Pride, visibility, and the blue uniform

The controversy over police presence at the St. John’s Pride parade has revealed more about the politics of solidarity than some of us wanted to know.

You see a man holding a gun. It’s pointed at another man, or maybe a woman. You can’t quite see the other person. Do you try to stop the man from firing the gun? Perhaps you want to yell at him, “Hey you! Put down that gun!”

You could do that, but you probably don’t. You value your own safety and perhaps also the safety of someone standing close behind you. But even more, you don’t want to be implicated, to get caught on the wrong side of the action, or to be seen as responsible for what happens next. It is doubtful that you will risk such exposure.

It is also unlikely that you will intervene if the man holding the gun is wearing a police uniform. So it comes down to appearances.

The recent controversy over St. John’s Pride’s request that police officers refrain from wearing uniforms in the Pride parade revealed a number of diverging perspectives on the role of police in queer communities, both historical and present-day.

On the issue of the police at Pride, there was a fairly straight-forward understanding of what visibility is and what benefit it might have for LGBTQ people. For some, being ‘out’ was a clear indication of embracing a positive gay and lesbian identity. Similarly, the presence of lesbian and gay officers in uniform at Pride suggested respect and tolerance on the part of police for LGBTQ folks. It is hard to argue against tolerance, as it is certainly better than hostility.

But the debate revealed much more than the growth of tolerance and the waning of hatred. Such a framing fails to show the ways in which police have been present and invisible within queer communities and how this has changed over time.

Indeed, the uniform means different things to different people and at this time the sense of respect and honour associated with wearing a uniform has been set against the concerns of others who respond to the uniform as a symbol of state power and harassment directed at vulnerable groups.

LGBTQ communities and violence

The relationship between police and queers in Canada has a long and fraught history. RNC Cst. Mike Ghaney referred to this reality in his open letter to the board of St. John’s Pride, in which he noted that Pride itself came about as a reaction to intrusive and violent police actions aimed at lesbians and gay men.

Ghaney does not flesh out that history, so I will map a few historical points about the regulation of sexuality in the Canadian post-war period to help explain why some queers might feel uncomfortable with having uniformed officers at Pride.

In the 1950s and ‘60s the federal government operated what was known as ‘the fruit machine‘ — a concerted effort to purge the military, the civil service, and the RCMP of gays and lesbians. During this period people were arrested for homosexuality in Canada and the threat of arrest was used often used as blackmail.

This changed in 1969 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, effectively widening access to divorce and decriminalizing homosexual acts in private. The legislation also introduced new age of consent laws for anal sex outside of marriage. Vaginal sex was legal at 16, but the age for anal sex was set at 21, reduced to 18 years of age in 1987. While same-sex couples gained access to legal marriage in 2005, the age differential remains intact for sex outside marriage. Such laws have palpable effects and inform how police enforcement takes place.

 Often forgotten is the longtime presence of plainclothes officers in queer spaces such as bars, back alleys, rallies and demonstrations throughout the last century in Canada.

Often forgotten is the longtime presence of plainclothes officers in queer spaces such as bars, back alleys, rallies and demonstrations throughout the last century in Canada.

In this way, one could argue that the visibility of cops does not guarantee anything about the actual presence or absence of police. A notable example is the RCMP infiltration of gay activist groups such as those formed in protest of the 1976 Olympics in Montréal, at which time police did not identify themselves as officers and instead worked to investigate gay activism in an effort to apprehend, disarm, and prevent it.

Attempts to organise against police to amend laws and to address legal and police regulation were frequently met with brute resistance. In October of 1977 Truxx bar in Montreal was raided by police who entered with machine guns, arrested a record number of patrons and forcibly gave 146 men STI tests.

Better known to the Canadian public are the Toronto bathhouse raids of February 1981 which are often cited as a pivotal moment of rupture or clash between gays and police in Canada. In historical context, it should be described as the culmination of tensions which have a much more entangled and fraught history in which police regularly monitored queer spaces and invaded saunas where men were having sex.

