Black Lives Matter led a March on Pride in Vancouver in June 2017.
“It was so affirming and validating to be able to centre the voices and experiences of queer people of colour, particularly Black and Indigenous folks,” writes Cicely-Belle Blain, above centre, of Black Lives Matter Vancouver’s March on Pride. Credit: Janet Rerecich/Xtra
Opinion
9 min

If you want cops in Pride, you’re missing the next queer revolution

Why Black Canadians are essential to the reclamation of Pride

The Stonewall rebellion, a protest that took place inside (and outside and all around) the Stonewall Inn in 1969 in New York City, was essential to the inception of queer and trans Pride as we know it. It was also an anti-police protest.

Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Storme DeLarverie and many other queer and trans women of colour were the heroines of LGBT liberation that rippled outward from the American east coast. Rippling back from the west was a lesser known but equally incredible event that took place just three years earlier in San Francisco. In the Compton Cafeteria, the LGBT community gathered safely and the restaurant was particularly frequented by trans women of colour. In 1966 (an estimated date, as police records were destroyed), patrons, including Felicia “Flames” Elizondo, resisted a violent police raid.

When marginalized groups gather, they are systematically targeted by law enforcement whose agenda it is to uphold the safety and comfort of privileged people over the lives of the oppressed. Black people in ghettoized neighbourhoods, homeless and street-involved people in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, immigrants in poor communities, queer and trans people in bathhouses and gay bars. Police scrutinize, racially profile and over-criminalize certain people based on stereotypes about marginalized communities and the supposed threat they pose to the white and wealthy.

I feel like a broken record.

Since the summer of 2016, I have been part of a movement to remove police from the Vancouver Pride parade. I have repeated the above facts countless times in an attempt to encourage other members of the LGBT community in this city and across Canada to reconsider their pro-police (and therefore anti-Black) stance. Vancouver — resistant to change, resistant to reality and resistant to Black voices — has been a difficult city to convince of the plight of Black queer and trans communities. (Which, upon reflection, is unsurprising given the literal projects of erasure of Black communities in this city over the past century.)

While a year of being silenced in “community consultations” and “dialogues” has been sad and frustrating, what strikes me as most disconcerting is the continued racist vitriol towards queer and trans people of colour taking up the space they deserve in Pride-related events and even while hosting separate LGBT protests and celebrations.

I thought that when Black Lives Matter Vancouver announced an entirely separate Pride-related event (the March on Pride) two months in advance of the Vancouver Pride parade, that the haters would give up their racist arm-chair heckling. I was wrong. We continued to receive comments like “get your own parade” (please tell me you see the irony) and “stay out of Pride.”

The argument for maintaining police presence in Pride parades is “inclusion” yet when Black queer and trans folks take their rightful place in those same parades or host their own cop-free Pride events, suddenly we are “divisive.”

It’s one thing to be upset and feel like the removal of police is undoing years of relationship-building work with police; it’s another much worse thing to be angry and resistant that queer and trans people of colour (who face more violence and discrimination than white queers) want to be free and happy.

Perhaps surprisingly to many, one of my favourite films is Pride (2014). While it is a white-washed and very un-diverse rendition of history, watching the film was my first exposure to the events of 1984. A group of queer youth in London, later known as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), formed an unlikely relationship with a small mining town in Wales. When I watched this film a few years ago, it spoke to me as a young queer Londoner from a working class neighbourhood, passionate about workers’ rights and queer liberation.

Thinking about that piece of history now, what strikes me is the acts of unconditional and unwavering solidarity that brought those two communities together in such a surprising way. Moreover, it makes me question: why can’t white queers extend the same love and support to queer people of colour who are directly impacted by police violence? How could LGSM commit their lives to the rights of miners, the majority of whom were not queer (and some quite homophobic), yet in 2017 white gay men can turn their backs on black trans women being murdered by police?

On June 25, 2017, around the 48th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Minneapolis, Washington DC and many other US cities, Black people defiantly staged sit-ins, die-ins, performance pieces and other revolutionary actions to call attention to the tragic reality of Black death in America.

The participation of so many cities and so many human beings in a unified action for social change can only be described as a revolution. This is the new frontier of queer and trans rights — exposing the toxic relationships between Pride societies and police, drawing attention to how pinkwashing results in Black death, and reasserting the lives and bodies of queer, trans and two-spirit people of colour in the face of corporatised and white-washed movements.

North of the colonially constructed border, Canadian cities also played a huge and essential role in this history-making work. As I mentioned, Black Lives Matter Vancouver hosted our first March on Pride. It was the most beautiful, profound and poignant event I have been a part of. It was so affirming and validating to be able to centre the voices and experiences of queer people of colour, particularly Black and Indigenous folks. I lost interest in the petty politics of the Vancouver Pride Society and felt energized by our divestment from mainstream Pride.

One organization should not have monopoly over “Pride” anyway and when that organization chooses police over queer and trans people of colour, it’s time to dismantle its hold and seek affirming celebrations elsewhere.

Of the March on Pride, Lily Shinde, a queer Japanese elder and a survivor of Canada’s internment camps, said on Facebook: “I never thought I would see something like this in my lifetime.” Long-time Vancouver queer South Asian activist Fatima Jaffer said, “it reframed and reclaimed what ‘queer’ was always intended to represent — the questioning, challenging, disrupting, destabilizing and unsettling of all forms of established repressive norms.”

By stripping Pride back to its political and revolutionary origins, we created something incredible and spectacular. My fellow Black Lives Matter Vancouver organizer, Daniella Barreto, reflected to me that in the 15 years she has called Vancouver home, she had never felt there was a queer event for people like her. “We managed to pull off the most incredible Pride event I have ever been to,” she said.

