opinion
4 min

Vancouver police have come a long way. That doesn’t mean they should march in Pride

Ignoring Black Lives Matter means forgetting the lessons Jim Deva fought to teach us

I’m sorry too. I’m sorry that I didn’t have the courage to speak up sooner.

My heart sank when I saw the petition to keep Vancouver police in the Pride parade and the racist comments it inspired from some supporters. My heart sank, but I hesitated.

Call it caution, call it a desire to carefully hear and consider differing perspectives before I speak out in a heated community debate. I hesitated, even as I ardently wished that the level of racist vitriol swirling through Toronto’s LGBT community hadn’t resurfaced here too.

And while I hesitated, the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) stepped up. Not fully,  but sufficiently, in my view, to give those of us with a platform a firm push to use it. To use our privilege to support what’s right.

“As activists are entitled to do, Black Lives Matter Vancouver has made some pretty clear demands. And, as a result of those demands, their members have faced racist backlash, hate mail, death threats and other forms of violence,” the VPS says in a Facebook statement posted Feb 22, 2017.

The VPS “condemns that type of behaviour unequivocally” and says the backlash makes it clear “that there is a significant amount of anti-Blackness and racism within our LGBTQ2+ community.”

“This is not okay, and we must all do our part to speak out against it whenever we see it. The Vancouver Pride Society acknowledges we have not been quick to act in the past, and for this we are sorry.”

So am I.

“All the people who are posting hateful things, they’re adding to the need for us to step up for allyship,” VPS co-executive director Andrea Arnot tells Xtra.

Last week, in the context of supporting the call to keep uniformed police in the Pride parade, someone invoked the name of late community leader Jim Deva and asked what he would think of kicking the police out after all his hard work to build bridges with them.

If Deva were still alive, I think he’d be the first to say that he reached out to the Vancouver Police Department strategically, as a means to an end — and that end was to get the protection we deserve as a community. For all members of our community. Not just the ones who have been embraced into society’s fold since 2001, when Aaron Webster was murdered in Stanley Park.

Back then, in the aftermath of that fatal gaybashing, the Vancouver Police Department was less than enthusiastic about the gay community as a whole.

I remember covering the VPD’s reluctance to recruit potential new officers at Pride, despite its recruitment efforts at non-gay community events and its then-urgent need for more staff, especially from minority groups. “It’s more of a Mardi Gras affair,” the head of their recruitment team told me in 2001, using barely veiled code for Pride’s too gay. “It’s not the typical type of forum that we would attend.”

I also remember covering the VPD’s repeated mishandling in the early 2000s of gaybashings, which officers often dismissed as random assaults rather than targeted, homophobia-fuelled attacks.

Into that framework, Deva deliberately reached out, helped form a liaison committee and opened communication between our community and the police to educate the institution and teach its members how to better understand, serve and protect LGBT people.

And in that framework, Deva and other community members without a doubt made significant progress, and were willingly joined, as time went on, by more and more Vancouver police officers from all ranks all the way up to the top.

The changes Deva helped foster continue to this day. Of the gaybashings we’ve covered in recent years, most are well handled by a more diverse team of sensitized, educated police officers, who recognize them for what they are and investigate them accordingly.

But clearly, while many members of our community finally feel they can rely on the police to serve us as they should, and are ready to forgive and embrace the VPD and even walk side by side with its officers at Pride, some members of our community are still targeted and harassed. And they deserve justice too. They don’t deserve to be silenced or admonished to toe the party line, especially when they have yet to be fully invited to the party.

I don’t pretend for a second to know what it feels like to live as black and queer in Vancouver or anywhere. But I can learn to listen.

And what I hear right now is that some members of our community are still targeted and mistreated by police and don’t want to walk quietly and complacently alongside them in a celebration that doesn’t genuinely value and reflect all queer lives.

What I hear from black members of our community, from people of colour, indigenous people, trans people and others within our community is that many feel excluded from a celebration that should embrace them.

What I hear is that the work Deva started is important but not done. How could it be done until all members of our community feel safe, welcome and heard?

Remembering Deva’s commitment to the more marginalized community members among us, I believe he would stand with Black Lives Matter Vancouver and ask police to respectfully step fully back from Pride to embrace this opportunity for meaningful continued learning and growth.

As should we all.

I am grateful to the courageous members of Black Lives Matter and everyone else who has boldly stood up, against a storm of protest, to share their lived experiences and to demand the room they are due at our community table and in our flagship parade that was once an angry protest against oppressive institutions, including the police, as well as a celebration of our courage and freedom to love.

It’s a great achievement that so many LGBT police officers now feel comfortable openly celebrating their Pride too, and that so many community members now feel protected and well served by a more diverse and supportive police force that we helped educate. But it’s not enough. The work that Deva did remains incomplete as long as some of us are excluded from what should be, first and foremost, a space devoted to our community.

“When it comes down to it, the people who are the most marginalized and the most vulnerable have to be listened to,” Arnot says.

I strongly believe that Deva would agree. I do, and I’m sorry it took me so long to say so.