Roughly a month after the bathhouse protests in Toronto, a report appeared in The Body Politic, the first major lesbian and gay newspaper in Canada, describing a police raid at Newfoundland’s major gay bar at that time, Friends. Police arrived with the intention of catching the club operating after hours. The report read:

Uniformed officers entered the bar at 2:45 am, but plainclothes cops had been apparently present for much of the evening. When the club owner presented the special permit which legally allowed it to remain open until 4 am, police decided that the bar instead should be closed because of violation of fire regulations. According to observers, the place suddenly became “wall to wall cops.” Patrons were ordered to leave and when they didn’t seem to be moving fast enough, police became rough. At least five persons were assaulted and, according to the bartender, there was blood all over the washrooms.

And of course, police do not need to be physically present to surveil queer spaces. The RNC’s  hostile relationship to the queer community reappears on the historical record over a decade later.

In February of 1993 the RNC launched an investigation of sexual activity in the washrooms of the Village Mall. They installed video cameras which recorded the area over a two-month period in an effort to dismantle what had been dubbed ‘an adult homosexual ring’. In total 60 men were caught on tape having sex and charges were laid in 34 of the cases where faces could be clearly identified. The names, ages, and the home addresses of the men were published in The Evening Telegram and repeatedly shown on the evening news.

This unjust invasion of privacy was tantamount to a witch hunt. Men lost their jobs. It destroyed lives and families. The fact that the RNC actually caught one of their own officers on tape in the washrooms and then had him resign from his post would be evidence that the RNC has long been invested in cultivating a culture of homophobia.

The following year the case of Brian Nolan went to court—a case in which an RNC officer was found guilty of homophobic harassment. This was a hard won accomplishment for Nolan, whose original complaint to the RNC was dismissed on grounds that there was insufficient evidence of harassment. Nolan appealed the RNC’s report and when the case went to court, the trial judge found that Nolan had been arrested without good and sufficient cause. The officers in turn appealed that decision, but lost their case. In the end, one officer was suspended without pay for five days and another for seven for unnecessarily arresting Nolan and for calling him “a faggot” while doing so. The incident occurred at a time when there were no human rights protections for gays and lesbians in Newfoundland, and it was not until 1997 that sexual orientation was read into the provincial human rights code.

Because gay men have had greater access to public spaces, more resources, and male privilege when navigating cities after dark than other sexual and gender minorities, clashes with police have often been more spectacular and more widely covered by media. Lesbian and trans* communities have nonetheless faced police violence and have been subject to regimes of regulation and surveillance.

In 2000, six male Toronto police officers raided Pussy Palace, a party held at a the Toronto Club bathhouse. Many of the 350 women in attendance were nude when police barged in, and others were subject to strip searches.

Similarly, while the relationship between trans* communities and the state has arguably improved over time, particularly with regard to procedures for changing gender markers and gaining legal protections, recent events show us that there is a very long way to go in addressing transphobia and police conduct.

The blue uniform

Police have frequently been represented in queer culture as figures of fear, as well as objects of desire. Gay men’s fetishisation of police officers is not new — we can think of Tom of Finland’s drawings and myriad other examples of the desire for forbidden masculine cops from the golden age of 1970s gay white male subculture.

The issue of when and where cops themselves ought to wear their uniforms is also not entirely new. Less than two years ago there was a heated debate about whether police should be permitted to wear uniforms to class at Memorial University. This discussion raised concerns about the possibility that officers would be allowed to carry guns into classrooms, but it also posed the question of why officers would want to wear their uniforms to class in the first place.

While there are no truly ‘safe spaces’ and universities have recently been caught between demands for safe space and the insistence on free speech and open dialogue, the presence of police qua police in academic settings undeniably influences what can be discussed and by whom in a setting intended for open dialogue and uninhibited intellectual engagement.

 The uniform, wherever it is worn by an officer, is a vestige of social control.

Pride means many things to many people, but it is naïve and harmful to see the police uniform as merely a symbol of professional identity. It is an emblem of state power and that is why police wear it. The uniform, wherever it is worn by an officer, is a vestige of social control.

To be clear, the issue of police uniforms at Pride is not about censorship, and to frame it as such is to completely overlook the unequal relationships that exist between police and marginalised populations.

The trouble over St. John’s Pride and uniforms echoes the controversy over Pride Toronto’s banning of messages and insignia related to Israeli apartheid and the occupation of Palestine. In that case, as with this one, the aim was not to silence people, but to bring attention to issues of inequality and violence. Pride should be about creating spaces where people can celebrate diversity and bring political concerns to the table in order to educate others. This cannot be done if those events are occupied by police in uniform who stand as symbols of the enforcement of law and the regulation of civil society.