On the Vancouver Pride Society’s decision to still allow uniformed police in the parade, Barretto said: “You can’t have ‘less’ racism or ‘less’ sexism or ‘less’ transphobia and expect people to feel comfortable when real live members of the queer community are saying to your face that they don’t feel comfortable existing as queer and trans people in a space meant for them. You’re either 100 percent against racism and transphobia or you aren’t at all.”

Cicely-Belle Blain and Daniella Barreto pose with a FUQ the police sign at BLM Vancouver’s March on Pride.
Cicely-Belle Blain and Daniella Barreto at BLM Vancouver’s March on Pride. Credit: Janet Rerecich/Xtra

On the same day that we held our March on Pride in Vancouver, Black Lives Matter Toronto re-joined the Toronto Pride parade and instead of staging a sit-in as they did in 2016, marched fiercely and proudly advocated for Black queer and trans communities, reminding onlookers that “we started this” (referencing the racialized and political origins of Pride).

“Being Black and queer often brings with it contradictions and a feeling of displacement,” Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Rodney Diverlus later messaged me. “We’re often ask to reconcile one part of ourselves for the other. I connect so much to the Black Lives Matter movement and mantra for it not only allows, but encourages us, to bring forward our full selves. To demand liberation for our full selves. Having the issues of queer and trans Black people be at the centre of the public discourse on race shows me that our community really is ready to discuss what our full liberation might look like. It’s incredibly life assuring.”

Much of the criticism aimed at Black liberation chapters in Canada is that there is no racism or police brutality here. Not only are these comments ironically founded on racism and anti-Blackness, they are also ignorant and false.

According to one analyst, Canadian police officers murder roughly 25 civilians per year. But alarmingly, Canada holds “no reliable record of police shootings,” which contributes to the lack of belief and knowledge about the dangers of gun-wielding law enforcement. (Yes, it is possible for police officers to protect citizens without lethal weapons, as is exhibited in many European countries).

What is additionally problematic about the fatal shootings by police in Canada is that 40 percent of the victims were living with varying mental health challenges. Again, this presents evidence that law enforcement acts as a tool of erasure; a system with which certain communities are over-policed for the benefit of those more privileged. (For a deeper understanding of this theory, I highly recommend Achilles Mbembe’s essay on necropolitics, where he explains that necropolitics “is the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die.”)

Even within the narrative of a purportedly peaceful Canada, Vancouverites seem to further distance themselves from issues of injustice or oppression. In Vancouver there are just yoga pants, bike lanes and kale salads — and of course a completely willful ignorance about racism and police violence.

Take for example, the case of Solomon Akintoye, a black Nigerian refugee who was brutally attacked by Vancouver Police Department officers in a case of “mistaken identity” (a term often used by BC law enforcement as code for their institutionalized racism and anti-Blackness). Akintoye took the VPD to court, but the judge dismissed his case because she had “concerns about the credibility of Akintoye, who had mental-health issues.” So, not only was Akintoye one of three cases in the past few years where a Black person was stopped/detained/threatened by the Vancouver police for a crime they had no relation to, he was also unfairly treated by the ableist legal system because of his schizophrenia.

In a meeting with Constable Dale Quiring — the VPD officer vying to represent Vancouver’s LGBT community off the side of his desk as a white cis heterosexual dude — he said the Akintoye case was “irrelevant” to our discussions of police participation in the Pride parade.

Irrelevant? Seriously? The very reason we are demanding police removal from our community events is because of their unchecked racism and reckless violence, globally and locally. As people who are Black and with some of us experiencing mental health challenges (like 60 percent of Black LGBT people), the relevance of Black Lives Matter’s request should be glaringly obvious.

By forcing themselves into our parades, police are still maintaining control from within. Operation Soap, the police code name for the Toronto bathhouse raids, took place 36 years ago. That same institution (and perhaps even some of the very same officers) who arrested, violated and assaulted gay men is suddenly covered in rainbows. They’re still watching; they’re still keeping us in check. An estimated 15,000 people joined the Vancouver Women’s March on Washington, an event organized and attended by predominantly white middle-class women. Several hundred attended a vegan animal rights march — I’m sure you can guess the demographic — which also had no police presence. Why were police not insistent on participating in those events?

While Black folks and folks with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of police violence, no one is entirely safe from an individual with a gun who has inadequate de-escalation training and the security of a biased legal system at their back. Perhaps they are not actively raiding LGBT establishments (although police raided Goliath’s bathhouse in Calgary in 2002) but they are still obsessively patrolling our community.

It may seem like Black communities and the police are starkly divided, yet already police departments across North America have reached out to try to create superficial relationships with Black Lives Matter chapters. I describe them as superficial because while individual officers may be well intentioned in creating community-focused programming, the institution of policing continues to murder and brutalize Black people at an alarming rate. We can’t have cook-outs and barbecues with the same people that would put a bullet in our back at a traffic light or in a playpark. (Just like we shouldn’t dance in parades with the same people who raid gay bars and murder trans women, if I hadn’t already mentioned that.) This is a dangerous process that must be stopped.

I think in all this my purpose is to passionately impart the beauty of Black queer and trans people reclaiming Pride and how Black Canadians have been essential to that global movement.

While there are many people who will perhaps never understand the necessity of a police-free Pride parade (because of the security that comes with white privilege), I at least hope that the LGBT community can be compassionate to those seeking freedom and safety from police violence in whatever form they choose. What I saw in the film Pride was empathy: an ability to look beyond one’s own struggles and biases to support those more in need. Has the queer community become so bastardized by relative privileges (like legal marriage and anti-discrimination laws) that it no longer knows how to care?

Black joy is resistance and the evolution of LGBT Pride must include the affirmation of Black lives, Black bodies and Black happiness. Anyone not on board with that represents the antithesis of queer and trans liberation and modern day gay Pride.