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Ohio's 1st lesbian sheriff on her rocky journey to becoming 'proud and fearless'

Charmaine McGuffey defeated the man who fired her to become the sheriff of Hamilton County, Ohio. Her rise to the top was far from easy.
Image: Charmaine McGuffey.
Charmaine McGuffey.NBC News; Courtesy of Charmaine McGuffey

[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]

Charmaine McGuffey knew she wanted to be a police officer since she was a teen in Cincinnati in the early 1970s. At that time, though, women weren’t allowed to be uniformed officers.

Eventually that barrier fell and McGuffey joined the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in 1983. Over three decades of service, she received numerous commendations, including being promoted to major in command of jail and court services, making her the highest-ranking woman in department history.

But McGuffey said even as she rose through the ranks, she was subjected to harassment and humiliation for speaking out against excessive force and because of her sexual orientation. In 2010, McGuffey said, she and her friends were targeted by officers outside a gay bar in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

“They were horrible. When they found out I was a captain, it became this thing, like, ‘What are we going to do about her?’” she told NBC News last year. “They pushed me to the ground and handcuffed me. It was absolutely unlawful what they did, and they knew it.” The officers cited her for public intoxication, menacing and disorderly conduct.

Prior to the incident, McGuffey had been closeted at work.

Ultimately, the charges, all misdemeanors, were dropped. But the sheriff’s office still suspended her for five days without pay.

Then, in 2016, a deputy filed an official complaint alleging McGuffey belittled subordinates. Her superior, Sheriff Jeff Neil, launched an internal investigation that determined McGuffey “used her position to retaliate against employees, as well as engaged in favoritism,” according to department records. To McGuffey, though, the goal was to discredit her. A later court ruling agreed, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, suggesting the investigation may have been simply an excuse to justify demoting her.

“The obvious differences in the way these investigations were conducted raise genuine issues of material fact as to pretext," U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott wrote in 2020.

In 2017, after more than 30 years on the job, Neil, the man who had promoted McGuffey to major, demoted her to a lower-paying civilian job. She refused the position and was fired. It was a major blow — seemingly the end of everything she had worked for. But after nursing her wounds for a year and a half, McGuffey decided she could do Neil’s job better herself. In 2019, she declared her candidacy for sheriff of Hamilton County, which covers the southwestern corner of Ohio, including Cincinnati.

In April 2020, she handily defeated Neil in the Democratic primary with 70 percent of the vote. She won the general election in November, becoming the first lesbian sheriff in Ohio history, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute.

“It was very gratifying,” McGuffey said of her victory. “It told me that the community was ready for change and embraced my belief that law enforcement and the community can come together with a common voice to enact reform in the criminal justice system.”

She was sworn into office in January, but there was little time to celebrate. The Covid-19 pandemic swept the state — including Hamilton County jails, the third-largest jail system in the state.

“My first priority was to ensure the safety of our staff and the prisoners in our custody and care,” she said. “That included enhanced cleanliness in the jail and working with county officials to provide vaccines to staff and prisoners.”

At the same time, she was determined to see through her campaign commitments about leading the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office with accountability, transparency, dignity and respect.

“I presented a 100-day plan that outlined my priorities … including reviewing our use of force and training policies, working with community members to review our response to undocumented residents, creating a Community Affairs Division and establishing a volunteer Citizens Review Board.”

Charmaine McGuffey, left, with her wife, Christine Sandusky.Tyler Smetts

Despite her victory, the support of her community and the love of her wife, Christine Sandusky, McGuffey admits having pride in being part of the LGBTQ community hasn’t come easy.

“I grew up in a very conservative community,” she said. “I grew up knowing that I was different, that I was gay. I was forced to hide my identity and lie about my personal life. I experienced heightened anxiety around most ‘straight people’ and my fear of being outed was paralyzing. There were times when I wondered if I would survive.”

She credits those who came before her and fought for equality and visibility.

“I now stand proud and fearless about who I am,” she said. “My hope now is to empower and encourage all LGBTQ people to stand with pride and be counted! I am so proud of every person who has joined the fight for equality — you are my brother, my sister, my friend.”

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