Analysis
7 min

The four ways that LGBT communities are responding to Pride Toronto welcoming back police

Is it time to move towards a small-p pride?

A police officer waves to crowds of people at Toronto Pride 2016. Credit: Nick Lachance/Xtra

This week, Pride Toronto announced their decision to welcome back the Toronto police for the 2019 parade.

Pride Toronto’s decision was made without a membership vote, and with no clear explanation of the process by which it came about. In the press conference, Pride Toronto’s executive director Olivia Nuamah referred repeatedly to “conversations” without giving any specifics about what was discussed or who was involved. She dodged every question that sought details.

Nuamah gave no clear description of a process. She mentioned no stakeholders, despite saying the process has been “community-led.” Yet, she claimed that Toronto Pride’s working relationship with the police is “transparent.”

When asked whether police would be permitted to carry their weapons, she said the police have to apply to march before that discussion can even happen, but didn’t justify why that would be a necessary order of events.

Furthermore, Nuamah has made it clear that she wanted to finalize the decision well before the 2019 festival in order to not have to deal with it again. Pride Toronto’s open letter on the decision hints at why this might have been especially urgent, saying the issue of police at Pride “has even come to threaten our very existence as a publicly-funded, non-profit community organization.”

To me, this reads as a veiled admission that funding was a key element in this choice and although Nuamah did not specify whom the funding may be from, we can make educated guesses given Doug Ford’s stance on “having our police back into the parade.” But I want to move away from the troubling mechanics of Pride Toronto’s decision-making process and instead consider the range of responses that I’ve seen. I place them in four main categories.

Some believe that uniformed police officers have a place in Pride celebrations, and are pleased with the decision. People who hold this position — including the police themselves, despite all their advertised “listening” — are prioritizing the symbolic inclusion of police over the needs of the most marginalized among us. For many, the inclusion of uniformed police actively deters them from participating: Black queers, Indigenous queers, queers of colour; trans women and trans men; non-binary folks; sex workers, people who are homeless, under-housed or mentally ill; sexual assault victims who were re-traumatized by their experience of reporting to police; and folks who embody many of these experiences and identities at once. In short, this excludes many people under the rainbow whom the police are still most likely to mistreat.

To me, this is a sad state of affairs, but not a surprising one. In a way, it’s a testament to how far we’ve come that some queer people have led a life that has never placed them in conflict with the police. A life that has left them able to see a group of armed officers and not feel the reflexive need to duck behind the nearest building. Some of us today enjoy a social acceptance we could not have achieved 50 years ago. This progress and privilege, for some, leads to a relative level of comfort with the police.

To me, some people’s sense of ease at being near the police at a time of celebration isn’t itself the problem. It’s the lack of compassion for everyone else that bothers me most.

Some people don’t mind if uniformed police take part, but want them to behave better first. Some cities that host Prides, such as Winnipeg, have asked police to sign statements about working toward specific kinds of change. This, and similar efforts elsewhere, are attempts to hold police accountable to the community, with participation in Pride not a given, but an earned right.

It sounds complicated to me. Who decides what the criteria are, how to measure them accurately, and what counts as a passing grade? Is this approach meaningful to the people who feel excluded by police presence, or does it just nudge people who were on the fence about it into “yes” territory?

Tellingly, neither Nuamah nor Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders mentioned any concrete criteria by which progress has been or could be measured, and stated no intention to produce such criteria in the future. In fact, they both hedged their bets, describing current and future work in the vaguest terms.

Pride Toronto’s open letter acknowledges that some may feel the decision is premature: “We may not all see the same signs of a mending relationship. Indeed, some of the change is subtle and some just getting underway.”

Justice Gloria Epstein’s review of the Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) approach to missing persons isn’t slated for completion until 2020, and it was deemed necessary in the first place primarily because of how badly the TPS has failed Toronto’s queer and trans communities in the last several years. This isn’t a small thing. Bruce McArthur’s alleged serial murders alone, mostly of marginalized gay men, is one of the country’s biggest policing scandals this decade, and McArthur hasn’t even yet gone to trial.

By all accounts — even Pride Toronto’s — if you’re using police accountability to the queer community as any kind of yardstick for Pride participation, this is hardly the time to argue they measure up.

