It’s been a helluva month for queers, folks. Most especially for Black queers and queers of colour.
Here’s the current situation. The Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, an organization that has sprung to life in the US and Canada to protest police brutality against Black people, was given Honoured Group status at Toronto Pride, which took place this past weekend. BLM representatives spoke at the Trans March on Friday night; led the Dyke March on Saturday, and briefly halted the march as an act of protest; and staged a half-hour sit-in during the Pride parade on Sunday. At that time, they presented a list of demands to Pride’s director, who signed in agreement, after which the parade moved on.
But it sure didn’t end there. The discussions in the media and all over social media in the past few days have been… epic. And while queers everywhere seemed united in tears and solidarity after the brutal mass shooting of Latinx and Black queers in Orlando on June 12, it seems that solidarity was short-lived. I suppose it is easier, more emotionally gripping, to react to the tragedy perpetrated by a lone shooter than it is to condemn the slower trickle of queer and trans death, assault and marginalization that happens as the result of systemic racism, some of it at the hands of police. Still, I am surprised and disappointed to see how quickly and easily the discourse has shifted toward condemning Black queers who dared speak up against the way they are treated within and outside queer communities.
Here are a few of the main arguments I’ve heard from queers against the actions of Black Lives Matter Toronto, and my responses. I hope this proves useful. Please note I’m posting this as a position statement, not as an invitation to argument – I will be moderating the comments carefully.
“Pride isn’t supposed to be political.”
The Stonewall riots – y’know, the huge historical watershed moment in June 1969 that gave birth to Pride all over the world – were started by Black trans women in response to police violence targeting marginalized queers and trans people of colour. Specifically, they responded in retaliation to a police raid on Stonewall Inn in New York City.
Stonewall was preceded by the Compton’s Cafeteria riots in San Francisco in August 1966, where police attacked trans women, who in turn retaliated in what scholar Susan Stryker calls “the first known incident of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history.”
Toronto Pride itself began as a protest against the 1981 bathhouse raids and many similar raids the Toronto police conducted against gay establishments.
This is our legacy. This is the history and original intent of Pride. This is why we have a Pride parade in the first place. If your idea of Pride isn’t political, that’s because the work done by generations before you has allowed you to feel safe enough, and apolitical enough, to have a party instead of a protest. Not everyone is so privileged.
Let’s take that piece of history as our starting point for the rest of this discussion.
(Note that police chief Mark Saunders recently staged a public apology for the 1981 gay men’s bathhouse raids, but failed to even mention the 2000 raid against Pussy Palace, a dyke bathhouse event. Nor did he apologize for any more recent police brutality – more on that shortly. As a result, many activists see the gesture as empty PR that does not come with any substantive change.)
“They shouldn’t have hijacked our parade.”
News flash: a substantial portion of BLM leadership is queer, both locally and internationally. The Black people who led, marched in and strategically stopped the parade are queer and trans people. This is why BLM was given Honoured Group status this year in the first place – because they belong. The demands they made at the parade were specific to Pride Toronto, and specific to Black queers, while including the concerns of other marginalized groups.
I cannot imagine a more appropriate place or time for Black queers to make these demands, some of which they have been making through other channels and via other organizations for years with middling success. It is especially appropriate for BLM to have both accepted Honoured Group status this year and shut down the parade to demand better treatment in an ongoing way. Take the platform, refuse the tokenism. Quite elegant, really.
If you think “they” are “hijacking” Pride, you’re saying that you think Black people aren’t queer or queers can’t be Black, or that if Black queers exist they shouldn’t be complaining because they’re being treated poorly in “our” (white queer?) march that is being oh so nice by letting “them” in. Which means you think “we” (white queers?) are supposed to be in charge. This is pretty much exactly the kind of white erasure of Black lives and concerns these protestors were calling out and trying to solve. These toxic, racist “hijacking” complaints about BLM are highlighting the precise problem at hand, and proving the need for the very action that BLM so efficiently took that day.
“Stalling the parade was so disruptive! It was such an inconvenient delay!”
Pride stalls half of the biggest city in Canada for the duration of two consecutive marches and a parade spread over three days. That is disruptive as all fuck. But we call homophobia in a hot second if anyone suggests we should call it off, don’t we? Right.
Also? If you’ve ever attended or marched in the Pride parade, you will know it is always. Always. Late. Sometimes it has started three or four hours past time. Because… Queer time? Traffic? Pigeons? And I’ve never seen this kind of ruckus raised in the past! As well, it stalls along the route every single year, multiple times, for any number of reasons. This year was no exception: the general consensus seems to be that the parade as a whole ran three or so hours over time.
Black Lives Matter, in particular, stalled it for 30 minutes of that time. Some say 25. In that time, they made solid demands and won. For direct-action activism that’s fucking fast. I’m impressed. BLM was well-organized and efficient; they presented clear demands in writing and featured some of the most powerful speakers I’ve ever heard at Pride. It was a tour de force. All that in half an hour.
