As a little-known Minneapolis police sergeant, Sharon Lubinski made headlines when she declared she was a lesbian on the front pages of the city's largest newspaper - a bold move that other gay officers say inspired them to come out, too.
More than a decade later, Lubinski could become the first openly gay U.S. Marshal after President Barack Obama nominated the 57-year-old assistant police chief to one of the country's top law enforcement jobs last week.
Though some gay rights activists have criticized the nomination as nothing more than a symbolic gesture from a president they say has lagged behind on key gay issues, others note the move is a step in the right direction toward ending a culture of discrimination.
Back when Lubinski declared in a 1993 Minneapolis Star Tribune interview that she was a lesbian, she told the newspaper she feared she was putting her safety, career and personal life in danger. At the time, officers in the department suspected of being gay endured taunts, jokes and whispers. One officer who suspected she was gay even called her "sicko" behind her back, she told the paper.
But the risk was worth it, she said. Police officers who handle gay crime victims must be able to accept gay colleagues, and though the atmosphere inside the department was improving, more needed to be done, she told the newspaper.
"Hopefully, my coming out will dispel any myths that you can't be gay and in uniform," Lubinski told the newspaper at the time.
The front-page story left a lasting impression. Afterward, other gay officers said they felt emboldened to follow her lead.
"Frankly, I would not have been comfortable being the first to come out, but I think she made it far easier for the rest of us because everyone said, 'Oh, she's a good cop,"' said Minneapolis Deputy Chief Robert Allen, who revealed that he was gay to fellow officers a few weeks after Lubinski.
Lubinski declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a desire for discretion before Senate hearings on her appointment. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who recommended Lubinski for the job, also declined to be interviewed.
But colleagues described the Green Bay, Wis., native as a determined and tough police officer who played a key role in promoting better police-community relations amid a mid-1990s burst of gang violence that earned the city the nickname "Murderapolis."
"She distinguished herself early on as someone who took on the tough assignments," said Greg Hestness, a longtime colleague who's now police chief at the University of Minnesota. He recalled the time he assigned Lubinski, who joined the Minneapolis department in 1987, to take over a precinct where officers had earned a reputation for arrogance. "She connected well with both the troops and the community," he said.
Hestness, who described Lubinski as a friend outside work, said she's been with her partner, a landscape designer, for more than 20 years. Not long after coming out, Lubinski led a police task force on gay issues, and she currently teaches a course in police diversity in the criminal justice program at a Minnesota community college.
"She's smart, she thinks, she listens, you always know where you stand with her," said Minneapolis Lt. John Delmonico, the police union president who often clashes with top brass. "It's a real loss for the department."
Colleagues said even though she was the first openly gay officer in the Minneapolis department, she never approached her job with an activist agenda. "It was always a nonfactor," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a Republican former state legislator and Minneapolis officer.
As assistant chief in Minneapolis, Lubinski is second-in-command of a force of about 880 sworn officers and 200 civilian employees. If the U.S. Senate confirms her nomination for U.S. marshal for the district that covers Minnesota, she would be the first openly gay U.S. marshal and the first female marshal ever in the state. Nationally, only one other current U.S. marshal is a woman.
Some gay rights activists questioned the timing of Obama's announcement on Lubinski.
Obama has had a rocky relationship with gay activists, who want him to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of gay rights supporters marched in Washington, demanding Obama keep his promise to end the policy, which he has pledged to do but hasn't given a timeline.
Two days after the march on Oct. 13, Obama nominated Lubinski. The White House announcement made no mention that she was gay.
"I don't want to appear to be denigrating this woman's accomplishments, which appear to be substantial," said Cleve Jones, an activist who worked with the slain gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk and helped organize the Oct. 11 National Mall gay-rights rally. "But there's some peril in focusing on these appointments when the reality is that LGBT people in all 50 states are still second-class citizens."
Many gay rights activists in the law enforcement community identify with the struggle to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" stance, saying similar, unwritten policies are in effect in police departments around the country.
George Farrugia, the president of LEGAL International, an umbrella group for gay law enforcement groups, said he was thrilled to hear of Lubinski's appointment. "It speaks volumes for how far we've come," he said.
But Farrugia, an assistant prosecutor in Queens County, N.Y., cautioned that it isn't enough because police departments across the country still discriminate openly against gays in the workplace.
"I hope this is just a good first step," Farrugia said. "Hopefully one in a line of many steps to come from the Obama administration."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)