Monday, July 04, 2016

Of Police, Protest and Pride

Where to begin a blog post about the events at Toronto Pride yesterday, events that got me worked up enough to post to this blog after more than a two-year hiatus?  There are a lot of entangled issues for me here, personal, professional, and political, and it’s not always clear where one begins and the other ends.  But let me start by saying that I was very upset yesterday by the demand from Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLM) that police booths and floats be excluded from Toronto Pride, and by the apparent capitulation by Pride’s director to those demands when faced with the sit-in (although it remains to be seen whether that stance will be maintained). [UPDATED: Apparently the ED of Toronto Pride announced today that he only agreed to discuss the demands, not to grant them outright, which is encouraging.]  I’ll get into why I feel this way in a moment, but a bit of personal and professional context might be in order first.

I am a white, gay, upper middle-class, cis-gendered, professional man in my late-30s, who has been legally married to another man for the past 12 years.  My husband is one-quarter Japanese, but “passes” as white.  I would never claim that we don’t lead highly privileged lives. But nor do I think that this should exclude me from voicing my opinions on Pride, or having those “count” somehow.  My own history with Pride goes back to 1997, when I watched my first Toronto Pride parade, still a deeply closeted undergrad student and unwilling to admit that I might be gay.  Attending the following year, in 1998, and feeling the support and encouragement from that many people in attendance gave me the courage to come out that summer.  As a graduate student in Ottawa, I marched in the Pride parade a number of times as part of the queer film festival contingent.  Later years brought me as a spectator to the DiversCité pride when we lived in Montreal, and to Halifax Pride when we lived in Sackville, New Brunswick (where we used to joke that we could declare it the Pride parade if we walked down the street holding hands).  Since moving back to Ontario, I haven’t tended to make the drive into Toronto that often for Pride (although I did a number of years ago to see my sister’s and my aunt’s respective dance performances at the community stage), but I do sometimes make it to the Guelph Pride events.

Professionally, although my own research isn’t squarely on queer history, I do actively promote and engage with queer Canadian history.  I developed the module on gay and lesbian activism for Nelson’s Canadian History Visions textbook project. I have reviewed several works of Canadian gay history for scholarly journals and websites. I proposed the “We Demand” issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies when I was on its editorial board, and then worked actively with the guest editor of that issue when I was associate editor of the journal.  Queer content is central to a number of my undergraduate courses, particularly a course on Canadian history since 1945, and an upper-year seminar on social movement history in Canada.  So I’m certainly not unfamiliar with Canadian queer history, the struggles that have been waged, and those that are still ongoing.  And it is with that historical background, coupled with a bit of a personal stake in the events (and those held in other communities) that informs my thinking on this issue.

I think it is wrong to exclude the police from participating fully in Pride.  I write this being fully aware of the histories of oppression attached to various police forces in Canada: the RCMP’s security state weeding out homosexuals from the civil service; the Toronto Police raids on The Body Politic; the Toronto and Montreal police bathhouse raids, and much more.  I am aware that there are current problems with how various levels of the police deal with marginalized communities, including (but not limited to) Black and Indigenous communities.  And I recognize that for some members of some communities, a police presence is not perceived as a welcoming one. But I do not think that this is adequate justification for a ban on police participation. 

For me, a really important piece of the history of Pride and of GLBTQ rights in Canada is about victories won in changing the police forces.  This includes the decision of the RCMP to drop its ban on homosexuals in 1988.  It includes sensitivity training for police officers to make them aware of gay and lesbian issues (such as pairing them off to walk through streets holding hands, wearing civilian clothes).  It includes the apology, this year, for the Toronto bathhouse raids of the early 1980s. 

It also includes the many men and women who work for the police who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited, queer (and the rest of the Pride alphabet) who have fought to be able to serve their communities, and who work from within to continue to change the ways that police forces interact with marginalized communities.  That includes a friend of mine who recently joined the Ontario Provincial Police.  It includes the gay Toronto Police officer who was excited to participate in Pride
this year and penned an open letter on the CBC website.  It also includes allies on the police forces, like my straight best friend, who works in communications for the RCMP, who has defended the right of gay Mounties to wear the red serge when they march in their communities’ Pride parades.  A number of years ago, one of my PhD students decided that he wanted to leave academia, and become a police officer in Toronto.  I gave him an enthusiastic recommendation, because he was the sort of progressive-minded person that I wanted to see as part of policing in my country.  I think that the participation of police forces in Pride advances the cause of further progress in reforming policing, and that inclusivity is important. 

There is a much longer post that could be written about the specific tactics of the sit-in, the strategies behind the demands, and the content of the rest of Black Lives Matter demands of the Pride executive.  But for me, it is this particular demand that was the major problem, and I worry that in the rush to celebrate “keeping Pride political”, this specific demand is being overlooked by many sympathizers of BLM, or justified as part of a larger, polarizing, ideological worldview that I find troublesome.  While every social movement needs its “radical flank” (to use the academic jargon) of activists to push the envelope, make headlines and generate attention, it also needs its moderates who will work with sympathetic allies in the corridors of power to generate concrete policy changes.  And by slamming the door shut on the police, who have been making progress (albeit perhaps too slowly for some), it will make it much harder for the moderates on both sides to accomplish the changes that are desired.

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