Why the debate over off-duty police officers’ uniformed participation in Pride reveals deep divides in the LGBTQ community and the need for a more attentive and collaborative activism around Pride Week.
Happy Pride Week.
People are talking about St. John’s Pride — more people than I ever guessed would have an opinion on the small, volunteer-run organization of seven people. Every Pride election the previous board scrambles to find enough people to carry on the festival through the next year, most of whom are burnt out from the pressures and expectations of the celebrations past.
People are talking about St. John’s Pride, and there is a lot of confusion and anger surrounding the relationship between Pride (the organization) and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC). For this sake, I would first like to clarify the series of events that has led to the media and community attention around St. John’s Pride:
Three police groups were confirmed to participate in the St. John’s Pride Parade in uniform: the RNC Mounted Unit, the RNC Traffic Division, and the RCMP. The City of St. John’s requires that the RNC Traffic Division be present to direct traffic for the safety of the parade in order for the City to approve the festival.
According to a statement from the St. John’s Pride board on its Facebook page, the RNC then followed up and asked if St. John’s Pride would like another uniformed walking group participating in the Parade. St. John’s Pride responded that they would request any other off-duty police officers to attend out of uniform, recommending some other way they could mark themselves as officers via a banner or a t-shirt. They have not explained why they made the request in the first place but concluded their July 8 statement by saying that no one would be turned away from marching in the parade, uniformed or not.
Though the RNC announced at Tuesday morning’s flag raising ceremony at St. John’s City Hall that off-duty officers would not march in uniform, it was the Pride board’s initial request that sparked the powder keg of vitriol that has exploded on the St. John’s Pride Facebook page since.
The media coverage has certainly not helped things. Headlines like “No Uniformed RNC Officers in this Year’s St. John’s Pride Parade” have not only misconstrued events, but have added fuel to arguments that are only partially grounded in the realities of the Pride community and board. The RNC and the Pride board have been backed into corners as the narrative seemingly has escaped the grasps of both organizations. Unmasked hatred and bigotry have become standard currency within the opinionated threads surrounding the issue. St. John’s Pride itself has been blamed for the division this has caused at a time when people should be brought together.
It would be simple to point the finger at St. John’s Pride in this moment — to cast fault on the organization that made the decision that sparked these conversations. But I think that’s too easy. I think this decision unveiled a deep divide within the LGBTQ community that has existed in silence under placations of unity for a long time.
Before moving on, I will say that while I was the Co-Chair Internal of St. John’s Pride from 2013-2015, I no longer sit on the board. My thoughts, feelings, and analysis are my own and I cannot speak for the thinking or decision-making that the current board does. That being said, I have a familiarity with the community and the processes within the board that I believe are useful to this conversation.
I’d like to offer two definitions of inclusion:
Marginalized populations point to the fact that the first definition of inclusion presupposes all groups of people having equal footing, which has been proven many times over to be incorrect. There are histories of police state-sanctioned violence that we cannot ignore when we talk about inclusion and equity. This is not my story to tell, however, so please see for example Black Lives Matter Toronto’s co-founder Janaya Khan’s interview with Maclean’s, or the same publication’s 2015 profile on racism in Canada.
Since the Black Lives Matter sit-in at Toronto Pride on July 3, my Facebook feed has been filled with people using the first definition of inclusion arguing with people who use the second definition. The former group sees Pride as a time for all and cannot accept structural barriers to participation. The latter sees Pride as a time for the most marginalized to be safe and cannot accept systemic barriers to participation. Both sides paint the other as exclusionary, both sides are hurting because they are afraid that the people who they love are not being included.
There are histories of police state-sanctioned violence that we cannot ignore when we talk about inclusion and equity.
These two differing uses of the word inclusion align with the ways that people often believe change should be made. On one hand, you have those who think institutional change is best: slower, negotiated adjustments done within the confines of existing organizations, evolving the system to meet the needs of people who previously had been excluded. On the other, there is a group of people for whom institutional change is too little, too slow, and who want to use more radical acts to push for the changes needed.
There are many reason why someone would lean toward either an institutional model or a radical model of change. For me, the institutions that I have been a part of have afforded me a great deal of privilege and safety around my queer identity. I have had success working with those in institutions who are unlike me. And, although the speed and the incremental nature of change is incredibly difficult for me to handle at times, I lose less energy trying to make change along an institutional framework.
