Gomez-Preston, Cheryl 1954–
Cheryl Gomez-Preston 1954–
Author, sexual harassment consultant
In 1982, Cheryl Gomez-Preston complained of having received racist death threats while on the job in the Detroit Police Department. Her commanding officer, Mack Douglass, responded to her protests by dismissing them and making his own sexual advances toward her; thus began her long and torturous fall. In two years she had hit rock bottom: driven from her position, where she had been one of the first women on street patrol, Gomez-Preston almost committed suicide. But she began to fight back—and won. Three years after filing a lawsuit for sexual harassment in 1984, she received about $800,000 in a jury trial, until then the largest jury award in Michigan and the largest in the country for a police officer citing sexual harassment.
Yet Gomez-Preston did not stop there. In 1990, she had founded the Association for the Sexually Harassed, to assist others who have been assaulted by sexual harassment, and in 1993, she cowrote When No Means No: How to Protect Yourself From Sexual Harassment, for others to learn from her successful fight back. The next year she was touring the country lecturing, counseling, teaching, and consulting for individuals and businesses on sexual harassment. “Greater awareness of sexual harassment gives more individuals the courage to speak out publicly about their own private experiences,” Gomez-Preston wrote in her book, When No Means No. “I applaud each and every one. And I urge more people to do the same: voices carry; each time a new voice is heard, one more person may be able to steel her will and say ’No.’ And one more harasser may be stopped in his or her tracks.”
At a young age Gomez-Preston sought a sense of community that she lacked at home. Her father, Ramon Gomez, had left her mother, Adrianne, by the time Gomez-Preston was born on October 12, 1954. As a small child, Gomez-Preston lived with her maternal grandparents, Amos and Mildred Smith, on the west side of Detroit. When Gomez-Preston reached age five her mother remarried and brought the young girl to live with her and her husband.
Reminding her mother of her natural father, remaining distant from her adoptive father, half-brother, and half-sister, Gomez-Preston never felt close to her immediate family; later she experienced a tumultuous adolescence. During that time, her grandparents again provided her solace. Her grandfather, in particular, offered her constant support. She drew on that support to guide her away from the failings of some of the men in her family, namely drug and alcohol addictions, and to overcome the negative attitudes toward her from her family members.
Her determination to rise above the family’s low expectations led Gomez-Preston to become a police officer. “They used to tell me that I would wind up being nothing. I was told I was the worst of two ethnic groups, black and Puerto Rican. They said I was a loser,” Gomez-Preston recalled in Essence. “I couldn’t let them be right. I had to prove something to myself; I had started questioning my own ability. The police department became a way for me to prove myself.”
Born Cheryl Gomez, October 12,1954, in Detroit, Ml; daughter of Ramon Gomez and Adrianne Smith; married Bennett Preston, July 27,1979; children: daughter, Reagan, and son, Kyle. Education: Detroit Metropolitan Police Academy, graduate, 1977.
Police officer, Detroit Police Department, Ml, 1977-80, 1982-83, 1985-86; Royal Oak Police Department, Ml, 1980-81; Inkster Police Department, Ml, 1981-82. Founder, Association for the Sexually Harassed (ASH), Philadelphia, PA, 1987—.
Addresses: Office —Association for the Sexually Harassed, P.O. Box 27235, Philadelphia, PA 12128.
Gomez-Preston had found her initial inspiration to join the police department from Honey West, a television show featuring a strong, independent, and confident woman as a private investigator. In 1974, the 19-year-old Gomez-Preston applied to the police academy. Although she worked a number of different jobs for the next three years—and had her first encounter with sexual harassment—she was accepted into the police academy and began pursuing her dream.
Shortly after entering the Detroit Metropolitan Police Academy on July 5, 1977, Gomez-Preston knew she was in the right place. Although the course was physically and mentally demanding, she found loved it. “Physically and mentally I was in the best condition I’d ever been in, and I’d begun to feel really good about myself, for the first time in a long time. I made friends there,” she wrote in her book, When No Means No. When she graduated twelfth in her class of 120 original trainees on September 5, 1977, Gomez-Preston shared her deep pride with her grandfather. She remembered his excitement in When No Means No: “On graduation day, my classmates had many relatives there to cheer them on. I had—as usual—only my granddaddy at the ceremony. It was enough. He beamed with joy as Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and Police Chief William Hart handed me my badge and diploma.”
Although some male officers were uncomfortable with prospect of female officers entering the field, Gomez-Preston enjoyed the challenge of her career and the solidarity she had with many of the officers. The first day she and a number of new policewomen began, one white male officer greeted the group with disdain: “Go back where you came from,” Gomez-Preston recalled him as saying in When No Means No. On behalf of the group of women, however, Gomez-Preston responded: “We’re here to stay.”
Gomez-Preston was one of the first women assigned to street patrol and she performed well. Assigned to the 13th Precinct, a “red-light district,” she became an expert in her work. A “Jill-of-all-trades,” she gained the respect of the indigenous population, earning the nickname “Sunshine.” Busting illegal gambling clubs, buying liquor without an ID, posing as a prostitute on street corners, making arrests with other officers, and arriving at scenes of homicides were all part of her activities.
