The police have no place at Pride

June 16, 2017

If we are going to be liberated, the LGBTQ community can't let the police and corporate sponsors call the shots at Pride, argue Sarah Mamo and Jonah ben Avraham.

A DEBATE has emerged about the relationship between police and the LGBTQ community after Black Lives Matter-Toronto activists organized a sit-in at last year's Toronto Pride parade to demand a host of inclusion and safety measures, including an end to a uniformed police presence at Pride.

Toronto Pride organizers initially agreed with all of Black Lives Matter's demands, but later changed their position on the demand to kick the cops out of Pride, creating a rift in the queer liberation movement between those in solidarity with Black Lives Matter-Toronto and those holding onto the respectability of Pride parades populated by major corporations and gay police contingents.

This debate is taking place at a time when corporate sponsorship and police involvement are common to Pride parades all over the world--and, we believe, incorporate politics that are fundamentally foreign to the radical roots of the movement for LGBTQ liberation.

In response, the Washington, D.C.-based No Justice No Pride is calling for an end to "the LGBTQ movement's collusion with systems of oppression that further marginalize queer and trans individuals." Their demands include eliminating corporate sponsorship of Pride and a ban on both corporations and police from participating in Pride celebrations.

Police officers show support for demonstrators at a pride march in Washington, D.C.
Police officers show support for demonstrators at a pride march in Washington, D.C. (Elvert Barnes | flickr)

When corporations like Wells Fargo--which helped sponsor the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and stands accused of contributing to the mortgage crisis with its predatory practices--also sponsor Pride parades, there's ample reason for activists who understand the need for building solidarity among struggles of the oppressed to be concerned.

Moreover, the presence of police flies in the face of Pride's origins. After all, Pride celebrations take place in late June to commemorate the 1969 riot at New York's Stonewall Inn in response to the police targeting the LGBTQ community.

It's in this context--coupled with the sea change in public opinion and support for a popular movement for queer liberation, which increased during the Obama administration--that corporate and police presence at Pride should be understood.

If the queer liberation movement is going to push back the forces that harm LGBTQ people of all races, then it should work to reclaim Pride as a site free from corporate and police bigotry.

AFTER THE horrific shooting at a popular Orlando, Florida, gay nightclub Pulse in June 2016, many LGBTQ activists called for an increase in police presence at Pride events.

This was an understandable response. The Orlando massacre was a frightening attack directed against the LGBTQ community. But the calls for increased policing rest on the false belief that cops can be trusted to protect LGBTQ people.

Many of its most marginalized members, however, know from personal experience that this is a lie. When a group of white men and women shouted racist and transphobic slurs at CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman, and slashed her face with glass, the police arrested McDonald--not her attackers--when she defended herself.

McDonald is certainly not alone among queer folks in being mistreated by police. According to FBI statistics, LGBTQ people are among those most likely to experience a hate crime, yet LGBTQ people of color are disproportionately more likely to experience police violence.

More than half of respondents (58 percent) to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported high levels of mistreatment and harassment by police. This includes being intentionally misgendered, deadnamed (when a trans person is called by their birth name instead of their chosen name), and verbally, physically or sexually assaulted. Some reported being forced by officers to engage in sexual activity to avoid arrest.

Many respondents, most of them transgender women of color, reported that police frequently assumed they were sex workers. Nine out of 10 who do sex work or were assumed to be doing sex work reported being "harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted or mistreated in some other way by police."

Given these statistics, it makes sense that more than half of all respondents (57 percent) would feel uncomfortable asking police for help, leading more LGBTQ people to decide not to report hate violence to the police out of fear of retribution.

IN THE 1960s, police brutality against the LGBTQ community reached new heights when police raids of LGBTQ nightclubs--sanctuaries for our freedom of expression and identity--became routine. That's why the uprising at New York City's Stonewall Inn after a raid led to the bar being known as the birthplace of gay power.

Led by Black and Brown trans women, the Stonewall riots put ending state violence and the fight for survival at the heart of the LGBT agenda, which Pride parades have too often erased. As Sherry Wolf writes in her book Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation, Stonewall is a highlight in the history of LGBTQ resistance because of:

the conscious mobilization in the riot's wake of new and seasoned activists who gave expression to this more militant mood.

Like a dam bursting, Stonewall was the eruption after 20 years of trickling progress by small handfuls of men and women whose conscious organizing gave way to the spontaneous wave of fury...Each night thereafter through Wednesday, more and more gays and straight leftists, from socialists and Black Panthers to the Yippies and Puerto Rican Young Lords, arrived on the scene to participate in the latest confrontation with police.

Stonewall demonstrates that when cases of state repression are exposed, solidarity between oppressed groups can strengthen--as Wolf's description of support for the rebellion among anti-racist organizations makes clear.

This tradition continued with the AIDS activist group ACT UP in the late 1980s and early 1990s and again in 2014 with the emergence of Black Lives Matter, with many queer Black women among its leaders--BLM was thus simultaneously LGBTQ-inclusive and anti-police brutality.

SOLIDARITY IS precisely what the LGBTQ movement needs to progress toward real liberation. At New York's annual Celebrate Israel parade on June 4, queer activists in solidarity with Palestine showed what resistance and solidarity looks like by disrupting the Pride contingent, with its attempt to "pinkwash" Israel's disregard for Palestinian humanity.

In Israel, an apartheid state that received huge U.S. support, state repression collides with tepid cultural acceptance of LGBTQ people. Israel's settler-colonial society gives way to ethnic cleansing, apartheid and the daily endangerment of the lives of Palestinians. As Keegan O'Brien explained at

Instead of focusing on its shameful abuse of human rights and violation of international law, Israel has made a concerted effort to market its image as an LGBTQ-accepting, tolerant society in a sea of Arab reaction. While it's true that some LGBTQ people have been able to create cultural enclaves in select urban centers in Israel, these marketing efforts serve another purpose: to detract attention away from other, not-so-pretty facts about Israeli society, while demonizing those it colonizes in order to justify its crimes against them.

Activists call this blatant exploitation of LGBTQ rights for colonial purposes "pinkwashing." It's the policy of Israeli state officials, police and the Israeli Defense Force to deny Palestinians their right to their homeland in historic Palestine--but the government would rather the rest of the world see it as an LGBTQ haven.

The truth is that the Israeli government's claim that it's LGBTQ-inclusive doesn't extend to LGBTQ Palestinians.

If we want liberation for all LGBTQ people, let alone equal rights with our straight counterparts, we have to learn the lessons of the era of radicalism from which Stonewall emerged--as O'Brien writes, "a time period when movements actively saw themselves in solidarity with liberation struggles taking place across the world against all systems of oppression, empire and occupation."

Our movement has to draw a line against perpetrators of state violence, from U.S. police to Israeli occupiers. And this movement must also embrace the idea that solidarity is our strongest weapon.

Increased corporate presence and sponsorship at Pride comes at a cost--and that is heightened policing. If Pride is to be an authentic celebration of the LGBTQ community, its accomplishments and aims yet to be fought for, we must oppose police presence at and involvement in Pride.

Protection of the LGBTQ community will come from below, not from above, and it will take collective resistance to the powers that be to get there.

Further Reading

From the archives