But for those who are experiencing, for instance, anti-Black or anti-Indigenous violence in their day-to-day lives, a radical model of change may be the only tool available for survival. Queer and straight persons of colour experience the brunt of state-sanctioned police violence, imprisonment, and deportation in the United States and Canada. Many Indigenous communities in Canada regularly cope with a severe lack of services, access to basic necessities like clean drinking water, and devastating suicide rates. The institutional conversations are too slow — there are people hurting and dying and change cannot wait another day. There is no more time to spare because the realities of systemic racism have been ignored for too long. The systems have been built on a history of oppression and to make small edits to their structures will not fix the overall issue. It is the institutions themselves that need to come down. In the moments of desperation, we should listen and give space for the pain that finally has a voice.
In some cases, there is no way to protect people who are hurting while including everybody.
There has been a divide between the gays and the queers in St. John’s (both predominantly white) that occasionally looks like it’s dissipating until something like this recent St. John’s Pride decision comes along. There are voices within our LGBTQ community here who will tell you that everything is best kind for the gays and there’s really no need for St. John’s Pride to be political. Then there are the queer activists who point to the LGBTQ youth statistics from Egale, who run the support and education groups, who hear the stories of LGBTQ people who are hurting on a regular basis and demand that St. John’s Pride do anything and all things needed to tackle intersectional oppression.
As a queer activist who believes in the possibility of institutional transformation, I feel the pull between these multiple paradigms of inclusion, activism, and change. The ideologies are often incongruent — is a women-only space (however that’s defined) exclusive of men, or important for the overall inclusion of women in society? Should we be trying to reform institutions that have had a history of oppressive actions, or dismantling them in favour of building more equitable institutions from the ground up? How do we assist the inclusion of people who have been on the receiving end of violence from longstanding organizations? In some cases, there is no way to protect people who are hurting while including everybody. Who is pride for? Why do we have pride? What should its aims be here? And how can that be decided as a community without quashing the voices who are already disenfranchised from the LGBTQ spaces?
St. John’s Pride is also caught between these different paradigms and is currently representing a community that seemingly cannot have conversations answering these questions before devolving into name-calling and harassment. This is the cost of the growth of the LGBTQ population and the increased visibility of the St. John’s Pride organization over the last few years, without having the resources necessary to pull our community together external to Pride. St. John’s Pride is doing its best to respect the wishes of the community, without there being much coherence to desire and demands of the people therein.
We need to practice speaking to each other with compassion and understanding instead of fear and hatred.
So to those who are riled and want St. John’s Pride to have made a different decision about the RNC, to those who want to see a total change of the board, to those who believe that St. John’s Pride should be aligning itself with other intersectional movements, to all those who have an opinion: run for the board and make those changes. Because St. John’s Pride is still a young, fledgling organization, seven years after incorporation, that shoulders the incredibly weighty expectations of the LGBTQ community in the province. Pride is always desperate for people who are willing to show up and do the work to deliver and make the world a better place. There is a huge capacity to change and shape the organization because it is still growing and finding its footing as a festival body in the capital city.
And for all those outside the LGBTQ community who have an opinion: please don’t add fuel to the fire. We, as a LGBTQ community, need to figure out how we need to move forward together as a group because our lives are stitched together whether we like it or not. We need to practice speaking to each other with compassion and understanding instead of fear and hatred. And we can’t do that if we are navigating antagonisms from outside the community as well.
I invite everyone, LGBTQ people and allies alike, to spend some time at Bannerman Park this Sunday speaking kindly and slowly to each other about the issues that have come up in recent weeks, from Orlando, to Black Lives Matter, to the police relationship to the queer community. Listen deeply, not just for the sake of argumentation. Frame your own contributions as your fears, not demands. Be accountable for your own emotions and take a break if you need to. Remember that asking for proof is a way of pretending someone else’s reality doesn’t exist. Be patient with those who may not know the language or the frameworks you are familiar with.
Prides all across Canada have problems. It’s up to us as a community to work together to fix them.
Taylor Stocks is a CFA trans activist who works in a number of different mediums to make the world a better place for those who are hurting. They are a workshop developer and facilitator, currently employed as the Public Policy Intern at the Harris Centre at Memorial University. They sit as a director of the Trans Needs Committee and are a member of the St. John’s Accessibility and Inclusion Advisory Committee and the Safe and Inclusive City Working Group. They sat as the festival coordinator of St. John’s Pride from 2013-2015.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated from its original version to reflect the RNC’s announcement Tuesday that off-duty police officers will not attend the Pride parade in uniform.