Gomez-Preston rose through the ranks, briefly working undercover in Internal Affairs and becoming the first black female officer in the precinct to ride a scooter as well as the first in the precinct to work on Community Operations Patrol, essentially public relations. She and the other officers protected one another on the streets. “I’ll never forget the time a suspect on the street called me a bitch. One of the officers I was with knocked a tooth out of his mouth,” she wrote in Essence. “I protected them, too. I would have given my life for these officers. I would have.”
After falling in love with and then marrying Bennett Preston, a medical student whom she had known since elementary school, Gomez-Preston’s standing among the other officers changed radically. Her colleagues’ attitudes began to shift after her husband graduated and began his residency. Problems began for Gomez-Preston in 1982, when other officers started suggesting she did not need the work and began verbally abusing her. She had been transferred to the largest precinct in the city and there received written racist epithets and death threats from other officers. When she showed these to her commanding officer, a black man, he dismissed them casually and expressed interest in a relationship with her.
The situation escalated until one day, when Gomez-Preston found herself suddenly alone in an alley with a suspect she’d been chasing; the police back-up that should easily have been there for her was not. When the robber reached for his gun, Gomez-Preston was forced to shoot him. Her friends on the force pulled away from her, leaving her yet more isolated on the job. When she met with her commanding officer to discuss her problems, he offered to help her only if she slept with him.
After filing a confidential complaint, she was transferred back to her original precinct, but friends there had turned against her too. Gomez-Preston began suffering the physical effects of her stress, including crying spells, hair loss, bouts of depression, and chest pains. Once, when she complained of pain, her supervisor publicly scolded her. Completely demoralized, she responded by slowly aiming her gun at him, meaning to shoot him, when another officer stopped her. At home, she raised her gun again— this time at herself. Picturing her two children, however, Gomez-Preston realized she was not alone and that her problems were shared by her family. She went to a psychiatrist her husband knew and eventually understood her oppression. Equipped with the self-knowledge, she decided to fight back.
Gomez-Preston had been hospitalized while she recovered, physically and mentally, from her trauma. She had received some disability compensation, but the Detroit Police Department fired her. From August of 1983 to September of 1985, Gomez-Preston and her husband were in serious financial straits. Out of work, unable to drive, in therapy three times each week, with no utilities, living on milk and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and with her children at her mother’s, Gomez-Preston struggled together with her husband.
Gomez-Preston began searching for an attorney and officially filed a lawsuit for sexual harassment on May 5, 1984. She won her case for unlawful dismissal in September of the following year and returned to work until November 11, 1986, when she received notification of her trial date. Meanwhile, while making a felony arrest part of her right kneecap was shattered, meaning more hospitalization.
The trial lasted six weeks. Two of the officers named in the suit were acquitted and one conviction was overturned in the Court of Appeals, but her commanding officer, Mack Douglas, was judged guilty and received a civil conviction, though as of 1993, he remained a Detroit Police commander. After an historic award in 1987, Gomez-Preston received about $800,000 in the jury trial, at that time, one of the largest sexual-harassment verdicts for a police officer.
For these experiences and for her later work, Gomez-Preston has become a popular and contentious figure in the black community. Before deciding to pursue a lawsuit, she consulted black community leaders in the city, who did not help her. When she began looking for a lawyer, hardly anyone believed her. Then some criticized Gomez-Preston for her action against a prominent man in the community. “Why is it that when I go to the black community there is such a lack of support,” she was quoted as asking in the Detroit Free Press, “but when I’m going to bring charges against a prominent black figure then all of a sudden, he’s my brother?”
Still, even after the judicial process, Gomez-Preston could not recover emotionally. To do that, she realized, she would need to assist others in their similar struggles. “For me, the trial and the verdict weren’t enough; the door wasn’t closed,” she wrote in When No Means No. “I realized that the only way it would be was to use everything I’d gone through to help others.”
So Gomez-Preston founded the Association for the Sexually Harassed (ASH) and began writing, lecturing, counseling, and educating people on the subject. At ASH, her cases have included gender and sexual harassment perpetrated by women as well as men, against other individuals, including homosexuals. She addresses people working in a range of occupations, from bus drivers to soldiers, police, and lawyers. With the aid of ASH and other support groups, Gomez-Preston reported that more people are coming forward with tales of harassment and presenting and winning lawsuits.
When No Means No chronicles Gomez-Preston’s own story and raises awareness on sexual harassment. In her new career as an advocate against sexual harassment, Gomez-Preston has been working tirelessly. In her book, she sums up her current hopes. “If we—not only victims, not only women, but anyone who wants to further human rights—band together, we can beat sexual harassment.”
Gomez-Preston, Cheryl, with Randi Reisfeld, When No Means No: How to Protect Yourself From Sexual Harassment, Carol Publishing Group, 1993.
Essence, March 1990, pp. 60-2, 120-22.
Detroit Free Press, September 23, 1994, pp. 2C-3C.
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