Protest is disruptive. It inconveniences. That is how, and why, protest works. It does not ask permission; it gets in the way. That is the point.
“But standing in the sun for so long was detrimental to the health of HIV survivors, elderly marchers, people with disabilities, and more.”
Yes. It was. Speaking as someone who has literally never marched in any Pride event without pain (until this year!), I have to say, the Pride parade in Toronto is not a very accessible march. The regular and sustained delays are hard on the body, especially on a hot summer day, standing on concrete with no shade. The metal barriers make it hard to get in and out of the parade proper, so it’s not accessible in that sense either. I’ve had to make hard choices about my own participation for these very reasons. If you’re planning to march in the Pride parade, or any parade for that matter, you have to take these things into account.
We can absolutely have the conversation about how parades, marches and demonstrations that place demands on the body may be ableist. Some of us are or have been “armchair activists” because that’s all our bodies allow. And some impromptu or unexpected protest tactics are hard to manage even if you agree with them. At the Dyke March, BLM stopped the march for a few minutes, and asked us all to kneel as a show of solidarity. For some people that was not physically possible. For some it hurt. We all tried our best. It was beautiful, powerfully symbolic, and not a gesture everyone could make. That doesn’t make it wrong. It just means it wasn’t universally accessible.
Mostly I think if you’re super upset about the physical demands of a 30-minute sit-in you didn’t expect, you should be foaming at the mouth with rage over the other two and a half hours of delayed time, this year and pretty much all other years. And that rage should be directed at Pride Toronto.
But I’m not seeing that happen. The people who are super angry about the BLM delay aren’t making a peep about the much longer overall Pride parade delays. They really just seem super angry at Black people for daring to speak up. The math on their rage simply does not add up to anything else.
As well, and perhaps most importantly: Some people’s temporary physical discomfort does not trump Black queers’ right to protest systemic, and sometimes fatal, anti-Black racism. At the Dyke March, once we were kneeling, one of BLM spokeswomen said, “Whether we fight or not, we die anyway.” This is not a metaphor. Have some perspective, for fuck’s sake.
“But they set off smoke bombs!”
Yes. Rainbow smoke bombs. Because Pride.
Was anyone hurt? … Didn’t think so.
Was it an excellent protest tactic? I dunno. Maybe. I don’t love smoke, but I like rainbows. It was unusual, spectacular, and got people’s attention. It looked kinda cool. Then the smoke was gone. The noise might have scared someone, I suppose. I probably wouldn’t have done it, myself. But I also probably wouldn’t have been dancing in glitter paint on a Coca-Cola float, either, so. Different strokes.
Why are we talking about this? Ah yes, because it is crucially important that we pick apart every detail of what Black queers do in protest, to see if we can find an imperfection which will legitimize our discomfort that they dared speak up against systemic racism and police brutality.
Moving along, then.
“Why didn’t they go through the proper channels for their demands?”
Pride Toronto has a long history of squeezing out Black representation. As such, BLM’s demands rest on years of racism within Pride. They are not new demands, even if BLM is a new organization; and the BLM action did not happen for lack of Black queers trying the “right” and “appropriate” channels. Blackness YES!, Blockorama and BQY (Black Queer Youth) have been engaged in a constant battle with Pride for pretty much their entire existence. For example, check out this video from 2010 detailing Blockorama’s ongoing problems with Pride.
Instead of assuming BLM did it wrong and wondering why, perhaps we could inquire about the steps Black queer organizers have taken in the past and why those steps might not have worked. Or why they have worked only insofar as Black queer organizers have spent 15 or 20 years steadily pushing back against Pride’s ongoing attempts to scale back and undermine Black programming. While we’re at it, we could wonder whose interests might be served by denying, minimizing, “forgetting” or misrepresenting those past efforts.
On that note, I think it speaks volumes that Pride’s director, Mathieu Chantelois, signed an agreement to implement BLM’s demands, and the very next day publicly stated that he only did so to move the parade along and had no intention of respecting them. I wish I were surprised. But if you wanted any proof of Toronto Pride’s habit of making agreements in bad faith, look no further. Stretch that back a couple of decades and you get the picture of what Black queer organizers have been dealing with.
Also, if you haven’t yet done so, check out BLM’s actual demands (below). If you’ve only heard about number 8, regarding police presence, you are missing the wider scope of their work. I have great respect for the way BLM has managed to be both very clear on their prioritizing of Black concerns and very intersectional at every turn. It is a feat of activist leadership the likes of which I’ve rarely seen. We could all learn a thing or two from their skill here.
“They’re shutting down discussion.”
Wrong. See above. They are in fact explicitly asking for more discussion.
“Demanding the exclusion of police is hypocritical and divisive. Isn’t Pride supposed to be all about inclusion?”
Cops have shot and killed Black people and people of colour in Toronto. Within the last year. Within the last three years. They have assaulted peaceful Black protestors, many of whom are queer. They have refused to be accountable for these actions. When a group of Black queers say that police in the parade makes them feel unsafe, we need to shut up and listen. (Note that the demand is specifically to remove police presence from within the parade. Nobody has asked that Pride have no police security in place.)
