PHILADELPHIA — When Philadelphia police recruit Benson Churgai donned his full uniform for the first time this week at the Police Academy, he smiled. But an hour later, as he stood in front of 42 fellow recruits, his hands trembled.
“I want to be honest with everyone here,” Churgai said to the class, reading a prepared speech before the recruits posed for an official class photograph. “In April 2016 … I made a decision that was best for me. I came out as a transgender male.”
Before then, only a few commanders who were involved in hiring and training Churgai knew he was a transgender man.
“I struggled for a long time with who I was,” he continued, reading from two sheets of paper. "I knew that if I continued to live my life as [a] female, it was not going to work out.”
On Friday, he became the first openly transgender recruit to graduate from the Philadelphia Police Academy. He joins the ranks of over 6,500 officers in the Philadelphia Police Department.
Among the top priorities of the department, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said, is to “ensure that our ranks are diverse, inclusive, and reflective of the communities we serve." These qualities are "essential in upholding all areas of our core mission,” the commissioner said in a statement when asked about Churgai.
In his five-minute speech, Churgai, 24, of Northeast Philadelphia, explained that he wanted to reveal his truth to his class because he’d “rather have a discussion with everybody.” He wanted to “help prevent feelings of betrayal.”
When Churgai was finished, the class gave a rousing standing ovation. He smiled.
Churgai was selected to join the academy solely “on his ability to pass a rigorous background test and physical training,” said Inspector Verdell Johnson, who supervises the recruits. “I hope it lets those that are transgender know that they can also become a police officer.”
Erin Deabler, Churgai’s driving partner during the nearly nine-month academy training, said his speech shocked her, but “it didn’t change much about how I felt about him as a recruit.”
“It’s very brave what he did. He stands for what he believes in,” she said. “I don’t know that I would have the courage to come out and say something so empowering.”
“I was proud of him,” said Jarrett Ross, a fellow recruit. “We need more of this in our department. We need people from all different walks of life, people who can relate to different things.”
Churgai grew up in Chester County, and before joining the academy, worked in the food service industry. He said he’s always wanted to be a police officer because “you get to people on the best and what could be one of the worst days of their lives.” He said there’s an indescribable sense of satisfaction a police officer gets from helping someone.
“When you are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, you often feel like you can’t have a career” because of discrimination, Churgai said. “But when I put on that uniform, it’s not just a job. I’m living a dream I’ve always had.”
Days before Churgai started his training at the academy, he reached out to 18-year veteran Philadelphia Officer Jo Mason, who identifies as nonbinary, for guidance. Mason said that Churgai was “on the fence" about coming out to his cadre of recruits.
“I told [Churgai] to keep in mind, you’ll be the first out trans recruit to go through the academy,” recalled Mason, a bicycle patrol officer. “You’re not only carrying the weight for yourself but maybe for the community, so you do what’s best for you."
When Mason joined the police force in 2002, “I wasn’t brave enough to come out."
Mason identified as male during training at the academy and "did everything in my power to deny being trans.” Mason became a cop to “make it go away, but it just doesn’t work like that.”
It wasn’t until 2015 when Mason revealed their nonbinary gender to colleagues on the force. Mason said the news was met with much support and affirmation. In 2016, Mason became the inaugural president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Gay Officer Action League (GOAL), a national organization that represents LGBTQ+ law enforcement officers. There are 55 members in the Philadelphia chapter.
Maria Gonzalez was the Police Department’s first openly transgender officer. She joined the force in 1967, and in 2004, after being an officer for 37 years, announced her transition. She died in 2018.
“When you come into the force as a police officer, you’re always bringing your personal experiences with you,” Mason said. “Benson’s going to find that something that was once very private will now be a benefit to the community he serves.”
Churgai graduated from the academy as the salutatorian of his class, earning him a scholarship to Chestnut Hill College. He said he’d like to explore classes outside of criminal justice. His official police duties haven’t been assigned yet, but Mason predicts Churgai will have “the same experience as other rookies: learning the community.”
With fellow officer Mason, Churgai joins a handful of openly transgender and nonbinary officers in Washington, California. Charmaine McGuffey, who identifies as lesbian, has worked in an Ohio sheriff’s office for over 30 years and said queer representation in law enforcement is “super important," particularly for large metropolitan areas.
Right now, “there’s a cultural shift in the country to be more accepting of the LGBTQ community,” McGuffey said. “But as long as you’re an officer of integrity, people will support you.”