Some are against uniformed police participation and want Pride Toronto to change its decision. Many of these folks want to get involved, influence the board or push for a membership vote. I applaud their fierce spirit and desire to make change and I truly hope it works.

However, it’s been tried before. The current state of affairs is not due to lack of work on the part of progressive people. In the last 10 years, countless people have gotten involved in consultations, joined the board, staged protests, sent emails, conducted membership drives, joined, voted, made Facebook comments, spoken to the media and more. They’ve attempted to make Pride more affordable, more accessible, less corporate, more respectful of Toronto’s Black queer community and more inclusive of various queer communities of colour. And despite all this, there has been a persistent rightward shift in Pride’s approach, disguised as reasonable centrism. It’s like a leaking boat: just as you plug one hole, the water starts seeping in from three more.

Toronto Pride 2018 was a prime example. It didn’t include the TPS, but it did find new and interesting ways to exclude a wide range of marginalized queers. With a brief Facebook announcement, Toronto Pride rolled out a booze perimeter shortly before Pride amid much confusion. A 10-page PDF of poorly written rules left readers with more questions than answers, and the answers were slow to come and often unclear.

These rules left people wondering whether it would cost a hefty ticket price to even enter the perimeter. The gated community created for the span of the event, with fences and wristbands, left many more feeling like Pride was now an exclusive party and no longer an everyone-welcome street fair. The booze perimeter meant that sober queers could no longer spend time at Pride without being surrounded by alcohol. The list of prohibited items included such things as medication (to be turned over to security), scooters and chairs (so much for anyone needing an assistive device or something to sit on), clothing with obscene language (by whose standards?), flyers (huh?) and open containers (no snacks?).

Some said the new approach was poorly thought through, and that may be correct. But others felt it was no fumble — just a clear statement about the direction Pride was growing in, toward security-enforced exclusivity and away from community.

And this leads me to the fourth category, one which I think is ballooning these days. And that’s the queers who are choosing to simply not be involved with Pride at all. Not for lack of small-p pride: more because of it.

Skipping out is not a new approach. Some people thought Toronto Pride sold out before it even had a logo, or were simply never drawn to Pride festivities or programming in the first place. And for some of us, Pride has never been accessible, whether because of pressing crowds or hot weather or difficulty travelling or the long-time police presence predating Black Lives Matter’s parade sit-in at Pride 2016.

But I think the ranks are swelling, these days, with queers who are just fed up. Queers who are done with pushing so hard to create a Pride that reflects, welcomes and values them while being met with year upon year of entrenched resistance. Queers who are more interested in creating alternatives to Pride, or alternative queer initiatives altogether, such as the Toronto Queer Film Festival or Bricks and Glitter; the latter’s mission statement says they are “intersectional by default and critical by necessity.” Queers who are more interested in investing their energy into their families and smaller communities, more interested in having a few close friends over for rainbow pancakes and pink mimosas than in gritting their teeth and marching next to armed police wearing plastic flower necklaces over their dress blues.

Last summer, for the first time, I chose to stay home and attend not a single event. I’ve moved from “reform it” into the “opt out” category.

I’ve been coming to Toronto Pride since the early aughts, well before I moved to the city a decade ago. I’ve made friends, fallen in love and found community amid sweaty parade contingents and pulsing crowds.

I had expected to be part of Pride forever, a summer ritual I looked forward to every year. I saw Pride Toronto as being an entity that needed to do some work to live up to its history. I didn’t like that participants needed to constantly resist Pride’s rightward drift in values; we have so much resisting to do as it is, in the wider world. But I did hold out hope that change would happen.

Today, while I support those who want to change Pride, I’ll be resisting and celebrating in other ways, along with many others. Because of Pride Toronto’s political shift rightward, in the larger context of a political climate where powerful figures and movements are trying hard to roll back queer and trans progress, I think big-P Pride’s existence is more than simply threatened. In some ways Pride is already dead, if only by dint of having become a creature so divorced from its own roots and so unwelcoming to the very people whose rainbow it wears. It may march on indefinitely, but many of us no longer marching with it will be doing the work of small-p pride instead.

Fortunately, that pride is flourishing, undeterred. And just as we need to resist on multiple fronts year-round, so too I think our gatherings and celebrations may continue to become more spread out over the year. It’s both an evolution and a return to our roots. As the Stonewall-era rallying cry says: we are everywhere.