It was decades before German police officer Leon Dietrich felt able to come out.
“Fourty-three years ago, no one knew much about being trans. My mother had never heard of it and early on, I was pushed into the binary system,” he says.
“Of course I rebelled as I’d known something wasn’t right ever since I was born. My body didn’t fit.”
He started his career as a woman, joining the police force in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. Only in 2020 did he find the courage to tell his boss, “I identify as trans, my pronoun is male and my first name is Leon.”
His colleagues all stood by him and were really positive, Dietrich says. “That was really touching and it still gives me a lot of strength to this day.”
He will never know how life might have been if he had come out right after high school. He probably wouldn’t have had a career in law enforcement, however, as the German police force only started accepting applications from trans or intersex people in 2021.
Before then, breast implants or “the loss or atrophy of both testicles” were disqualifying criteria, according to police service regulations.
Dietrich had been living as a lesbian, but the feeling that something was not right never went away. “It was overwhelming,” he says.
Dietrich was appointed state coordinator of police contact persons for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in the nothern state of Lower Saxony in 2021, a state where the police have been committed to diversity for years.
Doctors working for the Lower Saxony police force stopped checking whether applicants have certain gender-specific characteristics in 2012, even through federal service regulations officially required this up through to 2020, according to the state Interior Ministry.
Dietrich’s new role is a full-time job, coordinating between 10 people who work in the regular police force. He is also the contact point for queer police officers, leads training sessions on diversity and handles public relations too.
“Visibility creates trust and closeness,” he says.
He also maintains networks with the queer community, in an attempt to counteract some of the long-held reservations many still have about the police force. After all, less than 30 years ago, homosexuality was still a punishable offence in Germany under some circumstances.
Many in Germany still face abuse due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Trans women are often insulted or molested on the subway, for example. The nation was shocked in 2020 when an Islamist attacked a gay couple in Dresden, killing one and seriously injuring the other.
However, 80% to 90% of crimes targeting the LGBTI community go unreported, according to estimates.
Germany’s new government has vowed to do better. Lawmakers have promised a programme to protect sexual and gender diversity and to transform the 1980 Transsexuals Act.
The 40-year-old law stipulates that people may only officially change their first name and gender following a psychological assessment and a court decision, processes often requiring applicants to answer a lot of intimate questions.
Much has changed since Dietrich took up the job as LGBTI coordinator at the Lower Saxony police force, partly thanks to the polls held in September 2021. Tessa Ganserer and Nyke Slawik, both members of the Green Party, became Germany’s first elected transgender lawmakers.
In future, Dietrich’s main educational priority is to help people learn about sexual and gender diversity, saying many people don’t understand the issues. “I don’t blame them,” he says.
What makes him angry is when people incite hatred against trans people for political reasons, he says, referring to far-right lawmaker Beatrix von Storch who attacked Ganserer in the Bundestag on International Women’s Day, sparking outrage across the political spectrum.
Meanwhile German feminist Alice Schwarzer said the focus on trans identity could cause tens of thousands of girls to change their gender.
Dietrich attributes this partly to ignorance about trans identity and intersexuality. Young people need to learn about sexual and gender diversity, education that has long been lacking in Germany.
“If I had realized sooner, I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time,” says Dietrich, adding that it can be hard to comprehend for anyone without similar experience.
Most of Germany’s 16 states have a contact person in the police for the LGBTI community, aside from Bavaria, Thuringia and North Rhine Westphalia, says VelsPol, an association of gay and lesbian police officers.
However, many queer police officers are too afraid to come out at their workplace, particularly gay men, studies say.
Joschua Thuir, who is also trans, campaigns for the rights of queer police officers on VelsPol’s board. “We are seeing greater openness,” he says. However, when it comes to the national authorities, there’s still a long way to go, he adds.