural outskirts of Petaluma, Montoya was sheltered from the news of assassinations and riots happening 40 miles away in San Francisco. He didn’t know about Harvey Milk.
“Petaluma is pretty conservative. Gay rights wasn’t a topic taught in school or something my family would’ve talked about,” Montoya said. “But I knew being gay was my big secret. I just didn’t know what to do with it in a small town. I couldn’t go to the library to read about it. So I denied it. And I did a damn good job hiding it.”
Montoya was a middle child among 11 full and half-siblings. His parents divorced when he was young. Montoya’s two identities — gay and Latino — were far from the mainstream at Petaluma High School. But he was an outgoing jokester, which made him popular. He even had a girlfriend.
Soon after graduating, Montoya got married at 18. The first child arrived within a year. Then he had three more.
“I was a good Catholic country boy,” Montoya said. “My duty was to get married, buy a house, have kids and live the rest of my life in the closet.”
After working for a gas station and a hardware store, Montoya became a police officer in Sonoma County at 21. His father and uncle were also cops.
The more he needed to keep his secret, the more difficult it was to ignore. There was a gay bar in Santa Rosa he debated going to. Minutes after arriving for the first time, he saw a cop he knew.
“I almost fell to the floor in shock,” Montoya said. “I was caught. But so was he. And when we looked at each other, we realized we weren’t alone.”
The divorce was ugly when Montoya’s wife found out.
“She is bitter to this day, and I don’t blame her,” Montoya said. “The person she married was not the person she thought I was.”
At 26, Montoya moved to San Francisco and his kids stayed behind with their mother.
It was 1994 and San Francisco’s police department had been under a federal consent decree since 1979 to hire more women and people of color. Montoya was quickly offered a job, but he didn’t tell anyone he was gay.
“I was still feeling my way around the so-called gay mecca,” he said.
When Montoya walked into a San Francisco gay bar, he saw a fellow cop he worked with on the midnight shift. They became boyfriends and moved in together.
“Word spread on the force I was gay. There are no secrets in the SFPD,” Montoya said. “I started becoming comfortable being gay because I saw people measured me as a police officer first, and that’s what matters.”
Montoya was groomed for a succession of leadership roles he has held at the police union since 2005. His mentor was Delagnes, the former POA president who was a new officer during the Moscone-Milk assassinations and subsequent gay riot.
Delagnes said his favorite TV show is “Modern Family,” which features a same-sex couple and their child. It also describes Montoya’s current life.
Montoya and his partner John — an immigrant from the Philippines — have been together for 17 years. They have a 14-year-old son by surrogacy. They live in the North Bay as domestic partners, but Montoya doesn’t want to get married again. John has no connection to law enforcement. He works as a restaurant manager.
“Barbecue day at our house isn’t just a bunch of cops.” Montoya said. “We have a diverse group of friends.”
Montoya, now 50, has a good relationship with his four adult children and four grandkids.
“Everyone called me on Father’s Day,” he said. “I carried a lot of guilt early on, but my kids were understanding. Their generation is so much more open-minded.”
A more thoughtful style
Forty years after aggressively resisting reforms in the era of Mayor Moscone and Chief Gain, today’s POA continues to fight political battles on issues like tasers and police shootings. Montoya’s predecessors had a take-no-prisoners approach in the press.
“Our bombastic style doesn’t work anymore. It turns people off,” Montoya said. “I’ll be more thoughtful. I have an easy disposition and active listening skills.”
The police union is considering how to rebuild and rebrand after being rejected by voters this year. The POA’s ballot initiative to expedite the procurement of tasers lost overwhelmingly. So did its mayoral candidate, Angela Alioto, who wanted to curtail the protections immigrants currently have under San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy.
“Criticizing sanctuary city might work in Petaluma or Atlanta, but it’s a nuclear bomb in San Francisco. It didn’t help our cause any,” Montoya said. “The POA used to have more political clout, but now we’re seen as an obstructionist organization, always going against the grain. I want our endorsement to mean something again in the future.”
Montoya made it clear, however, that his new style doesn’t mean he will be a pushover.
“I will always defend my cops to the hilt and make sure they get due process,” he said.
Montoya’s promised patience and calm approach will be put to the test over tasers. Nearly every police force in the nation — including the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department — has the device. Yet police in San Francisco have been denied the less lethal use of force option for years. Now Montoya faces a showdown with progressives on the Board of Supervisors who want to cut future taser funding from the budget.
“I’ll never change my principles when it comes to giving our officers the tools they need to keep themselves and the public safe,” Montoya said. “Tasers are essential, and we’ve gone too long without them.”
Still, Montoya aims to build a constructive relationship with newly elected Mayor London Breed and a new set of police commissioners.
“I want to say ‘Madame Mayor, I’m not the POA president you had disagreements with in the past. Get to know me. And when we disagree, let’s do it respectfully and in private while keeping a line of communication open,’” Montoya said. “I believe talking is more productive than coming out swinging.”
A second chance
Police union critics have said Montoya will be no different from the previous POA presidents who mentored him. Montoya certainly doesn’t disavow Delagnes and immediate past president Martin Halloran.
“I have the utmost respect for Gary and Marty. They were my mentors and we’re on the same page on many issues,” Montoya said. “But we live in different times and my style will be different.”
When Montoya professes to have a more thoughtful and philosophical outlook, the influence of his unique life struggles cannot be discounted.
For example, the emergency surgery Montoya had two years ago to remove a brain tumor. He was on the operating table for 18 hours and in intensive care for 11 days. Despite a scar that runs from the back of his head to his neck and regular MRI tests, Montoya is fully recovered. But the experience changed his life.
“I took it as a sign to refocus on what’s important and only concern myself with what I have control of,” Montoya says. “I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff. I learned how to better listen and speak to others.”
Looking back, Montoya considers his grandfather the ultimate role model.
“He wouldn’t raise his voice or say bad things about anybody.”
Montoya never came out to his grandfather. But Montoya was the recipient of extra encouragement as a child that makes him wonder if his grandfather knew all along.
“His nickname for me was ‘governor,’” Montoya said. “He told me I had no limits and that I could be the governor if I wanted. He said the only limits are the ones you give yourself.”
Now that Montoya is president of the police union, he wants to make the most of it.
“My hope is to start a dialogue with our elected officials. If they can see me as a person, we might be able to tone down the rhetoric,” he said. “Maybe I’m being naïve and too optimistic. But this is my second chance at life. I feel I owe it to my fellow officers and my profession to give it a try.”