If St. John’s Pride wants to serve the members of its community who are the most vulnerable, then it needs to embrace opportunities to stand in solidarity with people who are affected by police violence in St. John’s and beyond the overpass.

Solidarity with whom?

When St. John’s Pride received a flood of complaints from police, LGBTQ community members, and the general public, rather than uphold its original decision on police uniforms at Pride, the board clarified their position and softened the request. This sent a strong message that the feelings of police officers are more important than those of people who are often the victims of police violence.

More troubling, however, was the disregard for issues that are not singularly related to homophobia and transphobia. Queer and trans people belong to many different social groups, or to repurpose a gay liberation slogan: we are everywhere. This is not about whether the RNC has better or worse approaches to dealing with marginalised communities — it is about recognising that Newfoundland does not exist in a timeless vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world.

We must address the fact that St. John’s is an increasingly diverse city. Pride organizers need to be responsive to the range of backgrounds, experiences, and concerns in their local communities. We know that police surveillance, violence, and abuse are real problems for people of colour, particularly in black communities, for Indigenous women, for sex workers, for people living with HIV, for mental health consumers/survivors, and for homeless and street involved folks.

 Pride organizers need to be responsive to the range of backgrounds, experiences, and concerns in their local communities.

How do people at the margins of the St. John’s LGBTQ community feel about police at community events such as Pride?

Relations between police and some people in queer communities have improved in recent years, but a significant proportion of queer and trans* people continue to see police as threatening figures. Many also belong to groups who face constant police surveillance. The horrific attack in Orlando, Florida has heightened fears within LGBTQ communities and led some Pride organizers to call for more security at Pride events.

The conversation around the attack and responses to it have underscored a key fact to which event organizers must pay attention: people of colour are disproportionately victims of homophobic and transphobic violence.

Obviously we should feel free to wear whatever we want at Pride, but whether police wear uniforms is a much bigger issue about the representation of policing at Pride. Since 1998 RNC officers have carried guns and were the last force in Canada to have weapons on their person. The guns are part of the uniform and are referenced by the clothing even when they are absent. As such, the uniform is a useful tool for police in maintaining authority and order because it signifies the range of techniques and instruments at an officer’s disposal.

Queer and trans folks in Newfoundland arguably have a better relationship with police than decades ago. Much of the discussion of the uniform issue has centred on whether this controversy has damaged that tenuous relationship. In more ways than one, this has been a myopic and conservative debate which distracts us from broad issues of social inequality and police violence.

To be blunt, the police do not need to be protected from the decisions of community groups. Police protect and serve their communities, and not the other way around. The RNC made the right decision in deferring to St. John’s Pride to make decisions about the presence of uniformed officers in the parade. In doing so, however, the RNC avoided having to respond to or comment on the work of Black Lives Matter.

Members of Black Lives Matter Toronto lead the 2016 Toronto Pride parade earlier this month. __Another line about the demo and demands__ Photo by Fatin Chowdhury.
Members of Black Lives Matter Toronto lead the 2016 Toronto Pride parade earlier this month and brought it to a standstill until Pride Toronto organizers agreed to a list of demands that included a removal of police floats from the Pride march and parade. Photo by Fatin Chowdhury.

At a time when Black Lives Matter is showing the world how black people are controlled and regularly terrorized by police in many parts of Canada and the United States, the RNC’s silence suggests a camaraderie amongst police which condones the brutality faced by vulnerable groups at the hands of cops in other places. This is not about pointing fingers at individual officers, but about responding to unacceptable forms of violence.

In the Toronto Pride parade this year Black Lives Matter served as grand marshall,and at Pride in Vancouver the group will lead the annual Dyke March. A debate very similar to the one in St. John’s about the presence of police at Pride, however, has uncovered a schism between members of the Vancouver LGBTQ community who seem to support narrowly defined LGBTQ issues and those who are concerned with violence faced by marginalized groups. It would have been commendable if the LGBTQ community in St. John’s had made an unequivocal gesture of solidarity by standing firm in its decision to limit the visual presence of police at Pride, rather than kowtowing to criticism and effectively reinforcing alliances between white LGBTQ communities and police.

Michael Connors Jackman is a writer and anthropologist whose research deals with media, gender/sexuality, race, and policing. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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