3 min

Gay-police relations in tatters

Mainstream gay groups have failed to deal with pressing, ongoing gay and trans issues in policing. The result is that a new group of young leaders is heading the charge, establishment types be damned.

These failures were disappointing to watch. The most recent instance of political incompetence comes from Ottawa, but there are plenty of Toronto examples.

In late October, the Ottawa Police’s gay liaison office was sent a press release for the Free Thinking Film Festival. The liaison folks forwarded the note to its listserv,  promoting the screening of Reclaiming Our Pride, Martin Gladstone’s agitprop documentary about Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).

The anti-QuAIA folks — using that doc — were almost the undoing of Pride Toronto this year. They pressured city council to withhold funds from parade organizers unless they ousted the group. After Pride Toronto twice tried to do just that, it eventually let the controversial group march, citing its (by then somewhat suspect) allegiance to free speech.

The screening of the film, and its promotion by the gay-relations committee of the police, could kick off a Pride Toronto-calibre meltdown in that city. Let’s hope not.

It highlights the grim state of conventional police activism — either hopelessly naive or recklessly incompetent. It’s a far cry from what it once was, namely the territory of an astute group of gays, lesbian and trans people — the folks responsible for the establishment of gay-police relations committees in the first place.

Luckily, in the gap created by the failures of conventional police activism, a new clan is emerging, spurred on by the police’s heavy-handed approach during the G20.

The division was laid bare during Pride Week here in Toronto. Days after the G20, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair hosted a Pride-themed cocktail party at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Queers inside the auditorium made small talk with police and networked with each other. At the same time, more than 100 angry queers heckled the party from the sidewalk. It was a tense, fiery protest.

Ostensibly, I should point out, the two groups of queers had a common goal — to ensure that the police act equitably toward all, that civil liberties are maintained and that police don’t return to the era of selective enforcement of gay space.

On the street, you had lefties, libertarians, artists and activists. Inside, you had representatives from Pride Toronto, Egale, The 519 and outgoing city councillor Kyle Rae.

It was a little bit of history repeating in September, when a group of queer activists gathered in front of The 519 again, this time to protest a gay recruitment drive by the Ontario Provincial Police. (Full disclosure: I attended, wearing a homemade “Liberties were taken” T-shirt.)

The protest sharply divided people. Those accustomed to more conventional forms of police activism were aghast. After all, won’t gay and trans police officers make the force more gay-friendly? If we want our interests represented, don’t we need to be a part of the system?

The protesters included a large contingent of people who had interacted with police — on the wrong end of their batons during the G20, on the wrong end of sex-worker sweeps, on the wrong side of the door during the Pussy Palace raids. The existence of gay police officers — or Egale Canada, or a gay-police relations committee — hadn’t protected them from police harassment.

A Nov 1 meeting at The 519 on policing issues showed that the protests over the summer and fall were impossible to ignore within our own communities. Trust-building between gays and police had been utterly demolished by the police’s recent behaviour.

That message, abundantly obvious to those on the street in front of the Bill Blair reception, took a while to penetrate the psyches of more conventional gay activists. Unfortunately, they acted as a drag on momentum during key months. They appear to be coming onside now, late to the party, and still only as wallflowers.

But even so, as queer communities in Toronto and elsewhere get their ducks in a row, the main question is, will the police take them seriously?