Further, trans women, sex workers (many of whom are also queer) and numerous other groups have voiced strong discomfort at being asked to share a supposedly celebratory space with the people who outright harm their communities. The police have carded, harassed and abused these people. Plenty of folks I know don’t ever call the cops when something goes wrong, because last week the cops harassed someone who looks a lot like them, or hurt someone in their community or neighbourhood. Black Lives Matter is by no means the first group to take issue with police presence in the parade. BLM is just the first group to succeed in getting Pride to agree to keep them out. (Not that Toronto Pride’s word means much, as we’ve seen.)
Asking police to step back reads as “exclusion” to privileged people who don’t experience police harassment and brutality in the first place. But allowing police to take part in the first place has very actively alienated and excluded numerous marginalized groups within the queer community. These realities are by no means parallel or equivalent. If you can more easily sympathize with police officers’ hurt feelings than with the queer and trans people they have assaulted and harassed, Black and otherwise, you really need to sort out your priorities.
If you didn’t know the effect the police presence within the parade has been having on marginalized queers these past few years, you need to step outside your bubble and listen more closely to people less privileged than you. Just because (most) white queers are not targeted anymore doesn’t mean bad police behaviour has stopped. It has just moved along to the next most vulnerable people as some, mostly white, LGBT folks have gained political power.
Bottom line: It is not up to the people who are no longer targeted to make decisions about what’s safe for the people who are.
If the police don’t understand how their presence might be hard to swallow for the communities they’ve harmed, to me that seems a clear indication that they need some really basic education about the far-reaching consequences of police brutality and racial profiling. Their job is to sit back and listen, not to complain that they don’t get to party alongside the people they’ve hurt.
Check out this excellent analysis from the brilliant Desmond Cole for more context about how police brutality has affected Black queers in Toronto, and how the Toronto Police have not yet made any meaningful effort to recognize or change that.
“What about queer cops? Don’t they deserve to be in the parade?”
I’m amazed that anyone has to explain this to queer people. But the short answer is: the needs of marginalized queer people who have suffered under police brutality trump the needs of police officers to feel included. This should be a no-brainer.
I’m not a person who hates all cops. There is a difference between believing a system or an organization to be deeply flawed and believing that each individual person in that system is evil. I know and care about queer cops, including queer cops who are also people of colour. I know it is rough work to be a queer cop, as they have to manage both homophobia within the force and mistrust from fellow queers. I have great respect for their work. It is a complicated respect, because they have made a complicated choice. I can believe individual cops are great people while still critiquing the police as a whole. I invite you to hold these ideas, one in each hand, and recognize there is space for both. Holding a group accountable for damage done does not mean hating them. Asking them to step back, reflect and come up with other ways of engaging does not mean denying them a place at the table.
By choosing to be a cop, a queer person is stepping into a long history of police culture which includes harming many marginalized communities. If you’re a queer cop, you can use your specific perspective as a member of one or more such communities to help your colleagues understand that the culture needs to change. Part of that change means stepping back and respecting the needs of marginalized communities when they say police presence within the parade is not helping, and in fact is harming, the overall goal of better policing and building trust within Toronto’s diverse communities. This is not the time to insist on your right to party. It is the time to step back and put your energy into altering harmful police practices.
Speaking of which, now would be a great time for police officers to get creative about police presence at Pride. Ask yourselves and your colleagues what a positive contribution would look like that’s not just about defending your supposed right to take up space. Generate ideas! Start a “queer cops against racism” working group. Read some history. Produce educational materials about the ways policing has harmed along with insider strategizing about what can be done differently. Provide special training for your colleagues. Step out of the parade but insist that the working cops that provide security be hired from within queer staff and/or officers who’ve taken your allyship training, and write a press release about why that’s an important police contribution to Pride. Or whatever other creative ideas you can come up with.
And if you really want to take part in the parade, do it out of uniform and without carrying a gun. Y’know, like the rest of us who don’t find carrying lethal weapons and wearing the trappings of state authority to be crucial to our enjoyment of Pride.
I’m disheartened that so much of this even needs to be said. I’m sad at how easily some queers have forgotten what it was like to be on the margins, and how many of us (yes, “us,” not “them”) still are. I’m deeply troubled at how easily some queers have gone from critiquing the police to defending them. I’m ashamed to see how much racism, poorly cloaked in “all lives matter” rhetoric, is a go-to reaction among people in my communities. I’m shocked that queers have so quickly forgotten how protest works, and what is worth protesting.
I hope for better. I hope Pride follows through and doesn’t renege on all their commitments as soon as things have quieted down. I hope more white or otherwise privileged queers think more deeply about racism and try to grasp the problems we can’t see because they’re not happening to us directly. I hope this moment, and the discussion it provokes, can help people develop deeper understanding.
Black Lives Matter gives me so much hope. I stand in solidarity with them. I hope you do too.